The Puzzle of Student Responsibility for Learning*

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).



Filed under dilemmas of teaching

31 responses to “The Puzzle of Student Responsibility for Learning*

  1. Clearly, school systems should be responsible for what is in their area of responsibility, and that includes the performance of teachers. It is clear that some teachers are capable of motivating students to do the work necessary to learn and to supply work that will (a) efficiently enable that learning and (b) reward the student sufficiently so as to encourage future learning. Other teachers perform much less well at these same tasks, even when the teachers have students from similar backgrounds. It is the job of the school system to ascertain what knowledge, skills, and effort levels are employed by the high performing teachers and then provide appropriate learning opportunities to enable lower performing teachers to improve.

    Beyond that, it is clear that student motivation levels are affected by the culture of the school and that such culture is hugely influenced by the behaviors of adults in the building. School systems are responsibile here, also.

    It is an interesting question what “butterfly” effects significant improvements by a school system in its area of responsibility would have on other parties and dynamics in the larger, non-linear system of K-12 public education.

    • larrycuban

      I am clear about what you say, Dave, about the district’s responsibility with teachers but I am unsure of what you are saying about students’ share of responsibility. Are you saying that students bear no responsibility for learning?

      • Hmmm… Sorry to be slow getting back to these comments.

        Larry, yes, students have responsibility. This of course gets us quickly into the question of how much they should bear the consequences of their failure to live up to that responsibility. And that gets us to one of the fundamental political questions of our age: In a time when (1) a relative few individuals with great capabilities and a few with great wealth (and even fewer with both) can produce enough to provide some level of food, shelther, and health care for all and (2) a significant and growing portion of the least capable and least wealthy are unable to contribute to that production process in meaningful ways, how to set up societal rules that are perceived as fair, relatively immune from political manipulation, and that result in an adequate opportunity for all members of the society to acquire the basic components to allow for a satisfying life? I don’t have the answer to that question (obviously!), and some would even disagree with my formulation. At the very least, some would argue that “adequate opportunity” is inherently unfair and biased by those doing the evaluation of the adequacies of opportunity and that “adequate results” for each and every individual regardless of personal effort or decisions is the only “fair” standard.

        So, students definitely have a responsibility. However, that point can easily be turned into an excuse for schools not doing what they should. Failures by schools become an excuse for policy leaders. And failures by both of those, and the lack of societal resolution to the question I raised above become excuses for parents and students. Plenty of excuses to go around. Which may be why “the system” is so resistant to change.

      • larrycuban

        Dave, thanks for letting me know how you formulate the larger issues around delineating responsibility for students.One of the many issues, of course, is that even discussing the question of how much can educators hold students responsible for academic work and social behavior (and how much is their responsibility) segues into finger-pointing and blame of educators making excuses for their failings. That is unfortunate. Many schools (KIPP would be one example of many such schools) take it for granted (and even teach) that both teachers and students are, indeed, responsible for specific behaviors and outcomes and provide the resources to help both discharge their commitments.

  2. Cal

    No, he’s saying that some teachers are better at motivating students than others, so it’s appropriate to hold the teachers responsible.

    However, Dave is in error here:

    “It is clear that some teachers are capable of motivating students to do the work necessary to learn and to supply work that will (a) efficiently enable that learning and (b) reward the student sufficiently so as to encourage future learning.”

    No, it’s not clear. There are teachers who can engage students, but there’s not much data showing that engagement leads to better learning. And there are no teachers who have closed the achievement gap in high school. In fact, I don’t believe there are teachers who have closed the achievement gap in elementary school, except in the binary “at grade level” sense.

    This is one of the great fallacies of reformers. The data doesn’t show that teachers have a huge impact on test scores.

    (BTW, great post, Larry)

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Cal, for clarification of what Dave said about teachers motivating kids. Dave, what say you?

      • Thanks, Cal. You got my basic message right.

        I have to admit I do not have a clue what it means to say that students do not have to engage – work – to learn. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for learning. In addition, the work in which they engage must be the kind that actually produces learning.

        And, no, I’m not aware of data that suggests a high school can make up for deficiencies in K-8 performance (by schools, teachers, students, and parents). I think the data does exist to suggest that the most effective levels of teaching and learning currently achieved by some teachers and schools could, if delivered across the K-12 trajectory of a cohort of students, substantially improve the academic results those students achieved. The challenge for school leaders is learning how to shift the curve of teacher performance to the right in a sustainable fashion. I have my own ideas about how to do that, but perhaps those are thoughts for another day.

