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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Yes, What About Student Accountability?

Brian Toporek began by asking, “What About Student Accountability?”

If college professors hold students 100 percent accountable for their own learning, shouldn't K-12 teachers ease students into taking responsibility for their own education? That's the question Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor from the University of Virginia, asks in a guest post on the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog.

Willingham notes that among his university colleagues, the professors aren't concerned with whether students show up to class or study. "Most professors figure that their job is to teach well. Whether the student learns or not is up to him or her," he says.

First, I would quibble with the statement “professors aren't concerned with whether students show up to class or study. 'Most professors figure that their job is to teach well. Whether the student learns or not is up to him or her.'”

When I was a college student, professors did not assign "homework." We assigned it to ourselves. We did as many math problems as it took to get comfortable. We asked about the problems we could not solve. In a typical class period, there would be questions about maybe three or four of the problems. Students who did not do the work on their own initiative would suffer the natural consequences at test time.

I had one professor, an immigrant from kindergarten, who assigned and collected homework from her college students. The students vilified her for treating them as children. Students say they wish to be treated like adults, but today, professors who treat students as I was typically treated (that is, like and adult) when I was a student are likely to find themselves in front of the department chair defending their practice.

The university is no longer a university. It has become a customer-driven marketplace where the customer is always right. In my student days, complaining students got nowhere with the administration even if their complaints were warranted. Consequently, there were sometimes abuses of power. However, the wholesale adoption of the market model has not produced better outcomes.

As Judith Steele points out in her comment, "All teachers of college students are familiar with these common behaviors and habits that result in low or failing grades: late arrival to class, high absenteeism, no book purchased, work not turned in, unprepared for class, sleeping in class, and the ubiquitous texting in class."

Yes, we are all familiar with these common behaviors. Dr. Willingham even introduced his article with his own anecdote.

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.

Many university departments now expect professors to organize their class as if it were a high school with multiple graded homework assignments, weekly quizzes, attendance taking, etc. and a lot of hand holding. Students complain loudly in class if the professor assigns what some of them believe to be too many problems. Actually, I am willing to hold their hands and lead them across the academic bridge to accountability and achievement that I am building for them. Many refuse to cross. They often go to the department chair and essentially get teleported. Beam me up, Scotty. Administrators tell professors to ensure somehow that every student passes, regardless of the quality of work.

Of course, starting in junior high, students in my day were held increasingly accountable for our own grades and learning. Today, teachers just say, "Just wait till you get to college" instead of training immature adolescents to become relatively mature 18-year old scholars.

However, I am sympathetic. Without administrative support, (and lack of administrative support is the number one reason teachers leave teaching), teachers have difficulty doing their jobs and training the children in the way they should go. In some school environments, maintaining control is all a teacher can manage. I once had a principal who allowed no D's or F's. He simply changed the grades of those recalcitrant teachers who gave what students earned.

I mentor a young, talented and reflective high school teacher who teaches in a well equipped school located in a high income area. Her main struggle and frustration is student behavior. There is something seriously wrong as long as administrators hold teachers more responsible for student behavior than the students themselves (and their parents).

Bryan Toporek ended by asking, "But how would you propose capturing that idea of student accountability in a revamped teacher evaluation process?" I added the following comment to his post.

Before capturing "that idea" of student accountability, ie, the idea that students are responsible for their own learning, I propose a more fundamental idea of student accountability.

Students should be held accountable for their behavior...I don't care how "bored" a student is, boredom is never an acceptable reason for disruptive behavior and disrespecting the teacher. Administrators need to be strong enough to stand up to parents who excuse their child's behavior on account of so-called "boredom." What many teachers mean by lack of administrative support is lack of classroom management support and caving to parents.

Let students be held accountable for their behavior first, and accountability for learning may well take care of itself.

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