What’s It Like To Teach In A School Graded  “D”?


Note to reader:  We are four experienced fourth grade elementary teachers who, through this paper, are commenting on teaching in our elementary school.  Our school is located in central Indiana and was recently given a “D” grade.  We are extremely disappointed, though not totally surprised, that our school was judged so harshly.   We believe that the grading program for the state is unfair in considering test results so heavily in setting the school grade.  We are not competing on a level playing field.  In grading schools some consideration must be given to socioeconomic conditions at the school. Here is our story:


Executive Summary


Recently the state of Indiana began the process of grading schools.  Our school was given a grade of “D”.  We respond to this grade by conveying some of the hurdles we face on a daily basis.  At the outset we make the declaration that our students have, with a few exceptions, the intellectual skills to pass the ISTEP[1] exams or most any other type of basic skills evaluation scheme.  The fact that our school was rated “D” illustrates that their actual performance is lacking – we address the causes for this lack of performance in this paper. 


The students in each class are divided into three types:


1.  The conscientious student,

2.  The follower,  

3.  The problem student. 


Type 3 students exert a heavy influence over the type 2s and tend to pull them down.  As a result of the large number of type 3s, managing the class is very difficult and time consuming.  Our analysis explains that in a typical classroom, 62 minutes each day are lost to classroom management activities.  Of this 53%, or 37 minutes, can be attributed to the type 3 students.  Breaking this down further reveals that 24 minutes of the 37 minutes, 73%, is due to the conduct/attitude issues of the type 3s.  We also point out that the 24 minutes associated with the remaining students in the classroom (about 18 in number) could be dramatically reduced if the influence of the type 3s could be eliminated.  In the latter sections of this paper we make suggestions as to how to lower the impact of the type 3s.










Every year when the ISTEP[2] results are made public, the Indianapolis Star posts the results in their newspaper.  People can see exactly which schools passed ISTEP and which schools failed.  The schools and the students are reduced to numbers and percentages.  What percentage of students passed over all?   What will be our school’s grade?  We’re entering a new world.


And now, with all the school reforms, this pass or fail status is crucial; it is crucial to the administrators and teachers.  Our livelihoods depend on getting kids to pass the test.  But what if you are in a school where many kids don’t care about the test? There is a reason why certain districts consistently succeed and certain districts consistently fail, and it is not necessarily the quality of the teachers.  While good teachers are extremely important, we would contend that good students and good parents are just as important if not more so. 


Student quality and student motivation are the missing components in the public discussion on school quality. There are significant issues with the quality and motivation of some of the students.  When we say quality of the students, we are not saying they are intellectually inferior but we are saying that they carry heavy burdens from their life outside of school that make it difficult for them to learn.  These burdens also make it particularly difficult for them to be taught.  In addition, their social behavior makes it very challenging to establish a classroom-learning environment and as a result other students (and there are many), who want to learn, are impacted by their disruptive behavior.  Over the years in almost any school, every teacher has had to deal with “unruly” students; in a D rated school there are so many problem children that it impacts the entire school.


Some Characteristics of Our School


In addition to the concern about the quality and motivation of some of our students, our school experiences a total school turnover of approximately 25% each year.  This means if you begin the year with 25 students in your class then by the end of the school year about 6 of your students will “turnover”.  In other words you’ll lose 6 and gain a new 6.  Another indicator of the nature of a school is the extent to which the government subsidizes meals – 83 percent of our students are on some type of lunch program. (Based on 2011-2012 numbers.)  Only 51.2% of the 4th grade students passed both the English/Language arts and math exams during the 2012 testing round.[3] 




Intellectual Capability


In our judgment, our students, with some exceptions, have the native intellectual capacity to pass the ISTEP exam or do well on any assessment test.  At the current time, there are barriers that get in the way of their ability to grow and apply these skills in an effective way – these barriers will be discussed below.




