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What Drives Student Outcomes?

It’s likely you’ve heard, at some point in your life, a close friend or family member say the following:

“I am so bored with my job. I think I want to become a teacher because I like kids.”

What many people don’t realize is “liking kids” is the smallest part of a teacher’s job. Most don’t see the struggles that teachers deal with: weekends and late nights spent on lesson planning and grading, countless phone calls to parents to discuss behavior, not to mention the mental, emotional, and physical energy that goes into just one day of actual teaching. No matter how you slice it, it takes years of training and practice to become a truly excellent teacher.

On the one hand, a teacher has to be knowledgeable enough in her content area(s) to effectively deliver information to her students. She has to be organized and well-planned so that the knowledge she imparts is conveyed effectively. But on the other hand, she has to be able to get 25 or more young, impulsive bodies and brains to sit still long enough to actually take in her words of wisdom. This begs the question:

Which drives student outcomes: strong instruction or strong management?

Unpacking this age-old riddle is a challenge within itself. To start, let’s take a look at three different viewpoints.

Management First

As adults, most of us know how to sit still and listen when someone else is talking. We have the self-control, executive functioning, and attention span to do this even if the person we are listening to is boring us to death. But for most students in a K-12 classroom, this skill has to be developed over time and, yup, it’s the teacher’s job to help students develop it.  At first thought, it seems pretty apparent that classroom management must come before instruction. After all, if the kids aren’t even listening to you, then what is the point of teaching?

In their book Classroom Management That Works, educational researchers and authors Robert Marzano, Jana Marzano, and Debra Pickering found that there was a 20% increase in student achievement after systematic rules and procedures were implemented in a classroom. Now, you wouldn’t blink at a 20 percent increase in your salary, and we certainly shouldn’t discount the value of a twenty percent increase in student achievement. Pretty easy, right? Set some rules, tell the kids what to do, and they will all follow suit. Sounds simple behind the comfort and ease of our screens, but what about from the perspective a real person who got “eaten alive” by her students in her first years of teaching?  

Leila Polvino started her teaching career as a first-year Baltimore corps member with Teach for America. She sets a dismal scene:

“It was horrible. I was switched to a new school halfway through the year, and I was my students’ ninth English teacher over three years. I had more students than I had desks. My administrators were too busy putting out fires to support or develop me. I was completely alone.”

Leila openly admits that only one of her three classes learned anything that year. The literally unsafe classroom environment (she mentioned physical assault and arson as just a few examples) held her students back from benefiting academically from any of the meticulous lesson plans that she had prepared for them.

Going into her second year of teaching, Lelia knew that something had to change. She set up a complex behavior management system that rewarded her students’ positive behaviors and consistently deterred the negative ones. By the end of that year, her students were writing five-paragraph essays, completing all their work, and collaborating on meaningful academic projects. In Leila’s words, “it had become a classroom that parents would be proud to have their child in.”

So when tasked with the question at hand, Lelia did not even blink before firmly stating her opinion: “There is nothing without classroom management.” She went on to say that you can have the most amazing lesson plan in the world, but if your kids are “hanging off the ceiling,” it doesn’t matter.

But she also described some of her fellow teachers who took a management-first approach. These were environments where, certainly, no one was setting fires or causing physical harm to their peers, but where students were simply kept occupied with busy work. Though strong management must come first, quality instruction must follow.

Instruction First

You might be sold on the “management first” side of this debate, but there are many educators who would fall on their swords for the “instruction first” argument.

Before coming on as a content manager at Albert, I worked for ten years as an ELA teacher and instructional coach. Within these roles, I always prioritized instructional planning over classroom management. Think about it this way: Have you ever tried explaining a concept that you didn’t understand yourself to another person? Now imagine trying to do that in front of 30 twelve year olds. As I am sure you can guess, this would not end well for anyone.

A well-designed lesson plan is organized and engaging. It is so well thought-out and relevant to students’ interests that the kiddos have no time to even think about misbehaving. Educational researchers Jay Mctighe and Grant Wiggins would likely agree that quality instruction is the driver of student outcomes. They developed an educational planning approach called Understanding by Design. This pedagogy works off the tenet that “learning is enhanced when teachers think purposefully about curricular planning.” Their approach breaks the planning process into three stages:  

  • Identify desired results
  • Determine assessment evidence
  • Plan learning experiences and instruction

Notice that planning exactly what students will be doing or, in other words, how they will be acting, comes last while the desired academic results come first. This is not to say that “planning desired results” couldn’t also be applied to planning for behavior, but Mctighe and Wiggins certainly drive home the importance of putting instruction first.

I may have received countless eye rolls from my students and teachers throughout my years in education, but I stand by Benjamin Franklin’s adage,

“If you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail.”

Strong instruction trumps any behavior management plan. An instruction-first classroom is driven by rigorous content, carefully crafted questions, and intentional student practice. But of course these lesson plans in isolation are not the only driver of student outcomes.

Both as Equals

There’s a lot of power in words, especially when talking about our schools, our kids, their families, and their communities. I was reminded of the importance of the language we use when talking about education as I interviewed Laura Amling, current team leader of school sales at Albert and former classroom culture coach with Teach For America.

She started out our interview by emphasizing the important difference between “classroom management” and “classroom culture.” A simple Google image search of the word “management” versus the word “culture” returns starkly different results. “Management” insinuates control, obedience, and punishment, whereas “culture” conveys a communal power dynamic, in which the teacher and students work in partnership to achieve their goals.

This idea of emphasizing classroom culture versus classroom management became a running theme throughout my interviews and research. Developing a strong classroom culture means building an environment in which students feel safe to take risks and where each individual feels loved and respected. Once this sense of trust is built between the teacher and her students, instructional time is maximized so that real learning can happen.

Laura argued that once this level of culture was achieved in the classrooms she worked with, the majority of the students’ academic performance would “skyrocket.” But she also said that a focus on classroom culture will only get you so far.

“You can separate culture and instruction up until a certain point. You can have a great classroom culture, but if you can’t plan and the rigor is not there, then results are not going to happen.”

There’s no doubt that this “chicken or the egg” debate will continue far beyond the amount of time it’s taken you to read this post, but if you are someone you know is stepping into the classroom for their first, fifth, or even tenth year of teaching, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Begin with the end in mind. Whether planning for instruction or classroom culture, have a clear idea in your head of what you want to be true for you and your students. What results do you want your students to achieve on their end of year assessment? How do you want your students to be speaking and acting towards you and one another? Only once you have established a clear vision for what you want can you start planning on how you are going to achieve it.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. You are not the first teacher to struggle. Reach out to your school leaders to advocate for the support that you need. Look to veteran teachers and sit in on their classrooms so you can see how they approach planning and management. Look for literature and online resources that education experts have been developing for decades on the topics of successful management and instruction.
  • Work smarter, not harder. There so many tools out there that can help you drive your students’ achievement. For example, the Content Team at Albert is made up of all former teachers and school leaders. We know that teaching is hard work, so we design our product to best help solve those pain points that teachers, like you,  face on a daily basis. Check out our courses like Strategic Reading and Mastery Math that can be used to differentiate your instruction, level your students’ practice, and push your students towards mastering their academic goals.


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Article written by The Team

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