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.

8 thoughts on “Instruction That Results in Student Learning

  1. Mike

    Dear “TheInfamousJ”:
    Interesting idea. Of course, the point of posing those potential laws, or anything like them, was that it is extremely easy, and carries little or no political risk, to make life difficult for teachers, while doing the same to parents is fraught with political peril. Despite the representations of some, teachers, by and large, are not a monolithic, politically invincible voting bloc. In fact, in right to work states, teachers have no unions and influence legislators only through the power of polite persuasion; they certainly don’t have piles of cash available, nor do they have paid lobbyists. On the other hand, parents are everywhere, have no union issues, are of all socio-economic-demographic groups, and can be very interested and arousable when junior’s education comes up, particularly if they might be held responsible for making junior behave consistently honorably.
    No, it’s just too easy, too politically rewarding to put all of the burden of education on teachers. But until individuals accept responsibility, as was once the case, for their own educations, teachers remain very limited vehicles to accomplish the kinds of miracles some demand of them.
    As teachers, we’re foolish to buy into this destructive way of thinking by accepting the “teachers are solely reponsible for the learning that goes on in their classrooms” point of view. That inevitably sets us up for failure whenever anyone, for reasons political or profane, wants to call us on our inability to force Johnny to learn against his will, or to force Suzie to learn when she’s absent 30% of the year. We’re absolutely responsible for providing the best possible educational opportunity that we can, given the materials and tools our communities see fit to provide for that purpose. That standard does not lessen our burden for excellence, but takes reality into account.

  2. TheInfamousJ

    What about instead of your proposed Law 2, we try this one: Parents of students who fail 3 or more classes per year have to pay “tuition” equal to the per-capita cost of education. In other words, they lose their right to a free education: use it or lose it.
    I think, at least given that law #1 is a use it or lose it with regard to the teaching job, that this makes for a more fair comparison.

  3. Bob

    Thanks, Mike, for your thoughtful words. I agree with Bill that teaching is a noble responsibility.
    In looking back over my comment, probably I should have clarified I was referring to directed learning vs. directed instruction. Learning puts the emphasis where I, and I think most teachers, intended it.
    Miller, you make a useful point about personal and professional liabilities.
    Yes, we (teachers and non-teachers) know instructional options and how to adjust our instructional choices to increase student learning rates in our classes. If we don’t adjust, we’re individually likely at higher risk of facing challenges for student academic progress.
    I think teachers will continue making choices about which instructional procedures and materials to use at each moment. For whatever reasons, some teachers may decide not to use databased references for choosing the most effective or efficient ways.
    I’m guessing that adjustments in mandatory schooling legislation, school funding practices, employment contracts, and malpractice insurance policies will sort out what liabilities a teacher has for those choices, irrespective of what each student does or where a student comes from when not in a classroom.

  4. Miller Smith

    I go to the doctor and she tells me to take a medication to get better. I don’t follow her instructions and get worse.
    Should I sue her? Is it her fault? Has she committed malpractice? According to YOU she did.
    If you want me to be in total control of all learning in my classroom, then I get control over the child’s family-via the courts if need be.
    See, if I am responsible and a child is not doing what I tell them, that child could cost me my job. That is damages. I have the right to sue anyone who willingly harms my job. That’s the law. Will YOU go for that?

