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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 07/12/2010

Teacher accountability schemes let teens off the hook -- Willingham

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
Not long ago a student told me a story about taking the SAT. Students were to bring a photo I.D., and the girl in front of her in line had not brought one. When she was told that she couldn’t take the test without the i.d., she was incredulous. She literally did not believe that there would be a consequence for her forgetfulness. She assumed that there would be a Plan B for people like her. When it became clear that plan B was “go home and next time, bring your I.D.,” she was angry and scornful.

I see this attitude not infrequently in freshmen I teach. They are unaccustomed to the idea that they are fully responsible for their actions, at least in the academic arena.
In contrast, professors at most colleges very much think of students as 100% responsible for their own learning. Professors may not notice or care whether students come to class, study, or learn. Most professors figure that their job is to teach well. Whether the student learns or not is up to him or her.

This attitude may seem uncaring, but I believe it’s no different than the attitude 18-year olds would find in the military or in the workplace.

Setting aside the issue of whether college freshmen should carry 100% responsibility for their learning, consider this question. Given that that is the state of the world, what happens during K-12 education to prepare students for this responsibility?

It seems to me that almost nothing is done. But shouldn’t students become increasingly aware of this responsibility as they get older?

I can see telling a first grade teacher: “You can’t expect the kids to come to you. You’ve got to reach them.” But if we say the same thing to a high school teacher, we’re failing to teach students something important.

Yet all of the formulations of teacher accountability that use student performance data fail to take this factor into account. Student learning is used to evaluate high school teachers and lower elementary teachers in the same way. But if you believe that students should become more responsible for their learning as they age, shouldn’t teachers become less responsible?

I’m not discussing parental responsibilities here, but that doesn’t mean I think that they should be off the hook.

A quality we prize in adults is the ability to learn something from everyone. Being able to learn from different teachers is an important life skill, one that we should build into our students’ education. To my knowledge, it’s not done.

Naturally, the danger is that teachers will be only too glad for students to assume responsibility for their learning. My suggestion is predicated on a different model of teacher accountability, one in which teachers are accountable for teaching well. Students are responsible to do their part.

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 12, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  attitudes and students, daniel willingham, factors in student achievement, main factor in student achievement, teachers and student achievement, teenagers and behavior, who is responsible for student achievement  
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Comments

This hits the nail on the head. We have got to teach responsibility to our students. As they get older they must learn to accept responsibility for their learning. Without doing that they will not succeed in life.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 12, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Now some of this is just weird stuff.

On the high school level, indeed teachers should take keen notice whether or not some students are more or less inclined to ask for help and encourage the timid and such to ask for help when needed. This is a life lesson as well. Some children/teens may be reluctant to speak up due to the conditioning within the home environment. Hispanics, especially non-citizens or first generation, are less apt to ask for help as well.

"Most professors figure that their job is to teach well. Whether the student learns or not is up to him or her." So wrong on so many levels. Sure, the professor should teach well, but what is "well?" Check out Eric Mazur, physics professor at Harvard who once thought that he taught well. After adapting his teaching style, he realized that students learned much more efficiently.

one link about Mazur:
http://www.turning-talk.com/mazur/article-intro-jun09


Precision matters. Excellence in teaching matters. Student responsiblity matters. Great teachers can spur a desire for responsiblity in their students. They are all interconnected. Mastery is a must in some situations. Imagine a cardiologist (okay any specialist or GP)as a preceptor for a med student. The teaching and the learning must meet. Ditto for plenty of fields, including the military. Teachers/professors must adapt when necessary in order to maximize learning. It should be fluid.

Back to original point of accountability of teachers regarding the age of students. I see the situations as equally accountable. However, tying standardized test scores to teacher pay, etc. is NOT the way to go.

