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Blaming Teachers When Students Don't Learn

Have teachers taught if students haven't learned? That's not a question from Philosophy 101. It's at the heart of the debate over educational reform. The reflexive answer is no. At least that's what most people believe. In their minds, teachers are not doing their job if they can't produce quantifiable results.

There is much truth to this position. Sound pedagogy involves setting clear goals and then providing students with the opportunity to practice the specific skills and develop the stipulated knowledge. However, this view places total responsibility on teachers. As Will Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review wrote: It assumes students are merely "passive recipients of their teachers' influence."

But what about the responsibility of students? For example, if teachers assign reading that they deem essential for achieving a particular objective the next day but students don't do the assignment, then why are teachers to blame when students do not learn? This is a common occurrence that is given short shrift by reformers.

Helping teachers overcome student resistance can sometimes be accomplished when they are given time to collaborate ("Teacher Collaboration Gives Schools Better Results," Miller-McCune, Sept/Oct). The concept is often called professional learning communities. It's built on the belief that sharing what works is invaluable. Schools in Finland, South Korea and Shanghai have used this approach to great advantage.

The goal is to enable teachers to better understand their students and make appropriate adjustments. I agree that this ability is crucial for success in the classroom. However, even the best teachers cannot make students learn if they don't want to. This is not an excuse; it is an explanation. Non-public schools have the right to expel students who consistently fail to do the work assigned. But public schools can't.

As Fitzhugh put it: "The view that teachers are the prime movers is not just wrong, but stupid." He may be guilty of overstatement, but he is on the right track. Learning is a partnership between teachers, students - and parents.

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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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