Types of Students


Every classroom, no matter what school is considered, will have three types of students:


1.       A “1” student can be counted on to act with integrity the vast majority of the time.  They are the ones who stay in their seat and keep working quietly if the teacher has to step out of the room.  When their teacher is teaching, their eyes are either on the teacher, or on the material that the teacher is teaching from.  Either way, they are actively listening and participating in the lesson.  When given an assignment, they get busy immediately.  They will sit at their desk, or in their assigned spot and work.  They raise their hand if they have trouble.  They never call out if they have a question.  It is very rare that a 1 student does not get their work done, as these students are self-motivated learners.   A 1 student, in the rare instance that they don’t follow procedures, will accept consequences without attitude and are always honest with the teacher.  Type 1 students are often the most academically successful students.  Should these students ever need a call home (which is usually unnecessary), the parents are supportive, and the problem stops.


2.       A “2” student is the most complex, and is often the most common type of student.  A 2 student is a “follower” and is heavily influenced by the students around them.  If a 2 is around a group of 1s, the 2 will behave like a 1.  Often however, if the 2 is around a number 3 (see below), then they will behave like the 3.  Academically, 2 students vary across the spectrum and follow a typical student talent distribution curve.  Most 2 students will get their homework and class work completed.  However, if a 2 is working with a 3, the assignment tends not to get completed.  A 2 is generally more willing to accept the consequences of their choices, but some 2s will deny that they did anything or give attitude.  A phone call home will generally receive a positive response from a parent.  However, the behavior is less likely to be resolved.  It may stop for a few days, but it will eventually come back.



3.      A “3” student is a student who rarely makes good choices in the classroom.  They can’t be trusted to make good decisions when left alone.  They rarely do their homework and getting them to complete class work is very difficult, often requiring the teacher to stand in close proximity to the student.  These students rarely take responsibility for their actions and blame others for their choices.  When corrected, these students can become belligerent, attitudinal, or act as if they don’t care.  These students are frequently bullies and will not hesitate to initiate conflict against their peers and sometimes against their teachers.  Many are also highly subversive, not out-and-out causing conflict, but often creating conflict by spreading rumors or instigating others to fight.  A phone call home does not solve the problem.  For these parents, they have gotten phone calls from their child’s teachers for years about the same problems.  The sad reality is that many parents of these students have as many issues as the student and can become confrontational with the teacher.  Some tell the teacher to never call again, others become verbally abusive, or a few need to be escorted from the building.  The other response is nothing.  Phone calls are not returned and the parent will not come up to the school to conference with the teacher unless required by the office to do so.  For a 3 student, many of their problems can be traced directly to their challenging home environment. 


Let’s look deeper at some of the social realities of type 3 children. Some live a very uncertain life outside of the classroom with many family issues that most of us can’t even imagine.  For some of them, going home is not a good thing.  We teach children who have been abused, who are or have been homeless, and have little or no parental support.  Many times there is no father in the picture and mom is on welfare or working two maybe three jobs just to keep a roof over her family.  As a result here are some of the student behaviors we experience:


1.      They have a pronounced “I don’t care” attitude

2.      They do not respect much of anyone and certainly not their teachers

3.      They are very difficult to manage in a classroom situation

4.      Their parents often are not involved in many aspects of their educational growth

5.      They do not exhibit an understanding of the value of an education

6.      If a parent is contacted about a student issue and they agree to work with

the student, it is often unusual for them to take any action


 As a result of these issues, test scores suffer for the entire classroom/school.


As teachers we try to reach each and every child.  We eat with them, talk one-on-one with them, work with them and let them know that we genuinely care about them.  We see these kids for who they are and try to understand the issues they deal with day in and day out.  We know the students who have parents going through divorce, who has a parent in jail or on welfare, or a child who has been beaten or abused.   Children are in school about 7 hours each day with only 3.7 hours in instruction time with their teacher in their rooms.  Considering an entire calendar year (365 days) the children are under the direct influence of their teachers about 8 percent of their time. (See Appendix A for these time estimates.)  With so many problem students, it is very hard for us to deal with the difficult and complicated issues that some of our students have.



