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The Third Rail of the Accountability Movement

Whenever the subject of failing schools arises, the usual suspects are rounded up. I don't doubt for a second that teachers should be at the head of the list. After all, they are the most important in-school factor in learning. But what about students? Aren't they also responsible for their education?

I thought about this once again after reading Will Fitzhugh's "The End of Failure" (The Concord Review, Jan. 18). As he wrote: "We like to think of a student in our schools as if under anesthesia on a classroom operating table, being operated on by our surgeon-teachers who are wholly responsible for the success or failure of the operation." Notice the adverb "wholly" in the metaphor. It totally absolves students. Yet teachers know that no matter how much time, thought and energy they put into their lesson plans, they will not be successful unless students are willing to do the same.

Unfortunately, reformers avoid the issue because they know it is political suicide. Yet if we continue along the same path, public schools in this country will never be able to compete with those abroad. I'm not making excuses for incompetent teachers. They do exist. Therefore, they need to be identified early in their careers, given an opportunity to improve in a reasonable period of time and be promptly removed from the classroom if they can't. Instead, I'm talking about good teachers in schools where students refuse to do the work assigned to them because they believe they are entitled to a passing grade regardless of their record.

These students are not found only in inner-city schools. Suburban schools are just as likely to enroll them. One recent variation on the entitlement theme was the SAT scandal involving students in the affluent community of Great Neck, N.Y. ("20 Students Now Accused in L.I. Case on Cheating," The New York Times, Nov. 22, 2011). Their privileged backgrounds convinced them that paying a former graduate to impersonate them was acceptable. In a way, therefore, their actions were predictable because they have never been held accountable.

If the problem were limited to schools alone, it would be troubling enough. But attitudes do not disappear when students graduate. They bring them to the workplace. What happens too often is a belated and rude awakening to reality. There will always be mitigating factors, but sooner or later former students will find out they are ultimately responsible for their success or failure. It's a hard lesson that they should have learned in school.

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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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