  3. Cal

    He’s also saying, I think, that “school culture” affects student performance, and I can’t stress enough that this very common belief is simply unfounded in reality. Culture can affect performance when kids who don’t buy-in can be booted.

    Incidentally, Dave, I don’t mean to speak for you in any negative sense (although I disagree with your position). Apologies if I misstated your opinions in any way.

    • Cal, your assertion that “school culture” affects student performance only when kids can be dismissed ignores evidence to the contrary. For example, see the work of Roger Goddard: “The results of hierarchical
      generalized linear modeling show that 4th-grade students’ odds of passing state-mandated mathematics and writing assessments are modestly increased in urban schools characterized by high levels of social capital.” Goddard, R. D. (2003). Relational networks, social trust, and norms: A social capital perspective on students’ chances of academic success. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25(1), 59-74.

  4. Larry
    Couldn’t agree with you more in principle.
    Just a couple of pet peeves though
    1. We talk of K-12 as if a 4/5 years old’s learning needs can be treated in the same breath as an 18 year old. And that the one measurement instrument can be applied unilaterally. Until we move beyond such reductionist thinking we are all condemned to the same narrow rut.
    2. Further, we believe 18 year old’s learning is best measured in ways increasingly not applicable to the tertiary focus on independent learning. Hence the ‘advantage’ enjoyed by certain sectors that can afford tutors and other teaching advantages. Once again, until we make better bridges we should not be surprised at the level of drownings that occur.
    3. What is supposedly being measured is a curriculum so disconnected, overwrought and beset by political noise that this is not just a question of what goes on between one teacher and one student (what a quaint industrial-age perception we have shackled ourselves with).
    Putting this all together, those who deny the cultural, the developmental and the social influences deserve to remain hand-cuffed to outmoded thinking. As the adage goes, be careful what you wish for… (although I note that many thankfully can still buck the trend towards education as commodity overwhelmingly favoring those who can pay – and I refer to teachers and students across all our nations who have to work and learn against the grain but do so manfully together)
    Regards and thanks once again (and for the reference to David Cohen’s book)

    • larrycuban

      I thank you for your point on differences between teaching and learning for 4-5 year-olds and 18 year-olds and means of assessing both.

  5. Pingback: A Ler – Larry Cuban « A Educação do meu Umbigo

  6. Maria

    Obviously, we are all aware that the best predictor (which, by the way, works all over the world) to discover if a child is going to get a college degree isn’t in what kind of shool (private or public, religious or otherwise, …) did the child study or what kind of teachers did the child have, but if the child’s parents have a degree or not. Ironically enough, parents are far more important than people recognise these days. And what makes the difference isn’t exactly what they do (although that does help!) but what they expect from their children. My own parents only studied at a very basic level (they have 4 years of school…) and I have a master’s degree. They never helped me with my homework or to understand anything at achool. They couldn’t and they didn’t even try it. But they did make clear that, for them, my studies were important. At my house, we didn’t have much money: there wasn’t money for music, clothes, or to go out. There was always money for books for school. It’s about showing your kids what really matters….

  7. Cal

    I’m sorry for so many comments, but this caught my eye.

    “Hence the ‘advantage’ enjoyed by certain sectors that can afford tutors and other teaching advantages.”

    I’ve been a test prep instructor who often works with underprivileged kids for 8 years, an expensive private tutor for 7 years, and a public school math teacher in Title I schools for 3 years (4 if you count my full year of student teaching). In other words, I tutor rich kids in all subjects, help middle class and poor students raise their test scores in test prep, and teach math to poor kids–a claim that few can make.

    So when I say that your entire premise is flawed, I do so with a huge amount of anecdotal experience–and actual data backs me up even more.

    I have never privately tutored a student who was complete incapable of the work. I would refuse to do so. Rich parents do not put their students in academic situations their kids can’t handle. Charter schools and comprehensive public schools with majority minority populations, on the other hand, do this all the time. I am teaching Algebra II as I write this to classes of students who received Far Below Basic scores in their CSTs for as far back as I can find online (in many cases 6 or 7 years). These schools schools notoriously put unqualified students into advanced classes, “dumb them down”, and then boast about their high college acceptance rate without mentioning their remediation rate (Summit, June Jordan, and many others).

    It’s not that these students weren’t taught, or that dedicated teachers weren’t able to help them. It’s that they either didn’t care or, in many cases, simply lacked the capacity to learn the heavily abstract material–or, of course, both.

    Most, if not all, Title I schools have after school homework programs, filled with dedicated volunteers and teachers (paid) who help students with all subjects–with a particular emphasis on math and science help. The volunteers are vetted to be sure they can help. Any student who needed help could get one-on-one assistance five days a week (and many do).