Students By Type


Once the definitions for each of the events to be measured were finalized each teacher was asked to estimate what percentage of their class were the type 1, type 2 and type 3s.  After the teachers actually measured the three factors for their classes we revised the percentages.  It is interesting to note that the percentages actually moved up the table after we observed their actual performance.  By moving up the table we mean there were fewer 3s, fewer 2s and more 1s.   Here are our final estimates of the percent of our 4th grade classes by type as well as the number of type 3s in each class (see Table 1):


Table 1








































Class Size






No. Type 3 students







Looking at these numbers one begins to develop a better understanding of what a classroom is like for this D graded school.  With a class size of 24-25, these numbers show there will be from 4 to 7 type 3 students in every class. We know that the type 2 students are more highly influenced by the type 3s than are the type 1s.  Consequently a large number of the type 2s will, from time to time, fall into the type 3 category.  This means that at times, the classroom could be composed of a majority of type 3s.  These situations lead to classroom chaos and severely test the teacher’s patience and endurance plus result in sizeable reductions in classroom instruction time.  It is terribly unfair for this small group of type 3 students to deprive the balance of the class from an opportunity to learn and excel.


Picture yourself as a teacher in one of these classrooms.  Teaching had appeal as a   profession because of how much influence a teacher can make in a child’s life.  Your teaching career begins with you full of passion and energy but you quickly find that far too little of your time is spent teaching.  You frequently feel that you are in a constant state of classroom upheaval trying to get control so you can actually teach.  This is a terrible morale-killer and you quickly begin to say, how can I get out of this school and go to a place where I can do my job?  I have a contribution to make but it’s not going to happen in this school. Or, apparently, I do not have the needed skills to be a teacher so I’ll look for another job.


Metrics – Gathering Data


In order to illustrate the nature of the classroom management, we gathered some data.  We agreed upon three metrics that are easy to track and to gather daily data for two to three weeks.



The measures are:

1.      Multiple requests to follow directions

2.      Failure to actively listen

3.      Bad attitude/conflict


Here is a more detailed definition of each one of the metrics we will be using in all four classes.


1.      Multiple requests to follow directions


Following Procedures:  Students are following the posted procedures that are discussed and made at the beginning of the year. 

Following Procedures will be noted whenever the teacher has to ask a student or students to follow procedures or meet expectations more than once.



2.      Failure to actively listen


Active Listening:  Eyes are on the speaker or on the assignment.  No side conversations.  Students are engaged in the conversation or work.  They are not fooling around with something in their desks.  They are not creating distractions for the other students or allowing themselves to be distracted. 

Failure to actively listen will be noted any time the teacher has to redirect a child to get them to pay attention to the lesson. 


3.       Bad attitude/conflict


Conflict/Attitude:  Conflict can be anything from one student calling out in class to yell at another student or teacher/adult, two or more students engaged in a verbal altercation, a teacher/adult and student engaged in a verbal altercation, two or more students or teacher/adult and student involved in a physical altercation.  This conflict will disrupt the normal flow of the school day by either the conflict occurring during class time or the teacher having to take instructional time to deal with the conflict. 

Attitude is being spoken to in a way that is inconsistent with district, school, and classroom expectations. 

Conflict/Attitude will be noted any time the teacher has to take instructional time to deal with conflict or attitude from a student or students. 


Data was collected during the period March 11, 2013 to March 28, 2013. (Note that the teachers have been working with these children for at least 6 months.)  A total of 44 classroom days was recorded (averaging 11 days per teacher).  The teacher recorded data by placing a tally mark on the data sheet under one of these three columns each time the event met the conditions in the definitions:


1.      Multiple Requests to Follow Directions

2.      Failure to Actively Listen

3.      Bad Attitude/Conduct


A total of 2054 tally marks were recorded along with, in two classes, the name/initials of the offending student if the student was classified as a type 2 or 3.  Here is a summary of the tally mark data: (see Table 2)


