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Student Responsibility for Learning

The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that places virtually all the burden for learning on the shoulders of teachers. This notion is alien to teachers in most countries that are our competitors in the new global economy. Yet it gets scant attention from reformers.

I was reminded of this by a front-page story in the New York Times on May 9 ("Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America"). The reporter focused on the experience of a young Chinese teacher who is teaching her native language to students in Lawton, Oklahoma. The woman is one of about 325 guest teachers from China who have vounteered to teach for at least three years in American schools.

The most telling part of the article was the teacher's comment about responsibility for learning. "In China, if you teach the students and they don't get it, that's their problem. Here if they don't get it, you teach it again." There's actually more to the matter than she explained. Under the changes being made in schools across the country, if students don't "get it" based on their performance on standardized tests, teachers can eventually be fired.

Colorado serves as the most recent evidence of the penalty. Lawmakers there just passed landmark legislation calling for teachers to be evaluated every year, with their students' academic progress counting for half their overall rating. Teachers would need three consecutive years of positive evaluations to earn tenure. Those rated ineffective two years running would be stripped of tenure and revert to probationary status.

This policy would be unthinkable in China. It would also likely be rejected out of hand in other Asian countries that regularly outperform the U.S. on tests of international competition. (China does not yet participate in these tests.) As the Chinese teacher observed, teachers in America get little respect. In China, teaching is an honorable career.

It's important to keep in mind that even the best teachers cannot be effective if the students they happen to inherit don't want to learn. Before Evan Hunter gained fame as author of The Blackboard Jungle, he taught for a while in a New York City public school. Many years later when he was asked in an interview why he quit, he replied: "I was trying, but they weren't buying." Should teachers who work in schools with hard-to-teach students be held totally accountable? What about the responsibility of students and their parents in the learning process? Isn't learning a partnership?

Nothing I've said above is intended to protect teachers who lack the requisite knowledge and skills. They have no business being in front of a class. There are some incompetent teachers who use the easy excuse that their consistent failure to effectively instruct their students is the fault of their students. This is a transparent rationalization. But I'll bet that after these teachers are finally identified and fired, the problem of balancing responsibility for learning won't go away. It's largely an American phenomenon.

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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.

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