Posted by: shadwell1 | July 12, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I totally agree. A friend of mine teaches social studies in a Virginia public school and is very frustrated by the fact that she is responsible for her students' scores on the SOL, but by the time most students get to her classes (junior or senior year) they have already passed the required number of social studies SOL tests to get their regular or advanced diploma. The students have no incentive to try, since their SOL scores do not go into any records that matter to them (like transcripts to colleges or for jobs) there is no difference to the student if they study & try hard or simply show up on test day and write their name on the exam then put their head down on the desk.
I have been out of K-12 for several years, but anecdotal evidence from teachers I know, family members and friends' siblings/children still going through school there is a presumption that students will always have 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances from teachers and if that's not enough then parents will call the administration and blame the teacher somehow. No wonder so many first year college students drop out after one semester, no one is holding their hand anymore.
I don't know what the solution is, but perhaps giving students more responsibility during their middle school years (5th-8th) when they are old enough to keep track of assignments, pace themselves for daily and long-term assignments but young enough that mistakes like forgetting to study for a test or not properly following directions on a project won't hurt their high school transcripts. If you fail or simply get a lower grade than you are capable of on a 6th grade English test because you forgot to bring your book home or wrote the test date wrong in your assignment pad (are those even still required supplies?) then no one will ever know except the student, their parent and their teacher. I think waiting until high school to try to make kids responsible for themselves is way too late, parents (especially those in highly competitive affluent areas like DC metro area) are too focused on how their student will look on college applications to allow them to make mistakes that they can learn from.

Posted by: amk19 | July 12, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

If you mess up at your job, saying "the person who trained me did an inadequate job reaching out to get me interested in learning the material" isn't a reasonable excuse.

Too many kids learn in school that if it isn't interesting, then it isn't their fault that they don't want to learn it, so they shouldn't have to learn.

Posted by: someguy100 | July 12, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

@shadwell1

I agree with you. Teachers do have a responsibility to change/refine their teaching styles to be effective and they should be extra encouraging to students like the ones you mention or others.

I just think it shouldn't all be on the teacher or all on the students. The whole thing is interactive, as you say and if we are simply blaming teachers or blaming kids or parents we go nowhere.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 12, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Why can not educators be honest?

There are two types of public schools in this nation.

There is the affluent and middle class public schools where teachers are doing a good job since they deal with children that are prepared to enter public schools. Parents expect the teachers to do a good job and do not call a teacher lazy or incompetent if every child is not at the same level.

Then there are the Title 1 public schools where many children are totally unprepared for entering public schools. Here teachers are supposed to overcome all obstacles to teach children that have great difficulty in learning. Supposedly no child is left behind and it is totally the responsibility of teachers to make up for all of the problems of poverty and neglect. The reality is that the best teachers in the world can not overcome the problems of Title 1 public schools. No teacher can be effective in a class room where there are so many diverse levels of current skills, current abilities, and behavior.

56 percent of students in DC which predominantly Title 1 public schools failed 4th grade reading. Almost all of these students were simply passed onto the next grade. Imagine the problems a teacher in a class room in the 5th grade with 56 percent of students who failed 4th grade reading. Focus on these children and you create a problem with the 44 percent of students who have 4th grade reading skills. Prior to NCLB the teacher would focus on the students that can learn. Now the teacher is forced to foccus on the students that have great difficulty in learning.

Using teachers as a scapegoat for the problem may be effective for politicians but only makes the problem worse in Title 1 public schools.

It is time for educators to be honest and tell us that the politicians are wrong. Perhaps this will force the politicians to start dealing with the problems of Title 1 public schools instead of making matters worse.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 12, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

All of this seems terribly question-begging to me: What does it mean to "teach well"? The article seems to start from the premise that "teaching well" means simply providing the information covered in the course in a reasonably intelligible manner. This is, after all, what happens in college. But many college professors, frankly, are bad teachers; they hold their jobs because they do research and/or publish something influential. Teaching is only incidental to their jobs.

Part of teaching is being able to motivate students to succeed and to want to learn. Another part is figuring out what are the best ways to communicate the information so that it is actually likely to be learned. University professors rarely worry about these things; K-12 teachers should.