Table 2




                      Total Tally Marks for Each Classroom



Multiple Requests

To Follow


Failure to

Actively Listen

Bad Attitude/


Classroom 1




Classroom 2




 Classroom 3*




Classroom 4









Daily Averages for Each Classroom






Classroom 1




Classroom 2




Classroom 3




Classroom 4








Overall Average








    *Teacher 3 was absent due to illness 2 days during the data gathering period


In order to clarify these data let’s take a look at two of the numbers.  The upper array – the 253 tally marks recorded in Classroom 1 for Multiple Requests to Follow Directions.  This means that over the 13 days that this teacher recorded data, they marked down 253 tally marks to record the 253 instances.   Teacher 3 recorded 91 tally marks for the 9 days they recorded data.  As you can see, there are different numbers of recording days; so total tally marks are not the best for drawing conclusions.  The second array records daily averages over the full reporting period and considers only the days when data was recorded.  The 19 in the second array is the average per day number of events for teacher 1 while teacher 3’s average was 10. 


The best numbers to use are the Overall Average since they blend all of the teachers together.  We see that the typical classroom averaged 29 occasions/day when a student was told multiple times to follow directions.  The really important events are the time consuming actions that must be taken when a student needs to be managed for their bad attitude or conduct – there were 10 of these events each day for each class.  All three of the different events take the teacher away from teaching instructional content and replace this time with nonproductive classroom management matters.


Loss of Instruction Time


In Appendix A we show the time analysis for a typical school, in this case an “A” school, since no time has been subtracted for “Extraordinary Issues”.  All of the disruptions measured above have a negative impact on the basic instructional time of 230 minutes.  We have estimated the “loss of instructional time” for each of the factors we measured.  Here are those estimates:



Measured Disruption

Time loss in minutes/event

Multiple requests to follow directions


Failure to actively listen


Bad attitude/conflict



With these estimates we can now determine the amount of time lost each day due to problems managing these children.




Measured Disruption

Time loss in min./event

Average no. of events /day

Lost Instructional Time in minutes/day

Multiple requests to follow directions




Failure to actively listen




Bad attitude/conflict




   Total Lost Time/day





The above table points out that the three measured classroom management issues take away 62 minutes from the 230-minute instructional day – this is a 27% drop, a loss that no student can afford.  (On an annual basis this is about 186 hours of lost instruction time.)  We believe this time loss and the associated classroom disruptions do not contribute to a “learning environment” and are the major reasons our students did not do well on their assessment exams.


We now ask, what portion of this is coming from the type 3 students?  Fortunately two of the four teachers recorded their data in such a way that we can deduce what percent of the 62 minutes calculated above is attributed to the small number of type 3 students. Analysis shows that 59.6% of the lost instructional time for each of the two classes is originating with the type 3s. We will assume that this percent applies to all four classes.  Calculating, we compute that .596x62 = 37 minutes of lost instructional time is coming from the Type 3 students.  The vast majority of this lost 37 minutes is coming from attitude/conflict. We will dig deeper into this area.  Analysis again shows that 73% of the total type 3 time comes from attitude/conduct – this is  .73x37= 27 minutes each day is wasted in dealing with discipline issues from the 3’s.   This is consistent with the definition of the type 3 students. 


Here is how the classroom management time of 62 minutes breaks out for each of the three student types:




                                 Student Type





Instruction Time Lost to Classroom Mgt. in Minutes/day








Suppose it was possible to suddenly snap our fingers and convert all type 3s into type 1s.  Not only would we pick up the 37 minutes, we would see a dramatic improvement in the remaining 24 minutes since the type 2s are no longer influenced by the type 3s.  Since a type 1 needs very little classroom management, we would be able to recoup most of the 230 minutes of instructional time we are with the students.  This improved time availability, along with a much-improved learning environment, will provide the impetus we need to excel on the standardized exams. We believe that this is one of the primary root causes for the classes’ poor test performance.


Is It The Students or The Teachers?


