Monday, October 02, 2006

Who is most responsible for a student's education?

In the a Teacher Update from on September 28, a post by TMAO was featured. TMAO's post was about teacher education, and it was his last paragraph that really caught my attention:

In the end though, the most valuable knowledge ed schools and certification
programs could instill is the fact that as a teacher it is your responsibility
to promote student achievement, and any failure to do so is your failure. It's
not the fault of parents, young people, society, Grand Theft Auto: San Andres,
neo-conservative economic policies, peer pressure, the events that occurred last
week at the corner liquor store, or myspace. As a teacher you are more powerful
than any of those things, and it's high time to start acting like it.
TMAO made a comment in this vein during the summer, and I wrote that he must be either "stupid or ignorant." Although using language like that would probably qualify me to run for public office in this campaign season, treating someone I disagreed with that way actually was an act of stupidity on my part. So let me put it this way: When TMAO says that any failure is the teacher's failure, I completely disagree. I think such statements are wrong, and I think they are harmful.

There is no question that teachers are very important in the education of any student, but they are not the only ones who play a role. Parents play a role, society plays a role, and so do the student's neighborhood and his friends. But the person who plays the most important role in any student's learning is the student himself (or herself).

I disagree with TMAO, so I'm tempted to accuse him of arrogance when he claims that teachers have so much power, but that would be dishonest. I suspect that his statement actually reflects the positive attitude of a teacher who probably works very hard. TMAO wants his kids to learn, and he is unwilling to accept any excuses--poverty, upbringing, bad neighborhoods, etc.-- for their not learning, and he is willing to take total responsibility for making that happen. Who can criticize him for that? But it is harmful to excuse parents and society from their responsibilities in the education of our students, and it is harmful to lead anymore of the public to believe that anytime students don't learn it is the school's fault.

The problem with TMAO's theory is that in order for it to be true, we would have to be able to MAKE students learn. We can't do that. We can try to make it possible for every student to learn (and even that isn't easy), we can encourage, and we can motivate. But we can't MAKE any student learn. There has to be some willingness to do that by the student himself, and sometimes that willingness just isn't there.

Part of our different beliefs on this might come from our different perspectives. TMAO works with special education and ELL middle school kids, and if I understand correctly, he has about sixty of them. I have 150 high school kids every day. Believe me, I am not implying that I have a tougher job than TMAO, but because of the numbers and the grade level of his students, I can see where he might feel more able to reach all of his students than I do.

At the high school level, no matter what teachers do, student learning requires that they do some work. I don't think I am alone when I say that every year there are some of my students who simply won't work. This probably becomes most evident at the high school level where more of that work has to be done outside of class, but I suspect that it is true to some degree at every level.

If I understand him correctly, TMAO is saying that it is entirely the teacher's fault anytime a student doesn't learn. Let's follow that thought to its logical conclusion. That must mean that it is entirely to the teacher's credit anytime a student does learn and succeeds. I think that's a ridiculous idea. Our school has former students who are now doctors and lawyers, and one of our students a few years ago earned a perfect score on her SAT. Although our school deserves some credit for providing those young people with opportunities, there is no question that most of the credit for their success belongs to them. They are the ones who did the countless hours of work and made the sacrifices necessary to acqure the learning that enabled them to do so well. And just as they deserve most of the credit for their own success, those who did not do nearly as well as they could have in school deserve most of the blame for their own failures.

If TMAO is saying that teachers should not lower expectations for students simply because they face difficult circumstances in their lives, I agree. If he's saying we should work as hard as we can to reach every student we have, I agree again. But he seems to be saying that teachers have the power to do it all by themselves, and that I totally disagree with. I know that I need a lot of help in educating my students. I'm reaching a lot of my students now, but there are still too many that I'm not getting to. If I'm going to reach more of them, I could use more help from our society, I need more help from their parents, I absolutely have to have more help from those kids who seem so unwilling to help themselves.


Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

GAH! I think this year is starting to get to me...but I'm beginning to agree with you. There are those students who simply won't learn. No, let me rephrase that: they may learn, but they refuse to allow themselves to succeed. And that in no way, shape or form can be blamed on the teacher.
We can work ourselves ragged, but until the student wants to do well, there's not a whole lot we can do. We can poke and prod and encourage...but when they choose to do poorly, it's their fault, not ours.

10/02/2006 5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Dennis. At some point, students must take some responsibility for their own learning. If a student is refusing to do the work, I'll do my best to find out why and fix it if I can. But if the refusals continue and I've done what I can do for that student...Well he or she is making a choice and I can't be held responsible for that.

I take a lot of responsibility for my teaching. I will absolutely bend over backwards for any student who comes to school and wants to learn. Some years I'm more successful than others. I expect a lot of my students and do my best to give them the help they need to achieve them. I cannot help those who do not help themselves or at the very least, allow me to help them help themselves.

10/02/2006 6:32 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, this would be a much more compelling argument if it weren't for the inconvenient fact that most student failure can be traced back to elementary school when the students could be bent to the teacher's will much more easily. The result is that these kids lack critical foundation skills that turn them into unwilling students by the time they reach you.