I'm also not clear as to why teacher accountability (through evaluation of student learning by test scores and other, richer measures) runs counter to teaching students the value of self-discipline and motivation. You can fail a student who fails to hand his work in on time (thus imparting an important lesson) while still working to ensure that ultimately that student learns what he is supposed to learn.

Posted by: Jessedavidam | July 12, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Secretary of Education To The Deans of education departments in colleges and universities.

Teach your students class management which is important in Title 1 public schools.
.........................................
Honest Deans of education departments to members of the faculty in the department.

Inform your students of the overwhelming difficulties of teaching in Title 1 public schools. Advise them that if they can not obtain a position in a affluent or middle class public schools that they would be better off to accept a lower paying position in a private school than a position in a Title 1 public school.

Do not too much spend much time on classroom management since this is only a requirement of schools where the administrators have no policies in place for effectively dealing with children who are totally unprepared to be in a class room.

Remember that your responsibility is to teach your students for a successful career in education and not an unsuccessful career in education.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 12, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

You can fail a student who fails to hand his work in on time (thus imparting an important lesson) while still working to ensure that ultimately that student learns what he is supposed to learn.

Posted by: Jessedavidam
..........................
Americans really have to get over the idea that education is something that is poured into children.

Take the same teachers that do well in affluent and middle class public schools and place them in Title 1 public schools and there will be no improvement.

One grows tired of this idea of education being poured into children. Education is not the same as training animals. Even in training animals by continuous repetitions there are many animals that can not be trained.

The responsibility of the teacher is to teach the material that is suitable for the average child, and not that every child learns what they are supposed to learn.

To a child that has difficulty in learning there is no such thing as "supposed to learn".

Education will be continuously degraded in this country as teachers are attacked with the idea that children who have a great deal of difficulty in learning because teachers are not teaching what is "supposed to be learned".

Posted by: bsallamack | July 12, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

There is one significant difference between a job and school that I think is critical here. Students have no say in school. They don't really even get to decide what classes they take, much less who their teachers are. Jobs are scarce right now, but most of us discussing this have chosen to work where we work, for whom we work.

If we want students to be responsible for their learning then we need to give them some genuine responsibilities in regards to it.

Posted by: Jenny04 | July 12, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

"Inform your students of the overwhelming difficulties of teaching in Title 1 public schools. Advise them that if they can not obtain a position in a affluent or middle class public schools that they would be better off to accept a lower paying position in a private school than a position in a Title 1 public school."

Very, very true!

Too bad the truth doesn't matter to the media and the politicians.

Posted by: jlp19 | July 12, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Part of teaching well, I would argue, is creating an environment in which students are both expected to and taught to take responsibility.

Students don't just take responsibility by default. It has to be demonstrated, taught....and then expected of them.

Posted by: holzhaacker | July 12, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Part of teaching well, I would argue, is creating an environment in which students are both expected to and taught to take responsibility.

Students don't just take responsibility by default. It has to be demonstrated, taught....and then expected of them.

Posted by: holzhaacker
.................................
In public colleges it is easy to demonstrate responsibility to students.

You give them an exam and than advice in private the students who have an F that they can drop the course or stay and receive an F if they continue to receive an F on exams.

Any teacher that does otherwise is not doing their job.

Of course this does not apply to the wealthy in private colleges. But to the wealthy there is not much in our society that applies to them.

No Child Left Behind has really debased our idea of public education in this nation.

No one ever took politicians very serious with "a chicken in every pot", while Americans really take politicians serious with their strange ideas regarding public education.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 12, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

"You can fail a student who fails to hand his work in on time (thus imparting an important lesson"

In some places maybe. I doubt many teachers in urban schools have that power.

I can remember a couple of teachers who would talk big about not giving in to pressure from administrators, but they wouldn't do the paper work to allow their F's to stand, so the principal would just change their grades, and that allowed the teachers to feel pure about upholding standards.

