Peer Influence Matters

A few days ago I wrote about the real problems caused by distractions in the classroom. Today I’d like to focus on other ways students can be affected by their peers.

In my sophomore world history class (probably the most challenging class I’ve ever had the opportunity to teach), there are a handful of particularly bright students failing. They’re what some of my former colleagues would have referred to as fence riders.

The idea behind fence riders is this: in any given class, there is a small group of students who will act like scholars no matter who is around them. There is another small group of students who will act just the opposite no matter who is around them. In a class like the one I’m describing, squelching negative behaviors from the latter group early in the semester is key to avoiding something just short of a classroom management apocalypse. But the horsemen of my doomsday ride the fence, rather than horses, and there are a lot more than four of them. They base their behaviors on the behaviors of their peers. And I’m noticing a trickle-down effect.

I have a small handful of students (group 1) in that class who will deface and steal my property; run, jump, and throw things around the room the second they notice my eyes are not on them; and use swear words toward each other and toward me - often with impunity since I have neither the time nor energy to follow up with every misbehavior.

There is another slightly larger group (group 2) of students who exist just next to the students in group 1 on the mis/behavior continuum. Were they at the end of this continuum in my class, the worst one might witness would probably include off-task behavior and the occasional cuss word. But when group 1 has lowered the expectations for positive behavior with my tacit approval (as it’s obvious to all students that I cannot follow up on every single misbehavior, especially the ones I don’t see) to such depths, the behaviors of group 2, group 3, and group 4 (on the mis/behavior continuum) becomes that much worse. Even those students who normally achieve at high levels in other classes regularly allow themselves to be distracted from their work and rarely turn anything in.

One of those normally high achieving students (we’ll call him Sean) began the year in my class with an A. Every assignment was dutifully taken care of; he stayed after school a number of hours working on the material; and he always paid attention in class. After a few months, his effort dropped off precipitously. He now spends most of his time in class joking and avoiding his work. I haven’t received an assignment from him in nearly two weeks.

A negative classroom culture established by a handful of disruptive students has, in many ways, defeated my efforts thus far. I was new to the school at the beginning of the year (with no curriculum) and dreadfully unprepared for the onslaught of disruptive behavior that came my way. I’ve retreated, amassed my reinforcements, and begun my counterattack after realizing that my attempts at improving the class through democratic discussion were routinely being subverted by those group 1 students, the ones that few other students have been brave enough to stand up to or speak out in front of.

My point is this: peers play an enormous role in a student’s education. A student like Sean would excel with me as a teacher in a classroom full of highly achieving peers who would look down on him for not turning in his homework. In his reality, he’s failing. Adults don't warn their children about the negative effects of peer pressure for nothing; it can have powerful impacts on a person's behavior.

But contrast that reality with assumptions being made by educational policymakers. In our nation’s capital, DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown is drafting a bill that would recruit “effective” teachers (as judged by IMPACT) in wards 2 and 3 to work in DC’s most underprivileged schools, in wards 7 and 8. In New York City, Michael Bloomberg recently said that in a perfect world, we would double our class sizes and pay teachers twice as much (since there would be half as many). Effective educators are more important variables in a student’s education than his or her peers, the thinking goes.

Policymakers are missing something: experience, and the perspective that comes with it. Mr Bloomberg needs to know that doubling the class size in an affluent school where students are highly motivated, and pressure each other to perform academically, might not do society all that much harm. But double it in my environment and you may as well just stop trying to educate altogether and spend the money somewhere else. (It reminds me of the summer I spent teaching English to seventy 12, 13, and 14-year-old Liberian refugees in a hot West African schoolhouse with no windows. I walked away from that experience positive that the only person who learned anything in that room was me.)  Mr Brown would do well to consider the immense number of variables that contribute to the quality of a given learning environment and the factors that led to those teachers in wards 2 and 3 being labeled “effective” in the first place (I highly suspect one of the most important was the students in front of them).

Despite the deluge of teacher-is-the-most-important-factor talking points gushing from politicians’ mouths these days, there is, as always, significantly more to the story. Teacher quality is undoubtedly extremely important. But treating it as if it were the only factor that matters does irreparable damage to both the meaningfulness of the discussion around school reform and the quality of education our students receive.


  1. I have nothing insightful to add, but as a first year urban teacher currently struggling mightily with management, reading this made me feel less like I'm failing at a thing I've wanted to do for a very long time.

