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Students' Role in Learning

Public school teachers are damned if they do and damned if they don't.  When teachers try to uphold standards, their students often do not meet them ("Obama's Homework Assignment," The New York Times, Jan. 19).  Then principals and parents accuse them of ineffectiveness.  On the other hand, if teachers dumb down their instruction to ensure that no one fails, they are blamed for depriving students of a world-class education.

So which is it?  Actually, there is some truth to both claims. I'll begin with the easy one first. Today's accountability movement has focused almost exclusively on the responsibility of teachers in the learning process.  Responding to the importance of setting high expectations, school districts often go to an extreme, invariably resulting in a disturbing percentage of failures.  (I dealt with this issue on Feb. 3 in "Algebra Is Today's Bête Noire.") When this happens, teachers are immediately put on the defensive.  If they possessed expertise, critics maintain, all their students would pass. 

But then the opposite can also happen. Fearing for their jobs, teachers  refuse to hand out failing grades.  I can't blame them for doing this because few teachers can stand up to the pressure exerted by principals and parents.  At the same time, however, they feel guilty knowing that passing underperforming students shortchanges them in the long run.

To put the issue differently: "No goal can simultaneously be challenging to and achievable by all students across the entire achievement distribution.  A standard can either be a minimal standard which presents no challenge to typical and advanced students, or it can be a challenging standard which is unachievable by most below-average students" (" 'Proficiency for All' - An Oxymoron," Economic Policy Institute, 2006). 

What's the solution?  I've always believed that learning is a partnership between teachers, parents and students.  If any one of them is derelict, the entire process is fatally undermined.  Unfortunately, student responsibility is given short shrift.  When I was teaching, I saw how changes in attitudes toward school affected what transpired in my classes.  As one teacher correctly explained: "I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them.  I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time."

However, there is one mitigating factor in student responsibility.  As the childhood poverty rate has climbed in the U.S., conditions outside of school have deteriorated. When low-income students return to their homes and neighborhoods, they don't have the advantages their classmates enjoy in the form of a quiet room to study, a nutritious dinner and a safe place to sleep.  Expecting them to do their homework and turn in their assignments on time is untenable. That's important to keep in mind in the ongoing debate.

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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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