School Issues That Negatively Impact Student Learning

Student resting head on desk in classroom
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Schools face several real issues on a daily basis that negatively impacts student learning. Administrators and teachers work hard to overcome these challenges, but it is often an uphill climb. No matter what strategies are implemented there are some factors that will likely never be eliminated. However, schools must do their best to minimize the impact these issues have while maximizing student learning. Educating students is a difficult challenge because there are so many natural obstacles that hinder student learning. 

It is important to note that every school is different. Not every school will face all of the challenges discussed below, though the majority of schools across the United States face more than one of these issues. The overall makeup of the community surrounding the school has a significant impact on the school itself. Schools facing a large portion of these issues will not see significant internal changes until external issues are addressed and changed within the community. Many of these issues can be deemed as "societal issues" which can be a nearly impossible hurdle for schools to overcome.

Bad Teachers

The vast majority of teachers are effective at their job, sandwiched in between the great teachers and the bad teachers. We know there are bad teachers, and while they represent a small sample size of teachers, they are often the ones who sadly generate the most publicity. For the majority of teachers, this is frustrating because most work hard every day to ensure that their students receive a quality education with little fanfare.

A bad teacher can set a student or group of students back considerably. They can create significant learning gaps making the next teacher’s job that much harder. A bad teacher can foster an atmosphere full of discipline issues and chaos establishing a pattern that is extremely difficult to break. Finally and perhaps most devastatingly, they can shatter a student’s confidence and overall morale. The effects can be disastrous and nearly impossible to reverse.

This is the reason that administrators must ensure that they make smart hiring decisions. These decisions must not be taken lightly -- of equal importance is the teacher evaluation process. Administrators must use the evaluation system to make informed decisions when retaining teachers year over year. They cannot be afraid to put the necessary work required to dismiss a bad teacher who will damage students in the district.

Discipline Issues

Discipline issues cause distractions, and distractions add up and limit learning time. Every time a teacher has to handle a discipline issue they lose valuable instructional time. In addition, each time a student is sent to the office on a discipline referral that student loses valuable instruction time. The bottom line is that any discipline issue will result in the loss of instruction time, which limits a student’s learning potential.

For these reasons, teachers and administrators must be able to minimize these disruptions. Teachers can do this by providing a structured learning environment and engaging students in exciting, dynamic lessons that captivate students and keep them from being bored. Administrators must create well-written policies that hold students accountable. They should educate parents and students on these policies. Administrators must be firm, fair, and consistent when dealing with any student discipline issue.

Lack of Proper Funding

Funding has a significant impact on student performance. A lack of funding typically leads to larger class sizes and less technology and curriculum materials and the more students a teacher has, the less attention they can pay to each individual students. This can become significant when you have a class full of 30 to 40 students at varying academic levels.

Teachers must be equipped with engaging tools covering the standards they are required to teach. Technology is a tremendous academic tool, but it is also pricey to purchase, maintain, and upgrade. Curriculum in general continuously changes and needs to be updated, but most states curriculum adoption runs in five-year cycles. At the end of each five-year cycle, the curriculum is totally outdated and physically worn out.

Lack of Student Motivation

There are many students who simply do not care about attending school or putting in the effort necessary to maintain their grades. It is extremely frustrating to have a pool of students who are only there because they have to be. An unmotivated student may initially be on grade level, but they will fall behind only to wake up one day and realize it is too late to catch up. A teacher or administrator can only do so much to motivate a student -- ultimately it is up to the student as to whether or not they decide to change. Unfortunately, there are many students in schools across America with tremendous potential who choose not to live up to that standard.

Over Mandating

Federal and state mandates are taking their tolls on school districts across the country. There are so many new requirements each year that schools do not have the time or resources to implement and maintain them all successfully. Most of the mandates are passed with good intentions, but the spacing of these mandates puts schools in a bind. They are often unfunded and require a lot of extra time that could be spent in other critical areas.  Schools simply do not have enough time and resources to do many of these new mandates justice.

Poor Attendance

Simply put, students can't learn if they aren't at school. Missing just ten days of school each year from kindergarten to twelfth grade adds up to missing almost an entire school year by the time they graduate. There are some students that have the ability to overcome poor attendance, but many who have a chronic attendance problem fall behind and stay behind.

Schools must hold students and parents accountable for consistent excessive absences and should have a solid attendance policy in place that specifically addresses excessive absences. Teachers cannot do their jobs if students are not required to show up on a daily basis.

Poor Parental Support

Parents are typically the most influential people in every aspect of a child’s life. This is especially true when it comes to education. There are exceptions to the rule, but typically if the parents value education, their children will be academically successful. Parental involvement is essential to educational success. Parents who provide their children with a solid foundation before school begins and stay involved throughout the school year will reap the benefits as their children will likely be successful.

Likewise, parents who are minimally involved with their child’s education have a significant negative impact. This can be extremely frustrating for teachers and makes for a continuous uphill battle. Many times, these students are behind when they start school due to a lack of exposure, and it is extremely difficult to catch them up. These parents believe it is the school’s job to educate and not theirs when in actuality it needs to be a dual partnership for the child to be successful


Poverty has a significant impact on student learning. There has been much research to support this premise. Students living in affluent well-educated homes and communities are far more academically successful while those living in poverty are typically behind academically.

Free and reduced lunches are one indicator of poverty. According to National Center for Education Statistics, Mississippi has one of the highest national rates of eligibility for free/reduced lunches at 71%. Their 8th-grade NAEP scores for 2015 were at 271 in math and 252 in reading. Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of eligibility for free/reduced lunches at 35%. Their 8th-grade NAEP scores for 2015 were at 297 in math and 274 in reading. This is only one example of how poverty can impact education.

Poverty is a difficult obstacle to overcome. It follows generation over generation and becomes the accepted norm, which makes it almost impossible to break. Though education is a significant part of breaking the grips of poverty, most of these students are so far behind academically that they will never get that opportunity.

Shift in Instructional Focus

When schools fail, administrators and teachers almost always take the brunt of the blame. This is somewhat understandable, but the responsibility of educating should not fall solely on the school. This deferred shift in educational responsibility is one of the greatest reasons that we see a perceived decline in public schools across the United States.

In fact, teachers are doing a far superior job of educating their students today than they ever have been. However, the time spent teaching the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic has been significantly decreased due to increased demands and responsibilities to teach many things that used to be taught at home.

Any time you add new instructional requirements you must take away time spent on something else. The time spent in school has rarely increased, yet the burden has fallen to schools to add courses such as sex education and personal financial literacy into their daily schedule without an increase in time to do so. As a result, schools have been forced to sacrifice critical time in the core subjects to ensure that their students are being exposed to these other life skills.