Schools focusing on grades over learning see more violence against teachers

🔑 Key Findings:

  • Schools focusing on test results saw more violence towards teachers
  • Acts of violence against teachers came from students, parents, and other school officials
  • Researchers stress focusing on learning and understanding over grades

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Are schools which put too much emphasis on grades putting teachers in danger? A troubling new study finds that schools which place higher focus on test scores and bottom-line results instead of student learning are more likely to see children use violence against their teachers.

Conducted by researchers, including Professor Eric Anderman from The Ohio State University, the study surveyed over 9,000 teachers throughout the United States. These educators reported on the instructional focus at their schools and any experiences of violence directed at them by their students. This included physical attacks, verbal threats, or damage to property by students, parents, colleagues, or school administrators.

“What was really striking was this performance culture predicted all kinds of increased violence by students, whether it be physical violence, verbal threatening or property violence,” says Eric Anderman, lead author of the study and professor of educational psychology at Ohio State, in a university release.

“It wasn’t the mastery part. It was when there’s this focus on grades and test scores – ‘you’ve got to get good grades, school is all about grades’ – that’s when kids acted out against teachers.”

The study, which spanned from fall 2019 through the 2020-2021 academic year, also explored how school culture impacts teacher safety and student behavior. Teachers reported on the various types of violence they encountered, such as objects thrown at them, and obscene gestures made by kids. Researchers then assessed their school’s culture through statements reflecting either a mastery-focused (learning) or performance-focused (grades and test scores) climate.

Student changes mark on her test paper.
Schools which place higher focus on test scores and bottom-line results instead of student learning are more likely to see children use violence against their teachers. (Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels)

Despite a decrease in reported incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly due to more remote learning, a significant number of teachers still faced violence in some form. Anderman pointed out that even during periods when students were not physically in a classroom, incidents of violence still took place, including during virtual sessions on Zoom.

The research also uncovered a relationship between school culture and violence from parents, colleagues, and even school administrators, with performance-focused schools experiencing more incidents of aggression towards teachers. Anderman emphasized the importance of focusing each child’s attention and the curriculum on learning and actually understanding material, rather than simply passing the next test. This approach, he suggests, can reduce frustration among students, which can be a key predictor of aggressive behavior.

This study is a part of efforts by the American Psychological Association Task Force on Violence Against Teachers and School Personnel to address aggression towards educators. Researchers from DePaul University, UCLA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Center for Justice Innovation, Rutgers University, and UC Berkeley all took part in the project.

“This is something we can change that doesn’t cost millions of dollars to change,” Anderman concludes. “This is taking time to really think about when we’re talking to kids, how much are we stressing the grades? This is about changing the way we talk to kids about what learning is about and what is really important.”

The findings are published in the Journal of School Violence.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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