It was good to hear President Barack Obama talk about education in his recent State of the Union address. If the United States is going to continue to compete and thrive in the global economy, there simply is no alternative but to improve student learning and achievement.
No doubt, even as the president’s words fade into memory, there will once again be great debate over how to accomplish the school improvements we need. After all, what are the policies and programs (the silver bullets) that will ensure kids across the country learn more and stay in school longer?
But there is perhaps an even more important question that fewer people will address: Who is responsible for making sure students achieve at a higher level?
I regularly conduct focus groups across the country on a broad range of education topics, with audiences ranging from teachers and parents to principals and administrators. Over the last few months, this question of “who” has come up more and more frequently, and these discussions have revealed a surprising agreement of sorts. Regardless of the audience, the answer in some way is universally: Not me.
Early in each focus group, the discussion turns to the basic idea of President Obama’s address—what we need to do to improve the quality of education. The responses vary widely: smaller class sizes, getting more resources to the classroom, improving teacher quality, greater parental involvement, less testing, more testing, and more technology in the schools.
But after each discussion of how to do it, there is never an answer for who should be responsible for making things better. Broaching this issue initially seemed like a straightforward follow-up question. However, I found respondents’ answers to be far more complex. In each focus group, people mentioned other groups, but not themselves.
• Parents, for instance, feel it is teachers and “the system” that need to fix things.
• Teachers want solutions from the central office, but also feel parents need to be doing more.
• And principals and administrators talk about greater expectations for teachers and also more parental engagement.
This really struck home one late night in Los Angeles.
The first group of the night was made up of teachers. When I asked who could do the most to improve student achievement, they immediately focused on parents. One teacher said: “I’d like to see the kids show up to school ready to learn. I don’t expect parents to do everything, but they need to instill in their children a love of learning. If the kid comes to school with a love of learning, then we can do our job.”
We need to accept that we are asking people throughout the education system to do more. But in many cases, these are people who feel they are already putting in extraordinary time and effort."
Two hours later in the same room, a parent was asked how student achievement could be improved: “Teachers need to instill a love of learning in the students. If my daughter comes home excited about learning, it makes it so much easier for me to work with her on her homework and get her ready for the next day.”
So both the parents and the teachers see it as the other’s responsibility to instill a love of learning. At first it seemed like a classic example of people running from the problem. This isn’t my fault—they need to fix it.
But as the conversations continued, I realized there was a lot more to these responses. Parents, teachers, principals, and administrators all see this as their problem. They worry about it and try to address it every day (often one student at a time).
And they are exhausted and sometimes quite frustrated. They already feel the weight of this challenge.
In talking about what needed to change, each group expressed the feeling of being at the breaking point. It’s almost as if they were shouting to policymakers: You can’t put anything else on our plate. If change is going to come, it has to come from someone else. It’s not so much that they were blaming the other groups. Rather, they felt like they were doing all they could do—and often they felt like they were largely doing it by themselves.
This sense of exhaustion and frustration has consequences.
As we (hopefully) heed President Obama’s call, we need to accept that we are asking people throughout the education system to do more. But in many cases, these are people who feel they are already putting in extraordinary time and effort.
As policymakers, education wonks, education activists, and politicians once again tackle this question, they need to keep in mind this sense of frustration that those we depend upon to implement changes are feeling.
I am not suggesting we as a country ask them to do less. But the manner in which new ideas are presented to those on the education front lines is critical. There are ways to build support. And these people know (in an incredibly personal way) that things need to change. We can’t afford to alienate these crucial stakeholders from the first announcement if we want real changes that lead to better outcomes for students.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Improving Student Achievement: Whose Responsibility Is It?