The Importance of Student-Teacher Relationships

From a new study led by NYU’s Meghan McCormick:

A robust body of research finds positive cross-sectional and longitudinal associations between teacher–child relationships and children’s academic achievement in elementary school. Estimating the causal effect of teacher–child relationships on children’s academic achievement, however, is challenged by selection bias at the individual and school level. To address these issues, we used two multilevel propensity score matching approaches to estimate the effect of high-quality teacher–child relationships in kindergarten on math and reading achievement during children’s transition to first grade. Multi-informant data were collected on 324 low-income, Black and Hispanic students, and 112 kindergarten and first-grade teachers. Results revealed significant effects of high-quality teacher–child relationships in kindergarten on math achievement in first grade. No significant effects of teacher–child relationships were detected for reading achievement. Implications for intervention development and public policy are discussed.

Two points:

1. One of the commonly cited arguments for not using test scores to evaluate teachers is that test scores don’t account for a variety of other important teacher skills — for example, a teacher’s ability to develop meaningful relationships with students. But McCormick found that better relationships were reflected in higher test scores. That’s not to say that there aren’t other good reasons for being cautious about using standardized tests to make high-stakes decisions, but test scores tend to be indicative of more skills than critics give them credit for.

2. It’s difficult to accurately measure student-teacher relationships, but student surveys probably do a fairly good job of revealing which teachers establish better relationships with students. That may be one reason why student surveys sometimes do a very good job of identifying high-performing teachers. Meanwhile, the critique of student surveys is that kids just give high ratings to the teachers they like, but the connections between “liking” and relationships and relationships and achievement suggest that even those worst-case scenario surveys might have valuable data. 

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