Introduction – What’s It Like to Teach in a Failing School?

 Executive Summary: findings of the educational study – What’s it Like to Teach in a School Graded D?

Teaching in this low-income school can be very difficult and frustrating for the teachers. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Though the teachers firmly believe the students have the intellectual capability to pass the state exams, many of them do not do well.
  • One factor in the low performance is that approximately 23% of the students are so disruptive and indifferent they destroy the learning environment and waste valuable classroom time.
  • This 23% of the class are deficient in relationship and other skills and become very difficult to mange and disturbing to the entire class. In the words of today, they are deficient in CHARACTER and GRIT (see video below)  We believe that their behavior is beyond the ability of many teachers to control.
  • This 23% is either directly or indirectly responsible for approximately 62 minutes per day per classroom of lost instructional time.  This is 186 hours per school year for each of the four classrooms.
  • Each day, in every one of the four classrooms, the teachers must be prepared to deal with approximately 46 minutes of discipline problems from their students. (This is part of the 62 min. – other issues and other students are responsible for the 16 minute balance.)
  • The bottom line – it is terribly unfair to the 77% of the students who are amenable to learning to allow the minority to control the environment to the extent they do and also unfair to the teachers who must tolerate unending lack of respect from these difficult students.  Looking at this from a higher level, this is also bad public policy.
  • The answer is to isolate the troublesome children in separate classrooms until they have acquired adequate levels of character and grit to remain in a regular classroom.  Character training should begin in the earliest years of schooling then reinforced all along the way.


This story begins during the 2012-2013 school year, when the state of Indiana began to officially grade their 2,110 schools after years of informal grading. Traditional public schools, charter schools, religious and private schools… no one was exempt. The debate continues about the fairness of these grades and how they should be used to compensate teachers and administrators. These are the stories of teachers from a “failing” school.

Teachers are frustrated not by teaching but by their inability to teach

The author has an acquaintance who teaches fourth grade at a Marion County school. During the first year of official grading, his previously C-graded school was branded with a failing grade: a D.  This was quite the shock and lead to much soul-searching by teachers and administrators alike. Upon hearing that the first official grade was so low, the author called his friend and asked: “Would you and the other fourth grade teachers at your school let me tell your story?”

What had prompted such a low grade? Inquiring minds want to know. The author’s friend was willing to move forward, but the others were concerned about publicly discussing such a potentially controversial subject. But after several months of continued frustration with what was happening in the classroom, the other teachers decided to participate. The author discovered that his friend was not alone: classroom conditions were the same for all the teachers. His acquaintance’s experiences were not unique.

The teachers interviewed were unwilling to comment on school administration, so this research focuses solely on what actually happens in the classroom of a “failing” school.

Note on Confidentiality

The participants in this study were justifiably concerned about confidentiality so we will not give the name of the school, the school district or the names of the teachers.

An Important Place to Begin

This research was well-contextualized by this 20 minute video by author Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed (pay particular attention to the first 5-6 minutes).

This book has had a significant impact on the discussion surrounding educational policy, though the research detailed on this website predates this vital book.  Tough describes the existence of children deficient in character and grit. We agree and provide evidence for the negative impact these students have on teachers and their fellow students: Looking for Root Cause.
To purchase Paul Tough’s book go to

Site Goals

1. To better educate more children who attend low-income schools
2. To help the public better understand what goes on in many classrooms graded ‘D’ and ‘F’
3. To defend teachers in failing, low-income schools from unjustified criticism
4. To help the public understand how a good teacher may not produce good results

Frequently Asked Questions

How do Indiana schools measure up?

In general, Indiana schools are doing quite well. In two years, 245 schools have elevated themselves into the ‘A’ grade level, bringing the percentage of ‘A’ schools to 53.5%. This is an increase of 8.4% over last year, when only 45.1% of schools received an ‘A.’ The percentage of ‘D’ and ‘F’ schools dropped from 15% of all schools to 10% in the same time frame. These improvements are in line with many policy-maker’s predictions.

How do Charter schools measure up?

In Indiana, the performance of charter schools in Indiana is not good as measured by school grades. See: Indiana School Data, Table 2

Where are the majority of the ‘D’ and ‘F’ schools located?

Nine school districts plus state charter schools represent 55% of the states “D” and ‘F’ schools.  See: Indiana School Data, Table 4

What do the teachers say about their students ability to pass the ISTEP exams?

The teachers say all of their children have the ability to pass the ISTEP Exams.  See:  Can The Students Pass The State Exams?

Should socioeconomic conditions of a school be taken into consideration when grading schools?

This really is not that much of an issue – there is an association between school percentages of free and reduced lunches but it is not terribly strong. See tables 7, 8 and 9 in Can The Students Pass the State Exams?

Which are the most outstanding schools in Indiana? What percentage free/reduced lunch do students there receive?

The teachers on the study team for this paper classify students into three types – what are these types?

How much time quantified by our measurement system is lost each day to classroom management issues?

62 minutes  See:  Measuring Lost Time

How much time each day does each one of our teachers expect to lost to conduct issues by Type 3 students?

27 minutes  See:  Measuring Lost Time, see text after Table 16

In the paper we define a disruption – what are the issues that need to be refined as we define the length of a disruption?

In order for a student to be successful in the classroom, what skills must be improved?

What are the root causes for Type 3 poor student performance?

In order: Parents/Parenting, culture and by choice, see: Looking For Root Cause

Are there areas for further research that should prove to be productive?

This is NOT a Scholarly Article

The web site is intended to educate the public and influence public policy. The research methods used to gather lost classroom time are still in early stages and will require further refinement for future investigation. Under the circumstances at the time of research, the author believes these methods were the best available at the time. Please keep in mind that these results represent a single institution and we ask you to share and contribute to make further progress.

What’s it Like to Teach in a Failing School?

From the Teachers…

Every year when the Indiana Statewide Testing For Educational Progress (ISTEP) results are made public, the Indianapolis Star publishes these 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?  What will our school’s grade be? We’re entering a new world of school evaluation.

And now, with school reforms, this pass/fail status is crucial to administrators and to teachers. Our livelihoods depend on getting kids to pass the test. But what if you are in a school where many kids do not 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 think 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. When we say quality of the students, we’re not talking about intellectual inferiority, but students’ heavy burdens from life outside of school that makes it difficult for them to learn and to be taught. Their social behavior makes it very challenging to establish a classroom-learning environment and other students (and there are many) who want to learn are impacted by their disruptive behavior. Every teacher in every school has  to deal with “unruly” students; in a D-rated school, the learning environment simply cannot be maintained.

Some Characteristics of Our School

In addition to our concerns over the external burdens and motivational issues of some students, we experience a total school turnover of approximately 25% each year, which is not at all high for a school like this one. In a class of 25, you will lose 6 students throughout the course of the year and gain 6 new ones. Another indicator of the nature of a school is the extent to which the government subsidizes meals – in 2011-2012, 83% of our students participated in some type of lunch program. Finally, only 51.2% of fourth grade students passed both the English/Language Arts and Math state exams during the 2012 testing round.

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