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Who's Responsible for This, Anyway?

I taught in a middle school for almost 30 years. The last year I was there, I ended up teaching a class called Enrichment, which was code for Kids Who Are Falling Behind. The students in my class were compelled to give up one of their elective courses, and were placed in Enrichment in order to "catch up." The theory was that once all the uncompleted assignments were done, the student could return to gym class, happily part of the educational pack once again.

Why I ended up teaching Enrichment is a long story that usually requires an adult beverage--but suffice it to say, what I was doing in Enrichment didn't have much to do with expert instruction. It was about compliance, an adult standing over kids who were chronic homework avoiders, dangling the lackluster carrot of that elective class while breathing severely down their necks. The goal was never about mastering content. It was about filling in empty boxes in the grading program.

There were a handful of kids in the class who were genuinely struggling with the content and assignments. I was actually teaching them--sort of. They'd been avoiding homework because they didn't get it, and sometimes I was able--experimenting with different pathways to learning--to shed some light on required concepts and skills. They never caught up, however. They would go to math class and spend 50 minutes being confused, then come to Enrichment and do leftover homework using skills their classmates had tackled six weeks ago. It was hardly an efficient way to learn.

The majority of kids in the class simply didn't like doing homework. Many of them had been placed in Enrichment by their parents after getting a bad grade (with "bad grade" being a relative notion--for some parents, the first C was evidence that it was time to crack down). Like many schools, we used an online grading program, which allowed parents to track their child's work output and marks on a daily basis. Completing homework and maintaining acceptable grades became a cat and mouse game between anxious mom and manipulative 7th grader.

My Enrichment kids developed considerable expertise at being just far enough "behind" to stay in the class. I eventually began to see how much some of them enjoyed an hour during the day to read (one boy completed the Lord of the Rings series over two semesters), use the computer--or do work they enjoyed, in subjects where they were "caught up." When I tried to send one boy who had no uncompleted assignments back to his elective class, his mother insisted that he stay in Enrichment--to "teach him some responsibility."

What we were doing was exactly the opposite, of course. As Teacher Tom notes, in his wonderful blog about teaching pre-school:

Parents often talk about wanting to teach their kids to be responsible, then go about it by trying to boss them into it, picking for them those things for which we think they ought to feel responsible (e.g., "Clean up your room" "Make your bed."). But this mostly just teaches obedience, which does nothing to further the kind of responsibility we want children to take on. The problem is that it's almost impossible to feel responsible for things that one sees as unimportant. We might clean our room, but if we're taking responsibility for anything it's for keeping mom happy (which is not the same thing), even if we're not just doing it to avoid punishment.

One of the by-products of the accountability movement and high-tech data management tools--like on-line grade-books--is the elevation of filling in boxes over actual learning. The grade, the test score, the completed assignments--all manifestations of obedience--become the target.

And paradoxically, by putting the focus on things we can control, we are subtly demonstrating to our children that they're not really responsible, at all.

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