Instruction that results in student learning

About a week ago, Mike asked a really provocative question that sparked thinking here on the Radical when he wrote:

What responsibility, specifically, do you believe an individual student, and by extension, their parents, have for that student’s learning outcomes? We agree that teachers bear a substantial burden here, but what’s the burden of the consumer of learning? What’s the burden of their parents?

He then followed his comments up with another intriguing comment explaining his viewpoint that included these thoughts:

Think I’m exaggerating? Impose two laws: (1) Teacher’s whose classes do not score at least 75% on mandatory tests may be fired. (2) Parents whose children fail three or more classes in a given year may be fined. Which would have the greatest chance of staying on the books? Which would be embraced by politicians?

What remains essentially unaddressed, here and elsewhere, is the demand that parents act like parents, and that students do their part to learn. Learning, after all cannot be downloaded, but achieved only through consistent, dedicated effort and practice. Teachers can provide that opportunity and guidance, they cannot do the learning for the students, nor can they act as the student’s parent.

Mike’s on to what I believe is a central question for all professional educators: Who is responsible for the student learning that happens in our classrooms each day?

And that is a question that has plagued teachers for years. “It’s the parents that are responsible,” many will answer, “After all, we only have students for six hours a day. What happens beyond the walls of our classroom is just as important as what happens inside our rooms. If we’re sent students who are poorly prepared to learn, what kind of results can we really take responsibility for?”

Others will argue that students are responsible. “If a child comes into my room and does nothing for months on end, how can I be held responsible for results? I’m presenting lessons that are producing results in the students who are paying attention and completing their homework. The only kids who are struggling are those who aren’t doing what I tell them to do. How can that be my fault?”

I’ve even heard teachers blame the broader community. “Look at the resources that I’m provided to work with,” they’ll argue, “Until I’m given the materials that I need to do my job well, I can’t be held accountable for anything. I’m working with antiquated computers, textbooks that are out of date and a library that has nothing interesting for the students to borrow. When those things are fixed, you’ll get the results that you want.”

Few would argue that each of these factors plays a considerable role in the success or failure of students in our classrooms. In fact, disparities in these categories often explain the achievement gap between students of wealth and students of poverty. Families in high needs communities rarely have the time and financial resources to invest in their children that are a given in middle and upper class families. As a result, children living in poverty face barriers to school success from day one that children of the middle class—the demographic most often drawn to teaching as a career—may never understand.

As a society that claims to be interested in leaving no child behind, significant efforts should be directed at closing the socioeconomic gaps that exist between the rich and the poor in our country. Until we drive meaningful changes in high-needs communities—providing universal health care, child care, and preschool for every child—we’ll never be able to guarantee success for the millions of children who enter our schools at risk for academic failure.

But I am openly embarrassed by educators who fail to take responsibility for student learning in their classrooms. When a child is struggling—regardless of the reason—our response should be to change our course and seek out instructional practices that work. In every school, the collective wisdom exists to find solutions to every problem that individual children are facing. In simpler terms, someone in every building knows how to produce results with students—and each of us bears a responsibility for seeking those people out and amplifying their effective practices.

To do otherwise is malpractice—and malpractice happens at an alarming rate in our schools today. Teachers—knowing that their instructional practices aren’t working—make no significant changes to their work regardless of results. Instead, they continue to teach the same material in the same way to students with significantly different needs. “My job is to teach,” they’ll say. “It’s the student’s job to learn.”

That’s bunk.

Our job is to devise instructional experiences that result in student learning. If we claim to be professionals, we must build these instructional experiences on a strong understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our student population and an awareness of practices being used successfully with similar student populations in our school, district or state. We must document the results of our instruction and make informed decisions about “next steps” based on this documentation.

Those are the actions that I hold teachers accountable for—and those actions are painfully non-existent in many of our nation’s classrooms because of shameful unwillingness on the part of educators to be held responsible for their work.