Tuesday, August 17, 2010


From the Washington Post,
Teacher accountability schemes let teens off the hook
By Daniel Willingham
Not long ago a student told me a story about taking the SAT. Students were to bring a photo I.D., and the girl in front of her in line had not brought one. When she was told that she couldn’t take the test without the i.d., she was incredulous. She literally did not believe that there would be a consequence for her forgetfulness. She assumed that there would be a Plan B for people like her. When it became clear that plan B was “go home and next time, bring your I.D.,” she was angry and scornful.

I see this attitude not infrequently in freshmen I teach. They are unaccustomed to the idea that they are fully responsible for their actions, at least in the academic arena. In contrast, professors at most colleges very much think of students as 100% responsible for their own learning. Professors may not notice or care whether students come to class, study, or learn. Most professors figure that their job is to teach well. Whether the student learns or not is up to him or her.

This attitude may seem uncaring, but I believe it’s no different than the attitude 18-year olds would find in the military or in the workplace.

Setting aside the issue of whether college freshmen should carry 100% responsibility for their learning, consider this question. Given that that is the state of the world, what happens during K-12 education to prepare students for this responsibility? It seems to me that almost nothing is done. But shouldn’t students become increasingly aware of this responsibility as they get older?

I can see telling a first grade teacher: “You can’t expect the kids to come to you. You’ve got to reach them.” But if we say the same thing to a high school teacher, we’re failing to teach students something important.

Yet all of the formulations of teacher accountability that use student performance data fail to take this factor into account. Student learning is used to evaluate high school teachers and lower elementary teachers in the same way. But if you believe that students should become more responsible for their learning as they age, shouldn’t teachers become less responsible?

I’m not discussing parental responsibilities here, but that doesn’t mean I think that they should be off the hook.

A quality we prize in adults is the ability to learn something from everyone. Being able to learn from different teachers is an important life skill, one that we should build into our students’ education. To my knowledge, it’s not done.

Naturally, the danger is that teachers will be only too glad for students to assume responsibility for their learning. My suggestion is predicated on a different model of teacher accountability, one in which teachers are accountable for teaching well. Students are responsible to do their part
Damn, I love the way this man thinks.


  1. I was told by a student today (he should be a senior, I think he is a sophomore) that I am unprofessional and that I did not do a good job teaching the subject to him because he could not do the ARITHMETIC on the test today.

    He has done little work, none of it right for the past 2 weeks.

    I told me earlier: "you asked for work. You didn't say it had to be correct."

    I see failure in his future.

  2. That should be "He told me earlier"