Who is Responsible for Student Achievement?



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.


We’re saying teachers are responsible for that grade.


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.


As long as I am exhibiting best practices, giving age-appropriate work and evaluating it fairly, I’m doing my part.


It is not then justified to assume I am solely responsible for the end result.


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.?


The myth of teacher accountability is what stops such resources from being sent.


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.

33 thoughts on “Who is Responsible for Student Achievement?

  1. Blaming teachers for what students learn or don’t learn is a return to the era of whipping boys during the monarchies of the early modern period in England.

    “Whipping boys were created to satisfy the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, which states that God appoints the monarchy and that the prince would be an extension upon that lineage, thus no one but the king would be worthy of punishing the prince.”

    In the era of market-based everything and greed is the new god, teachers are the new whipping boys but their purpose is to serve the god of greed that wealthy psychopaths and malignant narcissists like serial lying, Fake President Donald Trump worship above all else.

    If a student doesn’t cooperate in class and refuses to do the work that’s needed to learn, blame the teachers.

    If a child is born into a home where the parents do not read books, magazines, and newspaper and this causes the child to be behind and continue to fall behind after starting school, blame the teachers.

    If a child is raped and/or beaten by his/her parents/guardians and the child starts school with a serious case of PTSD and is easily angered and driven to rage, blame the teachers.

    This list could go on for a long time because back in the 1980s, I heard a new principal tell his teachers this with a flip chart.

    If a child misbehaves, it is the teacher’s fault, he said and then pointed at the poster sized flip chart where he had it written.

    > He went on <

    If a child fails your class, it is your fault.

    If a child doesn't like to read, it is your fault.

    If a child doesn't do the classwork, it is your fault.

    If you can't control a child, it is your fault.

    If a child doesn't do the homework, it is your fault.

    I listened to that feeling shocked, numb, and then the anger came like a Tsunami and if looks could kill, he would have exploded. He must have sensed it because he got nervous and quickly wrapped up that staff meeting and as he left said over his shoulder. "Don't ask the office for help. I have a closed door policy. If you can't deal with the challenges, then it is your fault."


  2. Let me start by saying, I agree with you, and thank you for such great blog posts!

    One of the most concerning things is WHO is defining “achievement” and what exactly IS it? i think parents and teachers alike have been duped by new ownership of the meaning of words–not one single parent I know would define excellence or achievement solely based on their kiddos test scores.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In addition to the issue raised above about what is “student achievement” (it’s hugely problematic to equate that with test scores), I have to argue with you that the student controls it. I agree completely that the teacher doesn’t, but I think you’re wildly overestimating the amount of control students have too. The tests are designed such that they invariably sort kids by socioeconomic status. If kids had control over their test scores, there wouldn’t necessarily be any reason why those scores would consistently line up with socioeconomic factors. Poor black kids certainly can (and do) do their assignments and work hard in school and take the tests seriously just like rich white kids do. Nevertheless, poor black kids consistently score significantly lower than rich white kids. The problem with the tests isn’t just that teachers don’t have control, it’s that only the testing companies have control – kids have already been sorted and stack-ranked the day they were born.


    • I agree, Dienne. I don’t mean to imply that high stakes standardized tests are fair. They are terrible assessments for many of the reasons you mention. However, even under the best of circumstances, it would not be the teacher who was responsible for the results. It would be the student. That’s all I was trying to say.


  4. It seems to me that if teachers have little influence on student learning, the emphasis placed on having highly qualified experienced teachers in classrooms is misplaced. They money and resources spent on graduate degrees for classroom teachers, for example, would be better used in teaching parents better skills. After all, it does not take a doctorate to exhibit best practices, give age appropriate work and evaluate it fairly.


    • You are the king of the slippery slope, Teaching Economist. Apparently, if teachers aren’t responsible for EVERYTHING, they’re responsible for NOTHING! Best practices, fair evaluation and age appropriateness are quite complex.


      • Lloyd,

        Teacher training is key to what? Steven argues that the primary responsibility is on the student, with additional responsibility placed on the principal of the school, the parents, the peers, and society as a whole. Why is the teacher more important than the parent?


      • Teachers with more training and support have more methods and tools to reach challenging children. They know what they are walking into.

        Training in depth with follow up support has been proven to work in more than one country – but not the U.S. where teachers are lucky to even get a few hours of lectures before they end up in a classroom and receive the blame for every failure caused by the top down that started with the Prince of Darkness in the 1980s.

        In France, teachers in the national pre-school program must earn a masters degree in that field and have a full year of in-class training in a master teacher’s classroom with that teacher’s students. France did not turn their pre-school over to the private sector’s part time amateurs so the corporation could make a profit at the expense of a child’s education.

        The more training and support teachers have, the better chance they are ready to deal with all the challenges that walk in their classroom.

        The teacher teaches.
        The children learn.
        The parents/guardians support.

        But children all do not learn the same, and that’s where the teacher training comes in.

        It takes a village to teach a child. We can’t let the child learn all by themselves. Education is a partnership between the teachers, the children, and the parents/guardians, but the greed-is-great based corporate assault on public education has fractured that partnership so it is eroding and falling apart.

        I think you have no concept or idea of how challenging it is to teach children that come from all walks of life – from living in poverty to wealth. Children do not arrive all eager to learn. Children do not arrive with all the same motivation and abilities to learn.

        It takes a highly trained and supported professional to deal with all those challenges.


  5. Former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson won eleven NBA championships, the most in NBA history. He won six titles with the Chicago Bulls and five titles with the Lakers, and is the only coach who has won multiple championships with more than one team.
    Phil’s heir apparent, Tim Floyd, owns the worst record, 90-231, in NBA history.
    How could the same team go from the best record to the worst? Was Phil’s coaching ability that much superior to Tim’s? Doubtful, since Tim had been coaching college teams for 20+ years and had an impressive record, impressive enough for the Bulls to hire him. But in the 1998-99 lockout season, the players of the Bulls championship teams retired or left, leaving the equivalent of a young expansion team (Bye bye Michael, Scottie and Dennis.) And everyone in Chicago blamed Tim for the disaster. Sound familiar?
    Give an average teacher a high school class room full of MJs, SPs and DRs and they’ll be on the cover of Time as the greatest teacher of the year. Give that same teacher a classroom full of unmotivated, disinterested delinquents and they’ll be luck to be employed the next year.
    We need to define the standards by with we judge teachers. Applying the same standards to every teacher in every situation is ludicrous; such as a national standardized test.
    Bottom Line: We don’t need better teachers, we need better students.


  6. As a retired teacher who taught in middle school and adults in various subject areas over 40 years, I found the changes in our society and in the educational policies have more to do with the failure of our students than teachers. The “policy makers” had to have someone to point fingers at when schools or students were classified as “failing” according to the results of tests. So much of this is political. So very sad and wrong for the students………and of course the teachers. Students are responsible for their own achievement. Unfortunately, the buck is being passed.


  7. […]   -Take notes on individuals criticizing or opting out of testing with the purpose of punishing them for their dissent. This is a democratic process and you will welcome discussion, criticism and dissent.   -Use the bubbles in the answer booklet for anything at all. In fact, throw them away. It’s 2019. Surely we can find a better way to assess children than multiple choice questions answered by fillin…! […]


  8. […]  I don’t love the disrespect – sometimes in the classroom but often outside of it. I don’t love being told I’m not man enough, not woman enough, too black, too brown, not black enough, not brown enough, not bilingual, not poor enough, too poor, too selfish, too selfless, too anything and everything. I don’t love being blamed for all the evils of society while having none of the power to change anything.  […]


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