  5. Mike

    Well. Bob has provided appropriate directed instruction talking points, although fairly well concealed behind eduspeak. Suffice it to say that simply relying on a “PC” system–as compared with a human system–to deliver instruction isn’t a solution to the issue under discussion.
    For me, the bottom line remains fairly simple: When a teacher has done all that they can and a student refuses to learn, the teacher’s responsibility has been discharged, their accountability at an end. By this I mean that all teachers must do their best, which includes living an examined professional life and constantly adjusting their teaching with the goal of being ever more effective. The “yellowed note” syndrome whereby a teacher uses the same deteriorating notes they used for their lessons their first and last years of teaching must be avoided. And when a given student isn’t learning, the teacher must do all that they can to encourage that student, including talking with them, offering tutoring, working with counselors (testing, etc.), working with the school which provides tutoring and other programs and working with the parents.
    There are, however, some things that are foolish and dangerous for teachers to do, such as making home visits, trying to take over the role of parents, and in general, stepping outside the proper professional role of teacher into any other role.
    I’m not speaking here of students who simply lack, for a variety of reasons, the ability to master a given subject no matter how hard they work and no matter how involved are their parents. Any good teacher will and should make allowances for that. I’m speaking of the students who choose to be left behind. The kids who, due to drugs, alcohol, no parental influence or supervision, or simple laziness do little or nothing. These are the kids who are frequently absent, who may not be disruptive in class (or may be), but do little or nothing, who are more than capable of passing, but choose to do only those assignments that interest them and/or who politely rebuff each and every attempt a teacher and their school makes to assist them.
    Even the finest teacher deals with these kids every year; some will simply choose to fail. When they do, is it so hard to say, and to understand, that their failure is not the fault of the teacher, but the responsibility of the student and their parents? Is it so hard to accept that teachers cannot win them all, and when this sort of thing occurs, they are not accountable as they have done everything any competent, reasonable teacher could do and should do to provide the opportunity for that student to be successful?
    When we fully understand the teacher’s responsibilities as I’ve briefly outlined them here, it is hardly objectionable to suggest that it is the teacher’s job to teach and the student’s job to learn. This is not an abdication of responsibility or professionalism on the teacher’s part but a recognition of reality and of human nature, specifically free will and the inevitable drive of some adolescents to fail to do what is good for them. Socrates complained of such behavior, so we’re in pretty good company.
    Yes, not every teacher can or will do as well as the best teachers, but that’s human nature too, for not only can everyone be excellent, not everyone can be average. That’s a matter for their supervisors whose job is to identify those who are not doing as well as they should and who must encourage and assist them in doing better.
    Is it worthwhile to suggest, as a matter of inspiration, that teachers have substantial responsibility for ensuring that they do everything possible for their students to provide the best possible opportunity to learn? Of course. But it’s less than realistic, even harmful, to hold to that rhetoric even when students work with every fiber of their being to fail. After all, if they’re going to work that hard, if they’re going to ignore every helping hand extended, if they’re going to ignore the finest, more effective and caring instruction, who are we to stand in their way? And more importantly, how do we help our profession by assuming responsibility and accountability for what we cannot control?

  6. Bob

    Kudos, Bill. I’d take your point a step further and suggest that a person teaches only when learning occurs. The rest of the time, from a student’s view, the noise in the classroom is similar to that heard when Charlie Brown sits at his desk in cartoons with the teacher saying, “Blah, blah, blah, …”
    As to teacher malpractice, I’ll share two observations. Most teachers probably know these already. Both rely on teachers having effective and efficient instructional options available that they do not choose to use consistently.
    One, attorney’s have been watching teachers to find the right case that will hold up through the U.S. Supreme Court to establish a minimum teacher performance standard below which malpractice can be asserted. This has to do with classroom teaching and learning, not teacher credentials, etc. They argue that a profession does not exist until a clear standard exists of what is not professional practice.
    Second, education faculty at the University of Oregon coined the term administrator abuse to denote allowing teachers in a school to uses less than effective and efficient instruction procedures when more effective and efficient procedures are available. In short, they distinguish between hide-and-seek and more directed instruction.
    In addition, it seems to me that someone will implement ways to hold teachers accountable for wasting student time in schools with less than efficient and effective instruction and learning. It’s possible to put a dollar value on each second of each student’s time in each class. That calculus underwrites a value for productive and wasted time.
    Uses of PCs in schools will likely increasingly include ways systematically to monitor such E&E indices. A few educators, working with school IT staff, are developing such indices. Educators who elect not to allow such monitoring in their schools and classrooms will likely have to demonstrate superior student learning ratios in other ways.
    Your point seems consistent with the reasoning underwriting educator malpractice and abuses.
    While I know such activities exist, I also think that their widespread uses in schools will lag behind more uses of PCs for learning. New teachers will most likely face them during their careers. Most experienced teachers today will have probably retired without encountering more than rhetoric about such accountability.
    What do you think?

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