3 Reasons Teachers Say Students Fail in School


As part of our research on the new education initiative, United Way spoke to eight teachers and more than 15 education experts on what they think makes a student successful in school and what the barriers are to success.

The teachers we spoke to represented elementary, middle and high school levels. The experts we spoke to represented school districts and local non-profit groups that focus on youth and their development.

1. External Support and Internal Assets
Teachers and experts agree that a student needs external support—from parents or another adult—to be successful in school. When teachers and experts were asked how struggling students get back on track to success, the majority of participants said that engagement and support by an adult is essential because communication with school increases and students are able to build internal assets that keep them on track to graduation such as:

  • resiliency
  • empowerment
  • perseverance

Participants said that the adult and student needed to have a meaningful relationship, be able to connect, and have a good rapport. Teachers and experts agreed that this relationship not only develops internal assets, but also helps to motivate the student and sets an expectation of success. This is critical when some students are not motivated or expected to succeed by their parents.

According to teachers and experts, the absence or presence of certain personal characteristics (i.e. self-gratification) was a strong predictor of a student’s success or struggles in school. A student’s personal attributes are greatly affected by the student’s family and the community’s value of education. Experts agreed that the value of education should be addressed in order to assist in facilitating the personal attributes needed to do well in school.

2. Student Engagement
Teachers most often stated that one of the barriers to youth being successful in school is the student’s engagement in the classroom. When students aren’t engaged they aren’t motivated to do well in class. Teachers said that one of the reasons that students aren’t engaged is because students cannot relate lessons to real life; a factor also stated by students.

Teachers believe that students would benefit from apprenticeship programs where they can learn work skills and have a mentor. Though schools have elective classes, such as woodshop, they do not offer as many of these classes due to funding shortages. Providing these opportunities will not only engage students, but also provide them a mentor as well.

Teachers also said that students can be more engaged by assigning more in class assignments and less take home work. Some students find it difficult to complete homework due to factors like family instability and/or parent’s inability to provide the skills to help. This was also mentioned as a factor by students. Having in-class work engages students more than lecturing and as a result students receive corrective feedback by teachers sooner.

3. Family Needs
Family needs (stable homes, fulfillment of basic needs, etc.) were cited by teachers and experts as being an underlying factor to a student’s success in school. Although experts stated that economic status was not the determining factor in a student’s success in school, it was a factor that could affect the chances of struggles in school.

Teachers and experts agree that when a student lives in a home that is struggling to meet its basic needs and/or is unstable, students have difficulty concentrating on homework and don’t have the support or structure at home necessary to thrive in school. Having a center that provides educational services (i.e. tutoring, mentoring, etc.) and family resources located near or at a school would greatly help students be more successful in school. They would have a safe and stable place to go after school where they could receive the services they need for themselves and their family.

Question: What are the other reasons students fail in school?