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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 04/19/2011

Teachers: Blame only where blame is due

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This was written by Thomas Hurst, a recent graduate of the M.A. program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park .

By Thomas Hurst

When is it fair to blame teachers for student performance? If you do your homework, you’ll learn that teachers are not to blame for as much as many — including U.S. policymakers — may think.

Research shows that there are a host of factors that can affect student achievement. A 2009 report released by the Educational Testing Service identified 16 variables that impact student achievement:

1. Curriculum rigor

2. Teacher preparation

3. Teacher experience

4. Teacher absence and turnover

5. Class size

6. Availability of instructional technology

7. Fear and safety at school

8. Parent participation

9. Frequent changing of schools

10. Low birth weight

11. Environmental damage (i.e., lead, mercury)

12. Hunger and nutrition

13. Talking and reading to babies and young children

14. Excessive television watching

15. Parent-pupil ration (# of parents)

16. Summer achievement gain/loss


How many of these factors do teachers control?

Teachers have a role in determining their experience, preparation, and dedication. They also have a degree of control over school safety and parent participation, albeit they must rely on their fellow staff members, and parents must meet them halfway. The most control they have is probably over the curriculum rigor in their classes through the quality of their instruction and expectations for their students. But even this is misleading because most times curriculum is dictated by federal, state, and school policies.

Furthermore, teachers cannot always hold their students to the official standards because many students enter their classrooms unprepared to meet those standards. Despite their best efforts, teachers cannot force students to learn or to care about school.

So how many is that? By my count, teachers have some control over six of these 16 factors. Many factors are outside of school, bringing to mind the conclusions that Richard Rothstein made in his 2004 book “ Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, And Educational Reform To Close The Black-white Achievement Gap .” He wrote that too much blame is put on schools for problems of social and economic policies. In fact, 10 of these achievement-hampering factors, such as low birth weight, nutrition, and the home environment, are beyond the teacher’s responsibility or control. Furthermore, a student who is hungry or falling asleep would be better served by a meal or a nap more than they would improved instruction.

We cannot expect teachers to address all of the ills of society that affect achievement (but you would not get that impression from watching the news). And even when these social and economic problems do not spill over into classrooms, teachers are still expected to account for things they do not control.

Sociology Professor Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania found in his research on school work conditions that oftentimes teachers do not get support from administrators and have little control over policies that dictate their work including school discipline policies, class assignments (in terms of size or even subject area), or resources.

“If top-down policies hold teachers accountable for activities they do not control, they may harm the very thing they seek to improve--teacher performance.” Ingersoll wrote in his book,Who Controls Teachers’ Work? ” In short, it does not make sense to hold someone accountable for something they do not control.

So how do you hold teachers accountable? Simple: Control for all the other variables that affect student performance.

If people are afraid teachers will hide behind these factors as excuses, then eliminating them will make it that much easier to hold teachers accountable.

If students come to school with problems that stem from living in poverty, try implementing a full-service community school such as the Harlem Children’s Zone to improve student health care and parent engagement. The HCZ’s Baby College program addresses many of the factors listed above that affect children’s cognitive development, including teaching parents how factors such as reading to their children and nutrition can affect achievement.

To really hold teachers accountable, give them more control over their work conditions. According to Ingersoll, the “the impact of teachers’ controlling social issues, such as disciplinary and tracking decisions, greatly overshadow]s] that of instructional control” and more teacher control leads to reduced student misbehavior as well as reduced conflict among teachers and administrators.

Some schools in Detroit, Denver, and Boston, have foregone principals and given control to the teachers. These teacher-led schools (or Teacher Professional Partnerships, called TPP) give teachers collective control over virtually all aspects of the school, including assessment, teacher evaluation, the budget (including teacher compensation), and school discipline policy.

According to Education Evolving’s website, “When a TPP accepts responsibility to manage, or arrange for the management of, one or more schools, the teachers are directly responsible and accountable for what happens at the learning communities they serve.”

While many people may not want to give full control of schools over to teachers, it is still possible to recalibrate teacher accountability so it recognizes the influence of outside factors that affect achievement.

Richard Elmore, professor of educational leadership at Harvard University, coined a wonderful term for striking a balance between accountability and resources: Reciprocal accountability. This means that for each thing teachers are expected to be accountable for, the school or district is accountable for providing the necessary support and resources. If teachers do not have the resources to accomplish the task then you cannot hold them accountable when they fail to accomplish it. This ensures that teachers are not set up to fail through unrealistic expectations. Giving teachers more power over school policies and work conditions and more input on what resources they need will help teachers get the support they need and clarify whether it is fair to hold them accountable.

Not being part of the “blame teachers first” crowd does not mean someone is blame teachers last. But blaming teachers for things beyond their control will not help students or help us learn how to improve schools.

The real question to ask about accountability is not “Did the teacher meet performance standards?” but “Did the teacher meet performance standards considering the resources at their disposal?”

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