The Reason Why Students Are Failing in School That No One Is Talking About

It was a sunny spring morning in central California where I was teaching seventh grade English. Today I was administering an assessment on student’s ability to write multiple paragraphs and incorporate evidence from the text. 85% of my class (and the entire school) was of a Hispanic demographic and of those 45% were English language learners. We had a very strong and close Hispanic community where many of the students or their parents had arrived directly from Mexico. We worked hard as teachers to support these students and their parents the best we knew how.

In my classroom there was often one or two other professional adults there to act as a translator or academic aid. Today my aid/translator had called in sick. She worked with a small group of kids rather than just focusing on one so it affected a group of students. Having worked with these students all year I knew that they would struggle a bit but that they were very capable of completing the assessment without her. I had worked hard, with the rest of the English department, to make really good scaffolds.

Photo: edsource.org

A scaffold is a way of adjusting an assessment or assignment for the student’s needs and abilities. Basically, it is the art of finding the Goldie Locks principle of making an assignment not too easy for them but not impossibly hard either. In education it is called rigor. If the student has 504 plan (a plan for a student with physical or mental disabilities) then we discuss how to adjust the work to make them successful. This process we used a lot at this school because nearly half of the kids were English language learners and their work needed adjusting.

As I became aware of the student’s aid being absent I was prepared to offer any extra help that I could to make them successful. However, I ended up seeing something that I wasn’t prepared for. As I kept my focus on this small group of students with special needs I noticed that not one of the students tried to even engage in taking the test because of the aid’s absence. They sat there and stared at a computer screen for 45 minutes. I had done extensive work to make sure that the assessment wasn’t too hard for them. I would try to go around and encourage them to engage or ask if they had any questions that I could help them understand. Each one responded with the same “No, I’m fine.” with little variation. They simply proceeded to sit there and do nothing for the duration of the class. A wave of fear and terror came over me as an educator. Being a teacher I usually look inward at myself first to ask “Was it too hard? Were they not prepared enough?” before I start pointing fingers at my class saying “You should’ve done better!” But I was confident they knew how to accomplish this assessment from previous assignments. What did cause me to panic was that I saw that I was part of a system that had been complicit in fostering a sense of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness, put simply, is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness. The students with extra needs had become totally dependent on the aid to get through their classes and they had learned that they were helpless on their own. Being in a lower-income area I knew the odds were against my students especially because of the economy they grew up in along with being a minority. That’s just the unpleasant facts of life. On parent-teacher conference nights there would be just a handful of parents that would show up out of the hundreds that were invited. Part of it was the language barriers parents had (though we had translators ready to go) and part of it was the parent’s lack of value in education itself. Every day at this school I didn’t look at myself as just an educator but as a lifesaver giving these kids options to a better life (whether that was true of me or not it helped to think of this as my role).

The principal at this school would say “Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold. We need to have frequent and effective scaffolding for students to be successful.” While I agree that good scaffolding is a mark of good teaching, what is a teacher supposed to do if their students have developed ways to not engage or quit regardless of how good you scaffolded? In other words, the teacher can do everything right and the student still won’t learn and grow.

The observation of my class shared above was before the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. Since that experience I have moved to a different state to be closer to my wife’s family. I am teaching English to freshmen and juniors at a high school now. My student demographic has changed to around 85% of my class being Caucasian. While the demographic has changed, as well as the location, I have noticed the same trend of learned helplessness in this generation. We are facing an epidemic of students without the inner self-discipline and self-confidence to utilize the fantastic teaching tools and methods teachers are implementing in the classroom today.

Teaching during the pandemic has been all about adapting and rolling with the punches. Where I teach presently have gone through phases of working in class and then 100% online. Most of the year thus far for me has been in person, however every day I have students quarantining and are missing my classes for weeks at a time. Over the summer I worked hard to foresee problems like this and built a Google website where I video modeled all stages of creating an essay, how to research, and writing tips for students to get writing faster and have less apathy. Students have access to these on-demand educational videos on their devices at any time and these are made by me and tailored specifically to my class. I thought I was being clever with providing the on-demand modeling that students need where they could access it at any time and anywhere and while many students have thrived using this it still hasn’t been enough for some students. This has led me to believe there is a bigger problem for today’s students than just providing opportunities for quality learning. There needs to be a greater building of inner qualities as well.