If you want to get a little taste of this phenomenon, go audit a graduate level class in, say, advanced physics or mathematics or any class in which you lack the critical foundation skills, and let us know what your motivation or willingness to learn is by week 14.

In fact, it's easy to turn every one of your highly motivated students into unmotivated behaviorial problems. Just inflict on them the same sort of ineffective instruction that's been inflicted on the lower performers. From Engelmann:

The information these teachers receive about low performers is that they do not retain information, that they need lots and lots of practice, and that they don’t seem to have strategies for learning new material. Ironically, however, all these outcomes are predictable for students who receive the kind of instruction these students have received. High performers receiving instruction of the same relative difficulty or unfamiliarity would perform the same way. Let’s say the lower performers typically have a first-time-correct percentage of 40%. If higher performers were placed in material that resulted in a 40% first-time-correct performance, their behavior would be like that of lower performers. They would fail to retain the material, rely on the teacher for help, not exhibit selfconfidence, and continue to make the same sorts of mistakes again.

10/03/2006 6:06 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

The conclusion you reached is one that I find maddening - to some extent, in my school district, it is the teacher's responsibility if the student does poorly, but all the credit goes to the student when he/she succeeds. This seems to me to be a logical inconsistency. If, as you point out, teachers are to be held responsible for student failure, then the teacher should also get the credit for student success. Both of those positions are equally absurd.

10/03/2006 7:09 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

but all the credit goes to the student when he/she succeeds.

Strawman. Students' academic success is credited to the student for learning and to the teacher for successfully teaching the student. Schools take their appropriate credit for academic success all the time when they tout how well their students are performing.

10/03/2006 7:52 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

kderosa, until you have been in my classroom working under my administration, you have no basis for commenting on the atmosphere of my school district. Believe me, we do not celebrate the accomplishments of teachers whose students succeed, but we are certainly held accountable for the ones who do not.

10/03/2006 12:36 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Oops. Didn't see the "in my district" qualifier.

10/03/2006 12:55 PM  
Blogger rory said...

While an individual teacher might not be responsible for a particular students failure, teachers (and the whole education system) as a profession (and institution) are responsible for the failure. (there might be certain exceptions in extreme cases, but these cases would be very rare)

Are teachers leaders? A good leader accept responsibility for the failures of their followers, and gives their followers credit for any success.

10/03/2006 6:14 PM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

I have numerous strategies at my beck and call to employ with students who will not comply with my learning dance but there are those who after strategy 452 simply won't dance.

It is hard to teach a child as he is throwing a chair at you or slapping another kid up side the head.

It is hard to teach a child whose "daddy" threw the family out in the yard at 5 a.m. and mom had to dress everyone in the street.

I'm not whining....I'm just stating the facts. We face huge obstacles everyday of every school year...and it's getting worse as time marches on. The moral malaise of society does creep in.

The levels of apathy alarm me in elementary schools. The "I'm only going to do just enough to get by" mentality" starts early folks. It doesn't suddenly appear in middle and high. This usually takes root at home and appears in numerous conferences where I justify why the test is "that" hard, why a particular assignment "has" to be done, and why I can't make it easier for "thier" kid.

Rory, not every parent is like you. During my teaching career I can't tell you how many times I have met with parents who want me to dumb down their kids work....and I'm not talking homework....I'm talking regular classwork.

While I do feel the buck stops with me regarding my student's performance it does take two to dance. If my partner isn't dancing then I'm simply dragging them along. Folks, I'm simply not that strong.

10/03/2006 7:33 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

But bear in mind that it doesn't take much academic failure for kids to lose motivation. Failure to learn how to read is the primary culprit and thhat usually takes place in first grade. We shouldn't be surprised when these same kids are disengaged by the fourth grade.

The range I've read is 1%-3% of students will pose behavioral problems even with good instruction. Add another percent or two for kids with cognitive disabilities. If on average more than this many students aren't learning, it's time to look at what's being taught.

10/03/2006 9:08 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

Oops. Didn't see the "in my district" qualifier.
Fair enough.

If an outlier 5% of students are "allowed" to not learn, that's about 1 out of every class of 30. I'm not sure where you found your statistics, but it has been my experience that my departmental average is about 2-5 failures per section. The administration starts getting antsy if the failure rate is close to 10. But none of this takes into account the homes the students come from, whether they eat breakfast before coming to school, etc.

I'm disappointed every time a student fails my course, but it is the student who fails.

10/04/2006 8:55 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

See for ex. School-Wide Positive Behavioral Support: A Continuum of Proactive Strategies for All Students which pegs the percentage of students that need intense behavioral intervention. Doesn't mean that these kids can't learn, but that they will most likely need a combination or effective teaching and behavioral management which most schools do not know how to provide.

I'm disappointed every time a student fails my course, but it is the student who fails.

Is it? How many of those students had the necessary skills to succeed in the class in the first place?

