Education Opinion

What About Student Accountability?

By Walt Gardner — September 01, 2014 2 min read
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The U.S. is the only country where teachers alone are held accountable for learning (“Imagining Successful Schools,” The New York Times, Aug. 30). Other countries whose schools are known for their quality hold students accountable.

There are those who argue that it’s the job of teachers to teach. Therefore, if students are not learning, it’s because teachers are not effectively teaching. I understand the point they are trying to make. But education is a two-way street between teachers and students. Placing the entire blame on teachers is unfair. That’s why Japan and South Korea refuse to adopt our policy. It’s one reason that their students outperform ours on tests of international competition. In fact, when teachers from these countries come here to teach on exchange programs, they are shocked by the difference in expectations.

When I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, teachers were told that they were to blame for the failure of students to learn. If teachers designed appropriate lessons, students would not fail. In other words, students had diplomatic immunity. This kind of thinking did a disservice to students because they were led to believe that they had no responsibility for what happened to them.

Toward the end of my career, I had many classes with students who had no interest whatsoever in anything academic. They were in school solely for social purposes. They knew that the law was on their side. It required them to be in school. As a result, they could do little or no work and still graduate.

High-stakes tests have only exacerbated the problem by making teachers vulnerable to punitive action, including dismissal. As I’ve written often before, Finland is far more enlightened. Standardized tests are administered each year to about 100 schools. The results are used exclusively for diagnostic purposes, and the results are never made public.

This strategy is a fair and productive way of determining both weaknesses and strenghts in teaching and learning. It’s little wonder that teacher morale is so high in Finland. Teachers feel respected and supported, rather than demeaned and undermined, as in the U.S.

If schools are to improve here, it’s time to disabuse ourselves of the notion that teachers are miracle workers. They can prepare lessons that reflect all the principles of effective instruction and yet still get anemic results because their students are not upholding their end of the partnership.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.