08/31/2011 07:21 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2011

Teachers Take Note: Advice From Students on How to Improve Schools

With Labor Day fast approaching, it's back to school season all across America. As teachers and school administrators ramp up for a new academic year, full of excitement, fears and hopes for what the year will bring, it is important to remember that students themselves have some important ideas about what makes schools work best.

Educators everywhere can benefit from incorporating student feedback into their ongoing experiments in the classroom. Using student input to help assess whether new programs or approaches are having their intended impact is not only wise -- it's essential.

Students are, after all, the primary "customer" in our education system, and as any successful business owner knows, customer opinion matters -- a lot. We know from research that students can discern what's working -- for, example, they can predict who's among the most effective teachers. We also know that improvements in students' own perceptions can serve as leading indicators of higher achievement. So, ask them what they think!

At YouthTruth, a national survey project that solicits feedback from students about their high school experience, we've heard from more than 70,000 teens (including many students from low-income communities with under-funded schools), about key strengths and weaknesses of their classrooms. We've shared these findings and the comparative data we've gathered with schools, districts, education networks and students themselves.

Through this work we've started to notice some consistent themes that we encourage teachers and administrators to keep in mind as they head back to class. Here are five lessons worth noting:

1. Manage your classroom well. The frustration most commonly cited by students is that distracting and disruptive students are not better controlled in their classes, which makes it hard for them to focus and concentrate.

2. One-on-one time with students is critical. More than anything else, students say personalized attention from their teachers helps them do their best in class. So take the time to engage with students directly and personally as often as possible.

3. Make learning relevant. Students report that just over half of their teachers are good at making meaningful connections between what they're teaching in class and what's going on in students' lives outside the classroom.

4. Culture matters. Students are more positive about the quality of their overall education when they believe their school culture is respectful, that their school is helping them develop the skills and knowledge needed for college, and that their teachers have high expectations for them.

5. Motivate your hardest-to-reach students. Among students who've considered dropping out, the two most commonly cited reasons are falling behind on school work to the point of feeling unable to catch up, and not seeing how school will ultimately help them in life. These students need help staying on track and understanding that schoolwork can be a path to future opportunity.

Valerie Threlfall is Director of The Center for Effective Philanthropy's YouthTruth project. Learn more at