That being said, Fs aren't the answer. Teaching students to be students is the answer. Its much harder as both society and school systems send the message that consequences aren't real.

Posted by: johnt4853 | July 12, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

That being said, Fs aren't the answer. Teaching students to be students is the answer. Its much harder as both society and school systems send the message that consequences aren't real.

Posted by: johnt4853
..............................
In affluent and middle class public schools no one has to teach "students to be students" which is good since there is no such thing as "teaching students to be students".

One really has to stop dumping the problems of Title 1 public schools on teachers and pretending this will deal with the problem. This is like saying that the high crime rate in the neighborhoods of Title 1 public schools is the fault of the police. But I guess to those who want to dump on teachers the high crime rate in these neighborhoods is also the fault of the teachers for not "teaching them to be students".

And an F in many cases is the answer. It used to be that if you failed a Regent exam in New York State you had to repeat the class.

Now we pass on 56 percent of children in Title 1 public schools who fail national reading tests in the 4th grade to the 5th grade with the pretense that the 5th grade teacher will handle the problem of a mixed class of children who can read with a large number of children who can not read.

There is no question that we are degrading public education in this country and that the ideas of the politicians in regard to the Title 1 public schools will further erode public education in this nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 12, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Take a disaster area and normally one does not hear complaints about the doctors and nurses working in that area or of all the doctors and nurses in America.

Take the disaster areas of Title 1 public schools and every one is complaining about the teachers of America. Neighborhoods of Title 1 public schools are disaster areas. High crime, gang violence, poverty, and large numbers of malnourished and neglected children.

There are low rents but most Americans would not live in these areas if they had a choice. Americans that do not live in these areas make sure their car doors are locked when they drive through.

Instead of attacking and blaming all the teachers in America, Americans should be thankful that they do not have to live in the neighborhoods of Title 1 public schools and that their children do not have to go to these public schools.

Stop bashing the teachers of America and start recognizing that teachers alone can not change the disaster of the neighborhoods of Title 1 public schools.

Change might be able to deal with the problems but there will never be any real change for Title 1 public schools while Americans are willing to listen to the politicians about bashing teachers instead of understanding and dealing with the problems.

Bashing teachers in regard to Title 1 public schools has been so effective that many Americans believe all teachers in public schools are lazy and ineffective when most public schools are doing well and the Title 1 public schools are only a minority of the public schools in America.

The majority of public schools and parents are worrying about paying for teachers, and not 56 percent failure rate in 4th grade reading of Title 1 public schools.

There are major problems with the disaster of Title 1 public schools, but thankfully these problems do not reflect on the quality of education in the majority of public schools in this nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 12, 2010 7:34 PM | Report abuse

Setting aside the humorous idea of a college professor talking about "teaching well," I think Willingham's basic tenet is good. Teachers are not the only ones responsible for student learning--students, parents, and the community also share responsibility.

Parents can be a huge problem in the public schools, demanding that their child's grade be changed, making excuses, threatening litigation. Kids who think they're entitled to second chances have parents who agree with them. Apparently there is a growing problem of these parents confronting their children's college professors, demanding second chances and changed grades. The problem is leaking upwards.

The community also has responsibilities for the education of children, which generally translate into taxes. Most people want a Cadillac education for their children, but they want to pay only enough taxes to buy a 1997 Kia. A sufficiency of excellent teachers (with reasonable class sizes), state-of-the-art technology, well-kept buildings with functioning bathrooms-- these all cost money. Dealing with the social issues that interfere with learning-- poverty, crime-ridden neighborhoods (hungry children suffering from post traumatic stress disorder can't concentrate on learning)--these issues must be solved too.

As a National Board Certified Teacher, I'm happy to take responsibility for teaching well. Yes, students need to take responsibility for their own learning. But parents and the community also share responsibility for student learning. When politicians and the public finally accept this distribution of responsibility, then perhaps we can ensure that all students learn to their full potential.