Our data illustrates that we experience a significant loss of classroom instructional time due to the fact that we have so many type 3 and type 2 students that we are unable to control.  Aren’t some teachers able to manage these problem children? The answer to this question is yes, but they possess some trait, some particular insight or life experience that is so unique that it is not present in most teachers.  After all, looking back over your own educational experience, you can quickly identify a small number of those very gifted teachers who really excited you about learning.  But, there are not many who possess this special skill; in fact there are far too few to populate even a small percentage of all of the classrooms of America.  Most teachers are mere mortals who want to do a good job but don’t possess those rare extraordinary talents. Over and over, schools are defining jobs that ordinary teachers are unable to do – this means something is wrong with the job.  There are too many children that the teachers just can’t control. 




What is the Answer?  - The Role of Consequences


In our school there is a strong reluctance to incorporate consequences into the management of our students.  There are no obvious consequences for most any behavior.  It is not uncommon for a student to use the “F…” word to insult other children, teachers and administrators.  This is one of the ultimate displays of contempt and further establishes the power of the student over those who are the targets of their scorn.  This word, and some like it, may be in common usage in their world outside of school, but it should be totally unacceptable in a system where respect is expected but not demanded.  If respect is not a natural result of one’s upbringing, it should be demanded at school.  Without consequences nothing will change.


There should be consequences for failure to perform academically.  We as teachers work hard to prepare our students for ISTEP and the children ask, “ What happens if we fail this exam?”  The teacher must be honest and tell them,  “Nothing will happen to you but your performance will affect how our school is rated. “  A reply like this will have virtually no impact in motivating the student to higher levels of performance.  This will be the response in any learning environment at any level.  Without personal consequences motivation is thwarted.  There are too many other influences in a student’s life to expect learning to become a top priority.  We have one recommendation:


The student would be required to attend a full summer session and then pass an exam to assess if adequate progress has been made.  If not, they should repeat the former grade and not be passed on to the next.  This is the consequence that may motivate them to make the difficult changes we are looking for.


What is the Answer?  - The Role of Discipline


As teachers, it saddens us to see so many students failing to reach their potential.  Their lives could be dramatically improved if we could find ways to increase their learning skills.  Looking at the problem simplistically, much improvement could be made if we could make all Type 3s into Type 1s or 2s.  Here are some suggestions:


1.      Elevate the level of discipline with the objective of moving many of the Type 2s to type 1.  There must be consequences for bad behavior.  They must be taught that respect for themselves and others will make their lives more pleasant and self-satisfying.  Current methods of discipline are not working; change MUST be made.

2.      Likewise, work to elevate as many of the type 3s to type 2s or even 1s.  Here is where consequences really matter.  We cannot continue to allow these number 3 students to have so much negative influence over our classes. 

3.      Ultimately, there will still be some students who cannot be changed.  In our opinion, these students will need to be removed from our classrooms.  We strongly believe that removing these children from the classroom will have a strong beneficial effect on the remaining kids.  It will most certainly improve student and teacher morale.

4.      Establish an alternative school/program for unruly and disruptive children – we comment on this below.  If they refuse to attend the socialization program or do attend without changing their behavior and continue to be disruptive, they must be removed from the traditional educational system.  We must not let them bring down students who want an education.


As has been pointed out before, there is no question in our minds that the large number of type 3 students leads to a larger type 2 group.  The “downward influence” of these students must be stopped.


Looking for “Root Cause”


It would be easy to stop right here and simply resort to the colloquialism, “throw the bums out!” but we would be stopping too early in our quest for the root cause.  The question is, why are they unruly and such a problem in class?  It seems they do not possess certain social skills and the motivation that we all take for granted, and if they do have the appropriate skills, they are hiding them while in classroom.  We all forget that social skills are learned just like knowledge skills.  These skills are taken for granted because we learn them a little at a time over a large number of years.  So, we conclude that there is a major shortfall in these skills that needs to be addressed.  Is it too early to expect a fourth grader to be able to change behavior?  We don’t think so.  It would be very beneficial to the student, future classrooms, and society if they could show more successful social skills earlier in their lives.  Here is an area of their growth for the “educational experts” to comment and set a plan in place that will be of major benefit to all concerned.  One thing is for sure; it will not be easy to get these children to recognize their deficiencies and spend the time to remedy them.  Our suggestion is that they attend a mandatory summer session either after the third grade or after the fourth to allow the school system to begin to mold them into successful citizens.  It would have to be a prerequisite for admittance into the next year’s class. 




