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March 5, 2011


It is settled wisdom among Funderpundits and those to whom they give their grants that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality.

However, a small number of dissenting voices have begun to speak. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in Academically Adrift have suggested that (p. 131) "Studying is crucial for strong academic performance..." and "Scholarship on teaching and learning has burgeoned over the past several decades and has emphasized the importance of shifting attention from faculty teaching to student learning..."

This may seem unacceptably heterodox to those in government and the private sector who have committed billions of dollars to focusing on the selection, training, supervision, and control of K-12 teachers, while giving no thought to whether K-12 students are actually doing the academic work which they are assigned.

In 2004, Paul A. Zoch, a teacher from Texas, wrote in Domed to Fail (p. 150) that: "Let there be no doubt about it: the United States looks to its teachers and their efforts, but not to its students and their efforts, for success in education." More recently, and less on the fringe of this new concern, Diane Ravitch wrote in Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) (p. 162) that "One problem with test-based accountability, as currently defined and used, is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families for the students' academic performance. NCLB neglected to acknowledge that students share in the responsibility for their academic performance and that they are not merely passive recipients of their teachers' influence."

There are necessarily problems in turning attention toward the work of students in judging the effectiveness of schools. First, all the present attention is on teachers, and it is not easy to turn that around. Second, teachers are employees and can be fired, while students can not. It could not be comfortable for the Funderpundits and their beneficiaries to realize that they may have been overlooking the most important variable in student academic achievement all this time.

In February, when the Associated Press reported that Natalie Monroe, a high school English teacher in Pennsylvania, had called her students, on a blog, "disengaged, lazy whiners," and "noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy LOAFERS," the response of the school system was not to look more closely at the academic efforts of the students, but to suspend the teacher. As one of her students explained, "As far as motivated high school students, she's completely correct. High school kids don't want to do anything...(but) It's a teacher's give students the motivation to learn."

It would seem that no matter who points out that "You can lead a student to learning, but you can't make him drink," our system of schools and Funderpundits sticks with its wisdom that teachers alone are responsible for student academic achievement.

While that is wrong, it is also stupid. Alfred North Whitehead (or someone else) once wrote that; "For education, a man's books and teachers are but a help, the real work is his."

As in the old story about the drunk searching under the lamppost for his keys, those who control funds for education believe that as long as all their money goes to paying attention to what teachers are doing, who they are, how they are trained, and so on, they can't see the point of looking in the darkness at those who have the complete and ultimate control over how much academic achievement there will be--namely the students.

Apart from scores on math and reading tests after all, student academic work is ignored by all those interested in paying to change the schools. What students do in literature, Latin, chemistry, history, and Asian history classes is of no interest to them. Liberal education is not only on the back burner for those focused on basic skills and job readiness as they define them, but that burner is also turned off at present.

This situation will persist as long as those funding programs and projects for reform in education pay no attention to the actual academic work of our students. And students, who see little or no pressure to be other than "disengaged lazy whiners" will continue to pay the price for their lack of education, both in college and at work, and we will continue to draw behind in comparison with those countries who realize that student academic achievement has always been, and will always be, mainly dependent on diligent student academic work.

Posted by Will Fitzhugh at March 5, 2011 5:42 AM
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You are right. Robert Samuelson, the Washington Post's economics columnist, said pretty much the same thing last September.

However, this focus on teachers is inevitable given the way we've marketed schools. "Give us money," say the school systems and teacher's unions and ed schools. "We are experts--professionals!--with specialized knowledge and skills regarding learning We can teach anyone anything."

In that case, when kids don't learn, the fault has to be the teachers.

We could have said, "Look, we can give kids an opportunity for an education, but they have to use that opportunity. Most of them won't use anywhere near all of it." Then, hardly anyone would be blaming us teachers. But we wouldn't be paid nearly as well either.

Posted by: Roger Sweeny at March 6, 2011 9:53 AM

A relevant quote from Thomas Edison:

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. "

Posted by: Larry Winkler at March 6, 2011 6:58 PM

That is still one of my favorite quotes, Larry. It is true on several levels, in many areas of knowledge and expertise.

Posted by: Millie at March 7, 2011 5:49 PM
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