Two large-scale, quantitative research studies were recently released and reinforced the importance of student-teacher relationships for academic achievement. This is not surprising news; it makes intuitive sense. All of us can point toward that teacher or teachers who cared and believed in us and made a real impact on our learning and development. However, the importance of relationships can get pushed to the back burner when schools are thinking about how to increase student achievement. These two studies test different methods of increasing achievement in elementary school; each has a different orientation towards student-teacher relationships and have important lessons for educators.
First, study 1 examines teacher specialization at the elementary level. Departmentalization or “platooning” has increased in interest in the last decade. Research has consistently documented the importance of teachers and policymakers and practitioners have been considering ways to ensure students are taught by the most effective teachers. Middle and high school teachers typically specialize in certain subjects, why not in elementary? Teachers can focus on mastering subject-specific content and pedagogy and have more time to devote to those subject lesson plans. However, when departmentalization was put to the test in a randomized control study in the Houston district, both reading and math scores of the students who had been taught by specialized teachers were worse. Interestingly, suspensions and absences were also higher.
Related, study 2 examined repeat student-teacher matches, commonly referred to as “looping.” Researchers identified all students who happened to have the same teacher for two grades between third and fifth grade (the same grades tested in the departmentalization study). The findings were just the opposite- this pattern of repeat teachers lead to higher test scores. Further, the benefits were strongest for students of color. Interestingly, even students who were new to the classroom benefitted. Looping more often happens by chance, than policy. Most teachers when they learn their grade’s standards prefer to stay put. This study, however, points to how important relationships and familiarity are to student learning. The teachers in study 1 said they were less able to tailor instruction for each child as they were teaching so many more students. The teachers who looped were better able to do this even though they may have been learning new grade-level standards.
Recent NCUST research in high-performing high schools confirms and extends the findings around student-teacher relationships. In the schools we studied, relationships were essential. And, it was not just student-teacher relationships, but also relationships among teachers and with families. School personnel believed that strong relationships among students and teachers provided the foundation for learning and that these relationships did not happen by accident. Each school crafted its own unique system to foster strong relationships. They established norms and expectations and created opportunities and experiences for staff and students to get to know one another. It wasn’t though just about familiarity, it was to build trust, so students would learn more. Students felt valued and capable, so they were willing to work harder and achieve things they never thought possible. Similarly, relationships with colleagues weren’t merely about liking one another, but about building trust so they could better work together and collaborate.
What our research tells us is that structural changes may help support personalization, but relationships need to be a priority in and of themselves. Departmentalization or looping create the conditions for learning, but relationships will help connect students to their learning and how to reach their goals.