What skills are needed to remain in the classroom?


What is needed is an approach that will provide the skills for these students to live in two different worlds.  In addition to their current circumstance, they need the basic skills to allow them to succeed in the world of the classroom; these are skills that will hold them in good stead in the later years in education, in business and governmental jobs and the military.


Here are some of the skills that must be mastered for a successful return to the classroom:


1.      The understanding that education is essential for them to lead a better life.

2.      The understanding that even though their circumstances may be far from ideal, they can still be successful if they believe in their teachers and their role in teaching them essential skills.

3.      They need to understand why respect of others is so essential for their own success.

4.      They need to learn how to manage their behaviors that are brought about because of their life situation.

5.      They need to understand the importance of self-discipline and self- motivation.

6.      They need to understand what is acceptable speech and what is profane, unacceptable speech.

7.      They need to understand how to deal with conflict and how to avoid inflicting either mental or physical harm others.

8.      They need to learn the virtue of perseverance and its importance – learning can be hard work


As the reader can see, these are not the ordinary pursuits of a conventionally trained teacher.  Topic knowledge is not what these students need at this point; they need to learn successful social behavior and to respect those who need to be respected.


Once the student has a satisfactory demonstrated their grasp of these life skills they can be returned to the normal tract.  From time to time there will be lapses and the student should be required to attend reminder sessions on Saturdays.

The Last Why


We take the next step and ask, “Why don’t these students possess the needed social skills to be successful in the classroom?”  The obvious answer is parents/parenting but we don’t know this for sure.  It could be peer group pressure, culture, or they might deliberately choose to act the way they do.  No matter how it happens, it is the way it is and we must deal with it as such.


There is Hope


As teachers, we know that we can do better.  This is a collective “we”.  With the school administration’s help to implement the recommendations suggested above, we know that we can reduce the impact of the Type 3 students, the root cause of many of our problems.  A byproduct of this assistance will be a dramatic improvement in teacher morale and the morale of our students.  More importantly they will begin to reach the levels of success we want them to experience.  We know that once the students begin to experience academic success, this success will feed on itself to create a level of pride they have never known.


Without significant change, our school will remain a D school indefinitely.  We view this as a “learning tragedy” because so much potential is being wasted.


Richard Garrett PhD




                                                                                    Study Completed April 10, 2013




















Appendix A.


Here is the time estimates referred to in this paper.


Appendix B.


Before the facilitation process began, we asked the four teachers to give their thoughts to these two questions:  1. What are the factors that caused your school to be graded D? 2.  What must change to elevate this grade?


Here is a summary of their answers to these two questions:  (These answers are not ranked in any particular order.)


What are the factors that caused your school to be graded D?


·         There are no real consequences for failing tests, misbehavior, or most anything else

·         Children have a sense of entitlement, they want things given to them without having to work for them

·         Parents do not care about how/what their kids do in school

·         Kids do not care about learning or passing exams

·         Home life is a major detriment to academic performance, examples - some are not well fed, some stay up late, some parents are not literate themselves

·         Parental expectations for kids is low – some of their cultures do not value education

·         They come to school unprepared educationally, emotionally, and socially.  Socially they do not know how to handle conflict – their natural and immediate response is to reply to conflict with conflict

·         Teachers can not positively influence their lives outside of school


What must change to elevate this grade?


·         The number of serious behavioral problems in each classroom must be dramatically reduced

·         Students with serious discipline problems must be subject to harsh punishment if necessary

·         Children are variables, not widgets.  ELL students and SpEd students will not grow at a “typical” rate

·         The severest offenders must be removed from the classrooms and sent to alternative schools where they do not interrupt the learning of the children who really want to learn

·         Parents must be held accountable

·         There must be consequences



[1] Indiana Statewide Testing For Educational Progress


[2] See footnote 1

[3] Source: http://www.doe.in.gov/achievement/assessment/istep-results