Physicians, psychotherapists, social workers, and professors–the helping professions–are responsible for the expertise they share with their patients, clients, and college students. But expertise is insufficient. Patients, clients, and college students are responsible for getting better and learning. That is the two-way street of the helping professions.
*For a chain-smoking patient, a primary care physician knows that this behavior has a high probability of leading to lung cancer—even the patient knows that—yet the doctor’s knowledge and skills are insufficient to get the CEO of a private equity fund to quit. While doctors can influence a patient’s motivation, if that patient is uncommitted to getting healthy by ignoring prescribed medications–the physician is stuck. Getting better requires patients to take responsibility for improving their health.
*For clients in therapy, recognizing they have problems and working to solve them is part of the therapeutic bond they forge with a therapist who asks questions and provides support and acceptance. To get better, clients take responsibility for solving their problems.
*In higher education, professors give lectures and conduct seminars. While there is some talk of holding professors accountable for what their students learn, that rhetoric has yet to move beyond words. Undergraduate and graduate students are expected to learn what professors teach.
Yet in K-12 public schools, for teachers, another helping profession, the reverse is true. For the past quarter-century, responsibility for student learning for been put completely on the shoulders of teachers (much less so in parochial and independent private schools, however).
And that is the puzzle. How come K-12 public school teachers are expected to take full responsibility for student learning and in the other helping professions that responsibility is either shared with clients and patients or absent?
For more than a quarter-century, federal and state policymakers, major donors, and business leaders have built a reform-driven political machine that places responsibility for student learning squarely on teachers. That potent political machine legislates (e.g., state curriculum standards and tests, No Child Left Behind). It distributes monies to states and districts (e.g., cash bonuses to high performing schools, federal Race To The Top competition for billions of dollars; Gates Foundation support of districts working toward identifying factors of teacher effectiveness). It measures and evaluates school and teacher performance holding individual teachers responsible for student learning (i.e., test scores). Penalties for poor school and teacher performance are closed schools and reassigned or fired teachers.
The super-glue that holds disparate reform-minded groups together in this political machine is the assumption that students’ mediocre or failing performance is due primarily to teachers’ efforts. Recall the common explanations for low student performance over the past few decades: lousy curricula, improper instruction, and teachers’ low expectations. No surprise, then, that reformers driving this machine believe in teachers taking full responsibility for student learning (i.e., test scores). When they do, then teachers would work harder on matching curricula to lessons, improve instructional methods, and raise their expectations. Students, then, would score better on tests.
Given these assumptions focused on the teacher, students are hardly motivated to work hard except in those instances where students do take responsibility for their learning. Such places do exist in cities, working-class suburbs, and rural towns where students do their homework, participate in class, and improve their reading, writing, and math skills. Consider those high achieving schools that have waiting lists of parents to sign up their sons and daughters and garner media headlines in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, and other big and small cities.
In these schools, principals and parents make clear that students are to act responsibly, do academic work, and treat one another respectfully. They have both incentives and supports in place to help students become responsible as teachers fulfill their professional commitments. Both students and teachers are held accountable by the norms of the school community and a school environment with well developed resources that support both teachers and students. Such schools and districts, however, are the exception.
Thus, the fact of the matter is that loading upon teachers full responsibility for student results, as has occurred in the past few decades, is deeply flawed. Without mobilizing students’ knowledge, skills, and behavior to share responsibility for learning and providing supportive workplace conditions for teacher learning (e.g., professional development, collaboration), the current crisis crippling the confidence teachers must have in themselves as helping professional and the deteriorating trust between the tax-paying public and their schools will persist.
* I want to thank David K. Cohen for his thoughtful and careful analysis of teaching over the years. See his Teaching and Its Predicaments (Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).