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Teacher Responsibility for Student Learning: What is Our Share?

By Anthony Cody — February 28, 2010 4 min read
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This week I am facilitating a dialogue with a colleague involved in education philanthropy, who responded critically to my recent post, Competition Can’t Beat Collaboration.

My colleague wrote:

So, my question to you would be, how could only 80% agree with that statement? [that teachers share responsibility for student achievement] Everyone knows that the key ingredient in a student's education is the teacher. I would argue that it's the most important ingredient and I know of many studies that would prove this point. Do 20% of teachers really think they don't even "share" responsibility for all students?

My response:
I agree with your thrust here, though commenter Borealis led us to inquire further, and we discovered that actually what we have is 80% who “strongly agree” that teachers share responsibility, and another 16% who “somewhat agree” with this statement. So we are apparently actually only dealing with 4% of teachers who deny responsibility at all, and that changes things a bit. That said, I think 
there are teachers who may not feel effective, for whatever reasons, and for them, it must be difficult to accept that their lack of effectiveness is their responsibility. And as some of the commenters have indicated, when teachers are handed a scripted curriculum and told to teach it with fidelity, this may undermine feelings of accountability as well.

My colleague added:

Unfortunately, one of the biggest issues I see in low-performing schools, especially in low-income areas, is one of low expectations for what students can achieve and a willingness to blame other issues: poverty, drugs, single-parent households, etc. There is no doubt that these issues make learning more challenging for students, but the best schools and the best teachers find ways to help kids learn, despite these challenges. I'm convinced that the only way to solve poverty is through education and we can't blame poverty for poor academic results of children. There are too many examples out there of successful schools working in high-poverty areas and those teachers are the reason I have hope for improved outcomes of disadvantaged kids.


Here is where I have some issues.
First of all, this is actually more complicated than it seems. I think that we have a real issue of fairness here, and I want to draw out these issues, because I think NCLB has taken one reasonable assumption and drawn it out to an absurd degree.

Is the teacher the primary determinant of whether a child advances academically?

I have seen convincing research that shows that a highly effective teacher can make a big difference for children academically. So we clearly should be doing everything we can to make sure every teacher is as effective as possible. But I want to be very careful with the way we assign responsibility. In my years of teaching there were students I was not successful in reaching, for any number of reasons. I consider myself pretty “effective.” I was creative and thoughtful in my lessons and assessments. I gave students feedback. I called parents with good news and bad. I took my students on field trips, I spent thousands of my own dollars on materials and equipment for my classroom. But there were classes where I was less effective than others. There were times when I felt a bit overwhelmed by the challenges I faced, by the violence that seeped into the school, by the circumstances of children with parents in prison, repeating sixth grade at age 14, after having repeated second grade a few years earlier. You try calling that parent’s home, to find the child is living with an elderly grandmother, or in a group home, or doesn’t even have a working phone number.

There are times when this is absolutely overwhelming for the individual teacher, and to be told “you are responsible” for the success or failure of each of these students can be a burden that is simply too great to bear.

I did feel responsible, but there was a limit to what I felt I could do.
I had children of my own waiting for me at home, and a working wife. There are indeed schools that take on some of these responsibilities more systematically, and that is great. There are such schools in Oakland. I would point out, however, that many of these schools struggle to retain teachers, because the 12 hour days that this sort of effort requires of them is difficult to sustain, especially when they want to have families of their own. So we must temper the responsibility of the individual teacher with the collective responsibility of the school and community to respond to these crises, and with our society’s responsibility to care for those in poverty.

The fact that a teacher makes a difference cannot be extended to mean teachers alone are responsible for making up the difference between rich and poor in our society - and that is precisely what has happened with NCLB. Those in affluence have huge advantages, and they do not stand still when their privilege is threatened. Their advantages are guarded jealously. Their children are well fed, and get private tutors to help them with their studies. Students in poverty have huge disadvantages, and even effective teachers are not sufficient to bridge this gap - especially when the wealthy schools have excellent teachers, and stable schools, and do not have to rely on untrained interns.

All that said, I think we can agree that it is better for teachers to accept at least a share of responsibility for how well their students do. And then that brings us to the key question - how do we increase the proportion of teachers that feels strongly that this is true? I think the MetLife survey suggests that we can do this by increasing the amount of time teachers are given to collaborate. And to return to my original question, why is it that the current reform paradigm places so much emphasis on using competitive devices to get this result, when we can see that collaboration may actually be more effective?

What do you think? What does it mean to ask teachers to take responsibility for student achievement? How can we best build this spirit?

Next time: Why do so many oppose charter schools when they actually work?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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