Posted by: pattipeg1 | July 13, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

By the time they reach high school. students are typically exposed to a range of teaching effectiveness. It's easier for them to take responsibility for soldiering on in a class that's taught by a boring teacher, if they have at least been also exposed to teachers who do make an effort to be engaging.

Posted by: jane100000 | July 13, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

There are so many behaviors that need to be encouraged with our kids. It's easy to lay the responsibility of building these behaviors with the teachers since they spend so much time with our kids, but the real responsibility lies with parents. Planning, courtesy, helpfulness, selflessness, etc are best learned at home and reinforced by teachers.

Also, different kids need different motivation to build these behaviors. At Learning Earnings (http://learningearnings.com) we've built a program to give the teacher the discretion to reward kids in the way they need it most. Standardized tests and programs are easy to measure, but can't approach the impact of personalized instruction. It's the efficiency vs. effectiveness dilemma - our society strives for efficiency first, when we should nail effectiveness first, and then address efficiency.

Posted by: dwilkins1 | July 13, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

I agree 100% with this article. As a teacher of HS juniors/seniors for the past few years, I was very frustrated with administrators and other officials who placed the grades/test scores solely onto my shoulders. They suggested coming up with fun games and rewards to get the students to work

I think that there is something to having responsible teachers. I also think the the amount of responsibility on test scores, etc. makes more sense in earlier grades (elementary) where students may not have as much control on making their own decisions.

As a teacher in the upper grades, one of my priorities was preparing students for post-secondary education. I had administrators argue with me, telling me that wasn't part of my job. I believed that instilling in them some sense of responsibility was important. That said, I would not go so far as to prevent a child from moving on because of missed HW assignments. I often gave them multiple chances to earn at least a passing grade. Some may think that takes out the aspect of responsibility. But I think that there can be a balance between holding a child responsible and taking away their future

Posted by: jseelke1 | July 13, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

jenny04: I couldn't agree more. Schoolchildren are treated more like prisoners than students--except I think prisoners have more protection.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 13, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

I don't think that being made responsible for showing up with a photo ID really is as related to taking responsibility for "one's learning" as the author of this piece asserts. Furthermore, I think the student described learned a valuable and realistic life lesson - that what one can get away with is always a moving target and a successful person doesn't get caught short unprepared deal to with the possible consequences of his actions. That she was "angry and scornful" is really of little consequence. Teaching responsibility by holding students responsible is an attractive ideal on paper, but it's an approach so loaded with political nuances and consequences in the real world of schools that we are not likely to make much headway with it soon!

Posted by: markgura | July 13, 2010 6:54 PM | Report abuse

"But many college professors, frankly, are bad teachers; they hold their jobs because "

I wouldn't say that this is true at all, though, ironically, the very worst college teaching I've ever seen was in education schools by education professors. Go figure.

"Part of teaching is being able to motivate students to succeed and to want to learn."

This is part of the problem. I can understand this viewpoint with respect to elementary school kids, but it's disastrous in college and destructive in the later stages of high school.

If you need a professor/teacher to motivate you to learn a subject then you're in the wrong field. What is to happen to you on the job? Do we then require all employers to be equally engaging?

I've had students who told me that they wanted to be engineers yet seemed to have no genuine interest (or talent) in the key subject matter. If I had to put on a continual variety show for them to keep them motivated what will happen to them in an engineering curriculum only a few months down the road?

Posted by: physicsteacher | July 13, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree with this more. When I try to take this approach I am reprimanded by my principal & told that I can't give them 0's. I have to give them opportunities to redo the work, to turn it in late (even if it was due at the beginning of the grading term I have to take it at the end & give them credit because they did it). There is no accountability whatsoever for the student. They don't have to come on time nor be prepared, yet I am still help accountable for their test scores. There is definitely a disconnect here!! This article is excellent!!!!

