Billy is an average middle school student.
He sits down and takes a test.
The grade comes back.
Who is responsible for that grade?
This should be the dumbest question you can ask in the field of education.
The answer should be obvious.
Billy is responsible.
Billy did the work, he took the test, he earned the grade.
But all across this great country of ours we’re giving the wrong answer.
This is ridiculous. Teachers could not do the work for the student. Teachers could not take the test for the student. How can you possibly assume the teacher is responsible for the grade?
In fact, if the teacher really were responsible – if she did all the work and took the test – how could you rationally say this grade belonged to the student? No, it wouldn’t be Billy’s, it would be his teacher’s.
The truth goes something like this: You are responsible only for things within your control. The greater your degree of control, the greater your degree of responsibility.
This is not complicated.
It is simple logic. Cause and effect.
But ignoring it is perhaps the most virulent, incorrigible, fact-resistant mistake in the entire field of public education.
Lawmakers are getting it wrong. The media is getting it wrong. Superintendents, principals – even teachers are getting it wrong.
And the reason is somewhat pernicious.
We’ve been sold a lie.
We’ve been told for so long that educators are responsible for their students’ work that we’ve begun to accept it without question.
Just today at a training in my district, I was shown a spreadsheet of student test scores and told in no uncertain terms that this was something I have control over.
I don’t have control over the raw scores. I don’t even have control over how much a student improves from one year to another.
The student does.
HE controls how hard he works on assignments. HE exhibits the most control over the results of his assessments.
This doesn’t mean I’m completely helpless.
I do have control over certain aspects of students’ academic experience.
I control what work is assigned, when it is assigned and to whom.
I control whether there is extra credit, what counts as homework, who gets extra help, etc.
In many cases, I even get to decide whether students have completed their work and if assessments have been completed successfully.
I raise the hurdles, but the student actually goes through the obstacle course.
The teacher is a factor, but not the largest one. That is the student, Billy.
Yet he is not alone here. Besides, me, his teacher, there is also the principal, the student’s parents, his friends and even society as a whole.
All of these and more contribute to student success.
The principal controls school policy. He determines what discipline the student receives, the clarity of school rules, etc.
Likewise, students’ friends are part of their social network. They can help with homework, form a study group, or distract from school work, denigrate work ethic, etc.
Society also plays a role. If a student is part of a community that values education and work ethic, that student will more likely put forth more effort. If the student lives in a community where school is seen as unimportant and teachers are not respected, that will have a negative impact, etc.
And the number one factor other than the student, himself, that contributes to his success is parents. They control home life, emotional support, tutoring, nutrition, etc.
All of these complex factors combine to add up to an individual student’s success. However, at the end of the day, it is the student, himself, that bears the brunt of the responsibility for what he does.
That’s why we call it HIS grade and not someone else’s.
This is the most obvious thing in the world, but it has certain consequences for education policy.
For instance, it immediately invalidates the majority of teacher evaluations given throughout the country. The reason? Most evaluations are based at least in part on student test scores.
As we’ve seen, this misrepresents the student-teacher relationship. It blames the teacher for things well beyond his or her control.
It turns students into passive objects acted on by magical super teachers who can somehow make them learn simply by – what – endless repetition of test prep materials?
Why would students put forth their best in this scenario? If they’re failing, it’s somehow not their fault. It’s their teachers!
But even worse than this misrepresentation, it completely ignores a plethora of vital factors in the education process.
Parents, for instance, are crucially important, but we’re leaving them completely out of the loop.
When parents struggle to fulfill their responsibilities, why is there little to no help? The answer: because we’ve hidden the fact that such responsibilities even exist. We’ve thrown it all on the teacher and the school.
All these out-of-school factors are obscured, yet taken together they are almost determinate. After all, this is why poor and minority students disproportionately struggle academically.
You can demand every student jump six feet straight up, but those with the best resources will meet this goal much more frequently than those without.
And who is in control of those resources? Who decides which children get the smallest class sizes, the best home environments, the most conducive social networks, etc.?
We’re told all you need is a good teacher.
But this is not true.
You need much more.
The ultimate responsibility may rest with the student, but until we all realize and acknowledge our collective responsibilities to all students, success will always be out of reach for far too many of them.
Billy may take the test, but it is society that is failing to meet its responsibilities.