    And any poor student who wants help preparing for college admissions tests has a huge number of options–and the motivated ones know about these options. (I’m more worried about the mid-ability kids who don’t know about placement tests, but that’s a different story).

    Rich kids aren’t being tutored out of the same academic deficiencies that are common in low income population. Low income students have a huge variety of free support available to help them out.

    There are plenty of bridges that help the students capable of making it across.

  8. It is really interesting to look at this conversation from the perspective of an educator who is also a cultural outsider. The arguments around who is responsible and what constitutes learning certainly resonate, and I would argue based on my own experiences and all the research I’ve been exposed to that it is, without a doubt, the teacher in the room that has the most impact on learning.
    However, in your context, with its huge levels of accountability relating student and teacher “performance” based on exams to funding, raises, bonuses, and even firing and closures, I can certainly see how this position can get muddied pretty quickly. I’m not sure how an entire country (more or less) can get caught up in the notion that a complex and altruistic act like teaching can be quantified by test scores alone, and that using extrinsic motivators and consequences is going to improve teaching, and therefore learning and students’ overall life chances. I think some accountability is a good thing, and speak to that often, but only when the alternative is essentially none! Why is it that this movement persists in the US, when there doesn’t seem to be evidence to support it?
    Anyway, great post and great conversation. PJ (BC)

    • larrycuban

      Peter, thanks for your comment and perspective from BC. There have been very few instances in the history of U.S. schooling where evidence carried much weight in initiating, adopting, and implementing reforms. What matters far more in the case of the U.S. is how schools are seen as solving local and national problems (e.g.,lack of economic growth, inequality, and competition for foreign markets; etc.,etc.) It is in that context that curriculum standards, testing, and accountability have come to dominate U.S. schooling over the past three decades.

  9. I agree, in principle, that students need to take responsibility also, but only if the adults are doing all they can do to be effective teachers, starting with connecting on a personal level with their students and trying to find the best ways to help students understand the curriculum. Without this, we have the mentality of “hey I’m doing what I can to teach. They just aren’t stepping up to learn. Ergo, not my problem.” In an adult-ruled system, which school is, there is a lot of room for (and history of) overlooking youth needs and interests in favor of what’s best or easiest for teachers.

    Pardon my hypothetical:
    “I’m a low-performing student and I feel like teachers have written me off as a “gangbanger” due to my ethnicity. The adults I tend to come across at my school look nothing like me, don’t seem interested in getting to know me as a person, and seem quicker to punish my “misbehavior” than than that of my less ethnic comrades. Is it any wonder that I don’t feel motivated to perform for these teachers (whose curriculum and style of teaching seem designed to be boringly auditory and non-relevant to my life)? Should I be blamed for not stepping up to “learn” under these circumstances?

    “Oh wait, there is Mr. J who actually talks to me like a person, asks how I’m doing, and offers extra help. I feel like this person cares about me and tries to understand me. If only there were more teachers like Mr. J. Sigh.”

    So why aren’t there more teachers like Mr. J? And shouldn’t we hold teachers to this standard? To me, there’s no question that it does impact learning. And it’s absolutely measurable. And there is a TON of data (and yes, it relies on heavy correlation) that points to how much a supportive climate impacts students’ ability to learn–that is, an environment where youth feel emotionally safe, supported by positive relationships, and engaged in their learning through voice and choice.

    I welcome responses. This seems like a good place for healthy, mutual respectful dialogue.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Andy, for your comment and examples. How to get more Mr. Js and keep them remains a substantial issue. Loading all responsibility for learning on teachers, however, ignores the two-way street that has always been teaching and learning. Developing structures and supports for that to happen are not often discussed in the current climate surrounding school reform, test-based standards and accountability.

    • “I’m a low-performing student and I feel like teachers have written me off as a “gangbanger” due to my ethnicity. The adults I tend to come across at my school look nothing like me, don’t seem interested in getting to know me as a person, and seem quicker to punish my “misbehavior” than than that of my less ethnic comrades. Is it any wonder that I don’t feel motivated to perform for these teachers (whose curriculum and style of teaching seem designed to be boringly auditory and non-relevant to my life)? Should I be blamed for not stepping up to “learn” under these circumstances?

