Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Give Blame, Give Credit

I maintain–and will do so until someone removes my head–that the primary determiner of the quality of any student’s education is first and foremost the student.

It is not the parent, not the teacher, not the curriculum, not the principal, not the “system,” not the government, and not the money.  All these things matter, and we should discuss them.  But it seems we continue to lose sight of the number one issue–what makes a student want to learn?

That said, people on my side of the aisle tend to blame poverty, parenting, and poor student motivation as the primary culprits in our present system’s struggles.  Though we are right, I think too often we miss the other half of the story.

Just as we ascribe the problem to them, we should also give them the most credit when things go right. 

For example, when a school performs well, as my high school did this year when it vastly improved its math and reading state test scores, and marginally improved in writing and science, we should give the majority of credit to the students. 

Just as we incorrectly blame teachers when schools fail, we also incorrectly give them too much credit when they do well. 

My First AP Class
I had the unique experience of teaching an AP chemistry class for the first time last year.  It was a draining exertion, and I was exhausted by April.  Fortunately, the first year is by far the hardest, and I made it through. 

At an AP training, we were told that for first year AP teachers, we shouldn’t expect to have very many great scores.  We were told our other classes would suffer, and that we’d be a little more irritable, falling behind on other work.  I am happy to say that most of this (save for the irritable part, perhaps) did not happen to me.  My other classes outperformed all previous years on my unit tests and final exams in almost every instance.  It was actually quite remarkable. 

And even though it was my first year, two of my students scored 5's and three scored 4's on the AP test. 

So, that’s some pretty good success.  And I thought about the idea I mentioned above throughout the year: If my students are able to beat this very challenging exam, they are the ones who deserve the most credit. 

Now, clearly, I had a role, and I must have done something right.  But if we’re going to rank them, the students are the ones doing the actual work and learning the actual content and taking the actual tests.  They are the ones performing.  They are the ones succeeding and excelling and challenging themselves. 

I don’t stay up in the evenings working anymore.  I did that in school as well, and got a degree so I wouldn’t have to anymore.  Now, I just write blogs and make millions.  (Millions of cents....it’s a math joke...)

But my students are the ones doing this now.  So yes, I am delivering the instruction, planning the curriculum, designing the assessments, keeping up on the grading, and showing up to work every day.  But as I say so often on this blog, I could do all that all the time, and if the students don’t do the work, it will only produce marginal results.  I could be the “teacher of the year,” whatever that means, and my students will still fail if they don’t want it bad enough.

I dare any reformer to prove me wrong–switch the teachers at the “best” schools with those at the “worst,” and see the test scores at the best school not change much.  At the worst school, maybe they’ll go up; maybe they’ll go down.  Because the teacher’s influence has a limit.

For any AP class, or for any national or state assessment of any kind for that matter, it is the students who deserve the lion’s share of the credit when they pass. 

No student earns a 5 because the teacher was so great. The only way to earn a 5 is to learn it for yourself, and this takes way more work than can happen in a 50-minute class period. 

I’m not saying all this to write a feel-good column.  No, this is an important realization that many in the ed-reform crowd have completely missed.  They think the teacher is the number one influence in education.  Some of them are finally acknowledging the role of cultural and parental influences, though they offer few solutions. 

The Other Side of the Coin
Let me give you the other half of the AP story so you can see the difference.  Though I had several students do very well, I also had ten students score 1's.  That’s the lowest score.  Now, this is a very hard test, and to even take an AP course (especially one of the hardest ones) is a sign of maturity and motivation for a student. 

All my AP students were top students at our school.  That they got 1's really just shows how hard this course and this test are.  But they also lost a bit of motivation as the year progressed. 

I gave them an end-of-course survey, and several commented on how they did less work as the year went on.  It got too hard, or there was too much work, or other classes competed too much, or there just wasn’t enough time.  Whatever the reason–some of them legitimate–a portion of my students did not sustain a passionate motivation for the whole year.  Their work ethic declined as the course got more demanding.

This is a great challenge, perseverance, and is one of the great intangible goals of a true education, one of many that does not show up on a standardized test, but nevertheless has exponentially greater value. 

The point is, a good portion of my students faltered in their attempt to sustain this in the AP course.  But the fact that anyone earned a 5 proves it was possible.  In other words, I did what I had to do to make it possible.  If, for example, no one had scored higher than a 3, and if I hadn’t covered several key portions of the curriculum, then you could clearly point to me as the reason there were no high scores. 

Since five students were able to score that high, this means it was possible for all of them to do it.  It means I provided the opportunity for success.  I supplied the conditions that made high scores possible. 

And this is the best we can expect from a teacher
.  This is what we do.  We provide possibility.  We are purveyors of potential.  Outfitters of opportunity.  Cultivators of capacity.  We stand at the precipice of dreams, but can’t see what lies beyond because every student’s path is unique.  As Morpheus says in The Matrix, “All I can do is show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Some students have the courage to walk through it; some run away from the fear of success.  But that choice is out of our hands.  We can exhort and enable, coax and cajole, but in the end it is the student who makes the choice, whether to reach high or to dive down into destruction, addiction, and the worst vice of all–apathy. 

So let’s take a moment to reset ourselves on the first principle of education.  It is the student who determines their success before anyone else.  The teacher facilitates, but the student achieves. 

The next time you thank a teacher for helping your student reach or surpass a goal, don’t forget to commend the student as well.

Because the teacher couldn’t have done it without them.

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