10/04/2006 9:58 AM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Kdrosa, I'm actually hoping/praying that with NCLB, standards implementation, and more accountability teachers in the lower grades will be "encouraged" to make sure more and more students reach me with the skills they need. On the average I have 1 -2 that are extremely low, and 4-5 that are behind but can be caught up. It's a real job since our content in social studies and science broadens like the Mississippi in fourth grade. I am encouraged since those low numbers were even greater when I began teaching.

10/04/2006 2:03 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

What I don't understand is why we even need NCLB to avoid this situation in the first place.

10/04/2006 4:04 PM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

I know....(heavy sigh)

10/04/2006 5:53 PM  
Blogger jettybetty said...

I primarily think it's the parents that make the impact--don't get me wrong--I support great teachers--and believe they make a huge difference--especially to the child who's mom had to *dress them in the street at 5 am*--I just don't blame teachers when students don't learn--there's way too many variables to do such.

10/05/2006 9:53 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I want to respond to KDeRosa's first comment. His main point was that "most student failure can be traced back to elementary school when the students could be bent to the teacher's will much more easily. The result is that these kids lack critical foundation skills that turn them into unwilling students by the time they reach you."

I have to admit that a higher than average number of problem high school students have a history of low performance, but I don't think he realizes how often this isn't the case. Every year, I see some kids who do well whenever they decide to try, but their problem is that they don't decide to try often enough. It is also not unusual to see kids who have done very well in earlier grades, but at some point, decided school wasn't important, so they quit doing any work. Recently, I had one sophomore girl who was one of the brightest kids in her class, but she had begun dating a 23-year-old. Her parents were divorced, and she became an expert at playing one parent off against the other. School simply wasn't one of her priorities, and she managed to fail.

I can honestly say that I have set my class up in such a way so that even kids with below average reading skills can be successful. They'll have to work, and some of them do, but a lot of them never even give the class a chance. That's one of the reasons that I'm not at all sure that their low skill level is a result of low ability or poor teaching methods. Often, I think it's more a case that they never have tried very hard.

10/06/2006 5:23 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

but I don't think he realizes how often this isn't the case.

I do. It's called the peer effect. You will lose a few kids as they get older; however, most school failure can be traced back to the low and marginal performers. With the rampant grade inflation we have today, there's no guarantee that C or low B students know what they need to know to succeed in the upper grades.

10/07/2006 3:47 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Just saw this.

In my school, we fight a battle to defy the myth that demographics are destiny, that low expectations are any other kind of bigotry except hard and crushing, that the so-called student achievement gap is anything other than an educator achievement gap. We fight against those who would push the ideology of "I teach the kids who want to learn," as if we did not create the conditions for that learning, or bear the responsibility for making it so.

I am a little arrogant. I'm also hard-working and okay at what I do, but that's all beside the point.

If I didn't believe that the question of whether or not Kid-A will be answered through my actions and inactions, if I did not believe that I am more powerful than the spector of poverty, the lure of cheap and easy lifestyle adoption, or the host of other teen-destroying factors, than I simply could not do this job. I could not accept a view of my work as so limited, so contingent, so f-ing wishy-washy.

So maybe it's rhetorical inflation designed to energize. Or maybe it's a fist-raised stance to try and shift the balance of accountability a few percentage points (up from like 6%) toward the teacher. Or maybe it's just me trying to bring some pride back into a profession and an undertaking that is all too willing to allow *children* to hold all the power, as we hurry about our daily tasks like a horde of contemptible butlers.

We may, in fact, not be the sole determiners of a child's learning. But what would happen, just what would happen, if we all just closed our eyes and PRETENDED that we were?

11/01/2006 10:27 PM  
Anonymous 2muchthought0time said...

OK... first, I am a parent and don't know about the everyday stressers a teacher goes through. But I would like to comment on the region I live in.. My son has been in 4 different schools over the course of 4 years.. and I'm talking elementary schools(hes in 2nd). Anyways, he was so proud to go to school and loved every part of it, until we had to move Dec. of kindergarten year, we went from an absoultely perfect school, the teacher was pneumonimally great and the school system as a whole was excellant. then we moved to a (what we thought) was a better school.. and omg were we wrong!!! this school system branded my son a trouble maker within the first week!! and the teacher was always punishing him, making him sit alone at lunch, sending home notes about him not be coperative, I mean she put him through the ringer.. they even called social services on me because I let him walk to school with a windbreaker on in October!(upstate NY isnt that bad in Oct.) When I went in for conferences (alot) the only thing that was accomplished was me hating her as much as my son did.. there was no communication at all. then we ended up moving again, to all our relief, and we have been here for going on 3 years.. my son has taken a "beating"from that old school and since being diagnosed with ADHD, this school has done everything to win back his spirits and help him realize how important he and his schooling it.. so to sum it up.. public school TEACHERS have a tougher job that any other and I firmly believe communication on the part of both parties is key to success in school and teachers are there to "teach" not babysit ur childs behavior.. they can give advice about a student.. but cant mold their day around him/her.
one more note.. when we moved.. it was only withing a 15 min drive from school to school.. go figure on how some teachers in the same county need to be "spanked" with a ruler themselves!

6/14/2007 6:27 AM  

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