While I have been building resources that show examples and modeling that students can have online access to be very successful with many of my students I have run into the same problem I did in California. I still see many students who have developed learned helplessness and won’t engage in these valuable resources at all. At the end of a semester students will often approach me asking how to get their grades up. I’ll review their missing work and let them see what they need to do. Then I will ask them a very revealing question “Do you know where to go to find the resources to complete this assignment?” If they answer yes, I ask “Can you show me where to go?” If they can say yes to this question and show me where the resources are they have shown me that they have learned to be resourceful, but if they can’t show me and don’t know where to go they will continue to stumble in the dark and are likely to give up quickly.

Recently I had my juniors take an assessment that I had thoroughly prepared them for (or so I thought) where I had done previous similar assignments with them and they had worked on a level up to my expectations. The keywords here are “I had done with them”. While overall the assessment was a success I saw a small group of students act in a way that I immediately noticed as familiar from past experiences where they just sat there staring blankly at their Chromebook and waited for the bell to ring. I tried to prompt them to get started and engage. I asked if they understood everything. Their answers, like that of California, were meant to have me leave them alone at all costs rather than actively seeking help. They were displaying learned helplessness.

The times that we went to online learning was where students invariably increased getting behind in their work. I was confused and thought I had thoroughly covered all the bases. I wasn’t sure if it was them or me so I had set up an anonymous survey asking questions such as “How do you feel you are doing with staying on top of your grades?” and “If you find yourself falling behind is it because you don’t understand, it is too hard, you don’t have time, or you just procrastinate?” The most common answer by far, as reported by them, as they admitted that they had ample time but just couldn’t bring themselves to do the work. I asked around to other teachers and not surprisingly they all had the same or worst experiences where if we didn’t give more time or more help the vast majority of the students would end up failing. That is when I realized that internal skills such as self-discipline self-confidence can and need to be taught to students directly in schools.

The teacher next to my classroom door has a daughter who is in my honors class. She is a great student and very bright. She has been in quarantine twice during the pandemic. During those times I would check in with her mother to see how she was staying on top of grades only to find out that she was wasting the vast majority of time on Tik Tok. Around 7 hours a day actually. Her mother and my friend is a very good and strict parent but the enticement of the fast pacing ever-entertaining online world can be too much for students to control themselves in today’s technologically saturated environment. When her daughter is at school she is extremely focused but in a home environment she struggles even though she is an honors student with an English teacher for a mother that is friends with her teacher. How much more difficult must that struggle be for a student of color, who is in poverty, or of a single-parent household?

While it is true that the pandemic caught us teachers with our proverbial pants down in reality it has just revealed drastically what was already a big problem that education tried to hide. Nearly across every school in America failing grades during the pandemic increased from three times on the low end and nearly ten times on the higher end. Fairfax, Virginia faced an 83% increase in failing grades. Salt Lake school district jumped from 1500 Failing grades the prior year to 4000 in the 2020–21 school year. The sharp increase in failing grades has proved that equity and equality are more than just presenting information and giving them academic techniques.

During this time I was in online classes in college myself and I found no changes in my grades. I had to stop and ask “Why am I alright and other students facing such drastic downturns?” I pinpointed that it was my internal and mobile attributes that gave me grit as well as intelligence. It is the at-risk youth that has been hit and hurt the hardest because students with solid family life, a solid economic foundation, and solid academic support have internal skills that are portable that they can take anywhere they go where at-risk students may have some of these skills in a particular environment but they are not portable. This is the privilege that they have as they walk around from school to the mall, to home having the same set of internal skills to pull from. These skills include determination, self-discipline, time management, responsibility, and goal setting. We as a society assume that either the parents will teach these attributes to their children or that they will just eventually figure it out one day. Children young and old learn from explicit modeling and if it doesn’t ever occur there is a small percentage that figures it out on their own.

I’ve noticed from state to state from pre and post-pandemic this is a major issue that isn’t being addressed in schools.

I have heard many people say to me “Well if a person doesn’t want to learn there is nothing you can do.”

I refuse to buy into that. The world of business is all about influencing people to buy products you either want, didn’t know you wanted, or even buy crap that you don’t want (admit it because we have all done it). While people can’t be controlled, they can be influenced and educators should be strong influencers.