Posted by: kms0172 | July 14, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

This public middle/high school teacher holds her students accountable for their learning. The first day of each term I use an exercise I learned from Dr. Rita Smilkstein to prove their brains are born to learn. We discuss my role, their role and their parents' roles in their learning. I wrote a 32 page handbook outlining how they can succeed in my class, how to recognize how their brain learns, and how to be proactive in their learning. I use poor grammar to point out that if I learned them, they'd all have As. But, since I teach them, it's up to them to learn. College professors are experiencing what we are on the secondary school level, too. Some of my students figure out the negative consequences of not taking ownership of their learning, and some don't. Even Jesus lost a disciple. My biggest enemies are absenteeism and parents not providing serious consequences at home for lazy students. I teach students from the mentally handicapped to gifted ones w/ IQs higher than mine. Only the lazy students fail; those who try succeed.

Posted by: jenny20 | July 15, 2010 12:41 AM | Report abuse

I've always said we teach responsibility "backwards." A first grader has much freedom; a high school student has to carry a big pass when he or she needs to use the restroom. We need to be stricter at the younger levels, then slowly add more responsibility as children get older. Sometimes I think we're afraid of letting our students suffer natural consequences. In the long run, this hurts them.
I teach adult inmates and have learned there is another positive outcome to teaching and then expecting responsibility from the students. When a student is given responsibility for his learning, he tends to be more self-motivated. I learned this almost by accident. In a prison setting, I can't offer rewards for "good work." No candy or cookies or concrete rewards for inmates are allowed. Self motivation is the key to their success. When they are offered alternatives, having control over their progress, and taking responsibility for outcomes, great progress occurs. This surely would apply to other classrooms.

Posted by: JanChamberlin | July 15, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I have been a teacher, principal, and currently hold a doctorate in educational leadership. I now teach parents, teachers, and administrators how to improve achievement. In that my dissertation centered on the Black-White achievement gap, I've spent endless hours delving into the cause and effect relationships and correlates of the gap, which now has been documented for more than fifty years. Through that time much finger-pointing has taken place with poverty, poor parenting, bad teachers, etc. as the reasons why Black children continue to lag behind their White counterparts. Despite all this, ultimately the argument is rehetorical as the student has been the only one to have the system's failure quantified and memorialized in a test score. Since poor state test scores, poor SAT or ACT scores, are kept only in students' records in perpetuity, he is the one who truly is held accountable. No others who participate in the learning process have this distinction. Thus, Professor Willingham's premise is well founded. In the interest of true accountability and fairness, teachers' efficacy should be quantified each year as part of their evaluations.

Posted by: darrelljackson2 | July 15, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Several posts agree with the author that students need to take responsibility for learning and that part of developing this sense of responsibility falls on the teacher:

"Precision matters. Excellence in teaching matters. Student responsibility matters. Great teachers can spur a desire for responsibility in their students. They are all interconnected. Mastery is a must in some situations.
Posted by: shadwell1

If we want students to be responsible for their learning then we need to give them some genuine responsibilities in regards to it.
Posted by: Jenny04

Part of teaching well, I would argue, is creating an environment in which students are both expected to and taught to take responsibility.
Students don't just take responsibility by default. It has to be demonstrated, taught....and then expected of them.
Posted by: holzhaacker

"Part of teaching is being able to motivate students to succeed and to want to learn."
Posted by: physicsteacher

But how do you do it? How do you get students to get interested in anything and do the best they can for a period of time?

My own experience was to give them practice in questioning, finding or creating answers, and verifying one or more as acceptable. This used projects, reports, and multiple-choice tests scored for knowledge and judgment rather than just counting right marks. The secret is getting students to function at higher levels of thinking. As self-correcting scholars they are also self-motivated.

My problem has not been in working with students but working with faculty who refuse to change from a lower level of thinking instructional environment to one that is active and dynamic.

The class solved the problem of a dozen students not having a pencil for the test in a class of 120 by having each student bring two pencils.

For full details and free use of the software developed for Knowledge and Judgment Scoring see http://www.nine-patch.com. We need to stop talking about student development, taking responsibility, and actually let them do it.

Posted by: rahart | July 16, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

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