      To me, this underscores the problem. The student who feels like they are doing the teacher a favor by learning. So what if I don’t look like you? Is that what Asian students said when being placed in classes with anglo teachers? You argument is one of the reasons that schools FAIL. the key to

  10. Ziv

    In a book I read, not so
    Long ago “Letter to a Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana” the cildren write a letter to their former teacher. And to the teachers in general.
    It is amazing, cause he asks questions about the self motivation in learning in schools.
    Although it was the 60’s in Italy, so different from today, but what he said, wa that kids that has motivation are no more then young business men (and women). They don’t learn from the fun or amazement of learning, but for getting to good colleagues or getting good jobs etc….

    And another thing, maybe of the teachers will change their title to “learning or studying therapists”, it will change their and our concept of what is our real work is.

  11. Ipso Facto

    What I find truly curious centers on the policy of “value added.” It appears that we have exchanged pedagogy for a bright shiny lie. Thus, metrics may be entertaining, but they rarely answer the deeper questions of life. As such, I find the work of Mr. Eric Hanushek entertaining, much like the Scholastics entertaining question about Angels & pin-heads [no pun intended], but I openly wonder how such am obscure corner of educational debate has occupied such a prominent position in the national conversation.

    Perhaps the current conversation would be mildly entertaining if not for the well-documented perverse outcomes. Nassim Taleb, another economic theorist, outlined the case where we suffer grave harm when we mistake a map, or metric, for reality. The potential Ludic Fallacy argues for a more “robust” approach. Perhaps such an approach may contrast sharply with Mr. Hanushek’s “rigor.” As a disinterested intellectual I may proclaim vive la différence, but as an educator, such a story ends on a rather parsed note.

    Unlike Angels dancing on earlier thirteenth-century pins, the future appears crowded with Black Swans.

    • larrycuban

      Ipso Facto,thanks for your comment. That economists of education and policymakers enthralled with the “science” of econometrics have dominated the debate about the direction of education in the nation –specifically the supreme importance of human capital as the main reason for schooling the next generation–and what should be done in schools–read current reforms–means that certain policy questions get asked and others do not.

      • Ipso Facto

        The appropriation of a for-profit metric under the guise of “value added” creates “market distortion”, to co-opt a market term. Specifically, it incentivizes ‘equality of outcome’ rather than ‘equality of opportunity’, which ironically seems to be a perennially right-of-center concern. That is in all areas with the glaring exception of education.

        Secondly, the value added metric appears to systemically ignore the positive externalities which public education was designed to address.

        Hence, we have an improperly fitted private sector metric (e.g. value added) on a pubic good (i.e. education) which fails to understand the difference between a very limited private sector mandate and a much larger public sector mission.

        By way of analogy, it is increasing obvious that profit margins may be inflated when externalities are routinely ignored. In the same way, educational outcomes may be inflated when the larger unmeasured aspects of the human condition are similarly ignored. A cursory perusal of curriculum narrowing attests to this fact.

        I am curious, beyond reasonable suspicion, why such a flawed design persists in public policy.

      • larrycuban

        Ipso Facto,
        You ask why a “for-profit metric” like value-added, “a flawed design persists in public policy.” In the history of school reform in the U.S., one constant pattern has been national leaders turning to schools to solve complex social, economic, and political problems. Without recounting that history and the many instances of such patterns, the past thirty years have seen a concerted effort to turn public schools into engines of economic growth, i.e., the creation of more “human capital”to make the U.S. competitive in global markets. This happened in an earlier period, the 1890s-1920s,and is now again present. Schools have become recipients of organ transplants from the business community such as “return on investments,” “data-driven decision-making,” and, yes, “value-added-measures.”

  12. Ipso Facto

    Thanks for the prompt reply. Perhaps, I am merely working through my incredulity. As an educator, I at least tacitly assumed that there was some space at the top of our profession for a more nuanced discussion. NB. The classically framed pursuit of truth Else, I am left facing Nietzsche’s “will to power” as the default arbitrator in policy discussion.

    As such, it would nudge me out of my semi-detached Ivory Tower.

  13. Fascinating discussion to which I would only contribute two things. If the policy makers so keen on injecting commercial practice into schools had any sharp end commercial experience…I suspect they might think again. And…I’ve never met a great utilitarian teacher.

  14. Roger Sweeny

    Putting the responsibility for learning on teachers was pretty much inevitable given what the organized teaching profession has been saying for years. “We are experts,” say the unions and ed schools and state departments of education, “Students learn because of us. Students will learn more if we have more resources: higher salaries, better-equipped buildings, etc.”

    If teachers are responsible for students’ learning, it isn’t much of a step to say that teachers are responsible for students’ not learning.

    For years, we have pretended that teachers are more powerful than they are. It was a seductive idea, stroking our vanity and filling our pockets. Alas, it is now coming back to bite us behind those pockets.

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