Photo: Navarre.church/blog

I have seen the above comic many times and the majority of the people that look at this see it as a criticism of the parents and how they are failing their children. I don’t look at it that way. I have never met a parent that doesn’t care deeply for the success of their child. My focus as an educator remains on the student and what I see is how the student is becoming more and more absolved of responsibility. Technology is replacing the student’s necessary struggle to critically think as well as replacing the parent’s struggle with learning to be effective. I see parents that are frustrated because they don’t have the skills to teach their child how to do their work or how to manage their emotions effectively.

I have heard many educators say “It isn’t my job to teach kids manners and respect. That’s the parent's job.”

This quote is a heaping pile of garbage. We teach students every day from when they are little to wait before speaking, to stand in line, to act respectfully to others, and to be responsible. Schools are factories of social conformity. If we can admit that then as teachers it can be empowering to take our teaching to the next level.

In the classroom teachers spend all of their time teaching the information of math, science, English, and other subjects but little to no time on enhancing the human experience. Every once in a while as an English teacher I have the opportunity to teach a moral lesson with a text or we can look at a great leader in history, but it is a bonus; not the focus. A student can know how to do the Pythagorean theorem, the scientific method, and make a perfect thesis statement all the while having no clue how to manage their emotions and communicate effectively with friends and family.

The time has come for teachers to realize their influencing power and for schools to accept this power as part of the curriculum. For myself, I have been implementing strategies into the classroom that include growth mindset, grit, and positive psychology. I have seen firsthand how including these in the curriculum has made students more resourceful, more confident, and greater owners of their own education. The best part about these techniques that I have used is that they take little to no time away from the traditional curriculum and in class teaching time.

For example, I can have my students spend five minutes making goals on how they will better their writing skills and hone in on a specific way they will do that in the next essay. After their essay’s first draft they will review their work to evaluate how they did on their goals. At that point, they will then either set a new goal or set the same one with a new plan. This is teaching students how to be resilient, to achieve as well as mistakes, and fail but keep moving forward. Additionally, I have students integrate resources that they will use as part of their plan to improve their writing skills. This plan may include resources from the website I have created with modeling and examples or it could be something they search up on their own. Furthermore, I can make the essay writing assignments a process where students get feedback from me and/or other students throughout the writing process so they can make adjustments and learn from their mistakes before the final product which will teach them to have a growth mindset. It will teach them that they can improve the skills and intelligence that they already have. All of these can take minimal class time and can be integrated into any subject seamlessly.

It is just as important for students in today’s classroom to learn how to be resourceful, resilient, and optimistic as it is for them to learn to think critically and score high on tests.

The problem of motivating students to do work isn’t a new one but it has been one that been exacerbated through the growth of technology, less support at home, increased poverty, and especially with online teaching during the 2020 pandemic. But educators can’t give up and say that students don’t want to learn (in fact they more often do). Many students and parents have grown up in a world that has not taught them how to build intrinsic skills to be successful. When we talk about bridging the achievement gap for children of poverty and of minority groups this stands at the forefront. Chances are parents of at-risk haven’t learned these skills that are integral to being successful in not just school but for life overall. So how can they pass these down to their children if they never learned them themselves?

Just as there has been a shift in psychology with positive psychology focusing on making people happy more than making them not depressed there needs to be a shift in education. “Positive education” would combine the elements successful school curriculum with the skills of psychology and achievement. This new sense of education wouldn’t just focus on pumping information into children but it would focus on developing holistic humans ready to face the challenges of life in and outside their home. One of the greatest educational programs in the world comes from Finland. It is so successful because it focuses on children as a complete human being and not just a product to go out into the workforce. In the Finnish schools, their goal is as you progress through your educational journey you are not only going to become smarter, but you will become more human. These schools accomplish more personally and academically than we do in fewer school hours in a day.

American school systems need to take a page from the Nordic schools that education is more than just stuffing facts and fixing education is more than just money. If we desire to build independence within students so they can go on to high achieving lives then schools need to work in areas that develop independent habits. We are dealing with humans (whether they be big or small ones) with human problems that require human solutions. It is time to have schools play a larger role in the development of building up the average student's internal dexterity so each one can have a portable set of inner abilities that they can use for life. Now that is arming our rising students for true success. Human success.

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Mark Fronk

Writer. Educator. I write to make sense of life and life makes sense when I write.