  2. Great post, James. The highly effective scores, to my way of experiencing it, are a matter of a mixture of subjectivity, some objectivity, and a whole lot of luck. The students you have in front of you matter so much. Kwami Brown seems to think these teachers will jump at the chance of more money and two grace years to go teach in the poorest performing schools in the district. A teacher would have to be a megalomaniac or very naive to take this offer. As with many of the proposals that have come out of the reform movement, it is short-term in thinking. Throw money around and the problem will be solved. A comprehensive, holistic approach towards a system having programs offering parental support and training, support for teachers and schools and community involvement are needed. This denial of the necessity for experience is probably the most damaging aspect of the current thinking. The upper management of DCPS is rife with individuals who have one or two years teaching experience (in some cases five) who are calling the shots based on that low level of experience. Recently a master educator here advertised for a professional development workshop. This master educator has been an ME for one year. The advertisement listed him as a "senior master educator". From rookie to veteran in one year. This kind of exaggeration of experience is the bane of our profession right now.

  3. James,
    We have reached the stage in many school districts where experienced teachers who are teaching students that .....
    will deface and steal property; run, jump, and throw things around the room the second they notice eyes are not on them; and use swear words toward each other and toward the teacher - often with impunity

    are viewed as substandard and in need of more professional development.

    There is increasingly less collaboration on the part of administration with teachers to solve problems.

    There is essentially zero evidence for the effectiveness of most of the suggested changes being spouted by politicians and school district central office administrators. The idea that any of these suggested changes could pass for solutions is Total Nonsense.

  4. I am in your boat this year, and you did a great job of explaining how the fence sitters can slid into not working.

    At my school there is basically no meaningful discipline for "minor" offenses. I can get a dean to remove disruptive students, but there is no consequence to the disruptive student aside from getting out of class (his goal) and if I do it too often, I will stop getting responses to requests for help.

    I received 1s and 2s on my IMPACT (that's bad for non-DC people) for classroom management and student engagement. My cooperating teacher told me I needed a continuum of consequences and that I needed to give many less warnings to students. I asked her what my continuum should look like and she suggested....

    1st- Warning
    2nd- 20 minute detention
    3rd- Another 20 minute detention and phone call home.
    4th- Referral to administrator for suspension (or if detention was not attended).

    I pointed out to her that I had tried this, and the administration has neither the will nor the manpower to suspend a student who chooses not to come to detention and certainly won't suspend said student.

    I was informed that this could not possibly be true, and that I needed to have a continuum of consequences and enforce it.

    Naturally my grades are not very good, and I am being told that I am a substandard teacher because of my failure rate. I have to admit that I am tempted to just pass everyone so that I am at least above average on that part :-)

  5. This isn't just an observational anecdote. There is research to back this up. In fact, my understanding is that peers are more influential than parents. Go figure.

  6. Reading this made me feel like I was reading about my own crazy group of kids. Are things getting better for you at all? On my end of the world, it feels like it's getting worse everyday.

  7. sounds like not much has changed since i started teaching 20 years ago. the admin's who spent the minimum required years in the classroom on their way to the ivory tower where they doubled or tripled their salary and spouted the flavor of the month miracle cure all's that would produce the perfect school and make every kid a scholar. the 15-25% that made your classroom hell every day. the whole sequence of consequences thing you had to implement and document ad infinitum to get any real help with the chronically disruptive students. the endless and largely fruitless calls to parents (including some who were scared of their kids!) the semi-yearly in-services with the flavor of the month educational guru feeding us their own inspirational and triumphant version of the miracle teacher myth. the sense of failure and racking my brain wondering what more i could do when maybe 10% of my students passed the class. a sneaky, bullying principal and the ever present threat of poor evaluations if anyone stood up to him. the frustration and sorrow i felt for the kids who really wanted to learn and were stuck in that hellhole. i could go on and on but i'll save it for my therapist.

    i graduated from a major northeastern state college with a 3.6, passed my licensing exams in the top 10% nationally in my subject, and went to work in an urban district 1 year before teach for america began. i'm permanently disabled now from a student assault. i thank God daily for the union rep and the attorney who fought to get me my disability retirement. without that income and medical care i would probably be destitute--or dead-- today.

    you are doing public Education the greatest possible service by EXPOSING THE TRUTH. people think teaching is a cushy job, grudge them their pay and benefits, blame them for the decline of public education, and view teachers unions as a bunch of thugs on a par with the mafia, and they were doing it 20 years ago when i started teaching. i went to work every day knowing it wasn't a question of if i would get hurt, just when and how bad. hindsight is 20-20. i should have left and started over, found a safer way to satisfy my desire to serve.

    thank you for your service to your country. do your hitch, get out while you're still in one piece, and most importantly, KEEP BEARING WITNESS TO THE TRUTH.


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