The current conversation about successful schools and optimal learning is one-sided. Why does student achievement lag so far behind our expectations? If we listen to school boards, politicians, government officials, newspaper columnists, and others, we hear strong opinions on what schools and teachers need to do better. But we seldom hear from perhaps the most important group, one that has yet to be seriously challenged to take part in the debate: students themselves.
How is this possible? Not long ago, I was on hand when a county school official, while meeting with students, was asked whether the district could provide an alternative to the required state exams for students who can’t pass them by the end of their senior year. In their eyes, the exams were an unfair barrier to graduation.
The official explained that there was not a good alternative to the tests but that administrators and teachers had an obligation to ensure that every student was prepared for them.
No one could disagree with that. And yet, by framing the answer this way, the school official avoided what I see as a necessary part of the conversation: Are teachers solely in charge of learning? What happened to student responsibility? A better response might have been to ask the students why they believed they couldn’t pass the state exams. In my home state of Florida, a high schooler has at least five or six tries, often preceded by intensive coaching. Why would students not be able to pass tests for which their schools had specifically tailored the curriculum, with required material taught and retaught?
This imbalance in the conversation about learning is a critical problem because we are not asking our students—particularly those in high school—to do their part. We are not insisting that they be accountable for the lessons we teach, the guidance we offer, or the assignments we carefully design. At this important developmental stage, adolescents need not only to succeed but also to solidify their emerging adult selves. Taking responsibility is part of that.
Until recently, I taught at a high school with a D rating. More than half of its 2,000-plus students read below grade level. The school introduced several initiatives, one of which stressed independent, self-chosen reading. The library added more than 1,400 high-interest titles to the standard collection, at reading levels ranging from 4th to 12th grades. Students could select two books to read during each quarter, after which they took a three-minute, computerized, short-answer quiz. While not intellectually demanding, the quizzes helped verify that students actually had read the books.
To earn credit, they needed to pass the quiz with a grade of 70 percent. They had three tries per book to pass. Yet typically 40 percent or more of the students did not bother to read the books or attempt the quizzes. Some, taking the easy way out, got their friends to log on to the computer and take the quiz for them. Others randomly surfed through the quiz book titles, hoping to find one they’d heard about. Only a modest percentage of any class that used this program successfully managed to read their books.
The story was similar on other fronts. I tracked the completion rates for course assignments for the previous five years. These included guided written assignments completed in the classroom as well as homework and test responses that required paragraph-length rather than multiple-choice answers. A sizable percentage of students in this underperforming school, I found, consistently turned in nothing. In effect, they lacked the motivation to do academic work, whether inside or outside the classroom.
More than two decades ago, John Goodlad’s research on public schools demonstrated that many high school students function only at the compliance level. Little has changed since then. Teenagers routinely attempt to sleep in class, turning hostile if the teacher requires them to stay awake. Passive-aggressive, some students ignore assignments entirely. In a few core subjects required for graduation, a small percentage of kids must take the course twice, or even three times, not because they have learning disabilities or lack intelligence but because they have not learned how to motivate themselves.
When and where did students develop the idea that they are not personally responsible for the work they do? Yes, teachers need to address motivation in planning their lessons and orchestrating the classroom experience. And yes, students need assignments that match their capabilities and provide differentiated tasks. But not all learning is fun. Some of it, especially the development of higher-level thinking and other complex skills, requires hard work. Competence in reading, writing, and problem-solving builds on the acquired mastery of basics, the fundamentals that can only develop with student effort.
What sustains this effort? Through careful planning, good teachers construct lessons that build on students’ prior knowledge and interests. They search for connections that will spur curiosity and support the difficult processes leading to mastery. Good teachers work hard to help kids create and meet specific goals. But good teachers deserve good students— students who take learning seriously and are willing to put their time and talent into the mix.
Many students in underachieving schools like the one I worked at may not know how to be successful in school. Their past experiences or lack of socialization may leave them with little respect for organized, directed activity, which is what takes place in schools. But these and other students need to receive direct, explicit messages about their own effort and the role it plays in achievement. They need to know what their schools are doing to increase academic success and be willing to cooperate with these efforts. Providing direct guidance will help.
In my former school, for example, a bimonthly instructional period called Academic Homeroom gives students help with test preparation as well as with goal-setting and personal-assessment activities. In 2000, hardly a student on the campus knew his or her grade-point average. Many 11th graders couldn’t recall whether they had passed the mandatory writing assessment during their first attempt. Five years later, most of them are fully aware of what the state and the school expect and what their test scores are.
Other reforms can help build student motivation. The development of small learning communities in large schools, for example, will allow students with similar interests to learn together throughout high school rather than for just a year. My school’s finance center operates a fully functioning branch of a city credit union on campus, where both teachers and students can work compatibly in an exacting field.
Students also can learn how to engage in “accountable talk” during courses that stress classroom discussion. They can be taught to listen intensively and to recap others’ views before advancing their own. Other promising learning models, such as career academies, have existed for a long time. There clearly are sufficient interventions.
The next step is obvious: As a society, we must find ways to help students sort through the barrage of stimulation that competes for their attention and concentrate on the essential, age-appropriate tasks of growing and learning. We must help them individuate not by grasping at trends and styles but by educating themselves for a responsible future. My students often arrived at class overstimulated, undernourished, and sleep-deprived. How well were they disposed to learning?
Whether through intensive test prep, remedial classes, achievement awards, more- rigorous course expectations, or just sufficient time on task, the emphasis needs to shift toward students’ understanding of their own responsibilities. They must internalize the attitudes and strategies required to persevere in rigorous work.
Teachers, of course, cannot get this process started on their own. The task requires that we weave an unbroken determination into the whole fabric of society. When policymakers voice their support for high standards, they must then feel obligated to find ways to engage young people in this quest for excellence. School board members and district administrators need to walk the halls of their schools not once as a token visit but regularly. They should speak often to classes of students, asking them questions, engaging them in conversations about their academic work.
Principals need to conduct frequent “walk-throughs” not simply to monitor the work of teachers but to acquaint themselves with students, to know their names and the quality of their work. These activities, while promoted in some districts and schools, are not yet the norm. This must change.
Unless the national conversation about achievement includes frequent and direct communication with students, the goals and standards that policymakers set—and the proficient, successful generations of young adults we all hope for—may be long in coming.