Who is responsible for fixing education: teachers, parents, administration, the community, the government? When people try to answer this question, there is almost always a fight. When someone says, “the teachers,” someone says back: “How can you blame the teachers? Research shows that student achievement is two-thirds a function of factors the school has no control over.” And so on for 100 years with no fundamental change in our 19th Century school system.
Why? Because what is really being discussed in this paragraph is blame not responsibility. The word “responsibility” is being used irresponsibly. If we want to change this conversation from a fruitless debate to a real attempt at change, we will have to use the word responsible responsibly.
What does that mean? For answers to this question notice incidents where individuals have taken responsibility for the education of those in their care. Where education is occurring, you will see less talking responsibility and more taking responsibility. The answer to the question, “Who is responsible for student achievement” is: “Whoever takes responsibility.”
Sophomore year in high school John was chatting at the edge of the soccer field after a game with his coach who had taken an interest in him.
“So John, how are you doing in school?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“You sound unenthusiastic,”
“Well, it’s kinda boring, and I often don’t see the point.”
“Ah, I see that you are missing the point. The point is that school is not supposed to be interesting, relevant, and enlightening. That would be nice, but in most schools teachers are not required to challenge you with material that will make you be a success. In fact they are not even required to challenge you.
“Look at school as a game—maybe a game against the toughest team in the league—maybe impossible to win. As you know from all these years of playing soccer, success isn’t about always winning, it is about always playing a great game. School won’t give you an education; school is a place for you to get an education. School is an opportunity to challenge yourself to learn the game and to play the best game you can. Playing THAT game will put you on the pathway to success.”
John told me this story in answer to my question, “Did you get a good education?”
He had said, “Yes, I got a good education once I realized getting a good education was up to me. From then on I took responsibility for my education, and for my success, and that is how I became an analyst at Google. Before that pep talk, I didn’t even think I was any good at mathematics, after that talk I realized it didn’t matter. I loved Google and wanted to work there.”
People will hear me say this and say: “That’s a REAL cop out. Now you are saying education is the child’s responsibility.”
And I will remind them to use of the word responsibility responsibly. I will say, “No, I am giving an example of what it means to take responsibility for education.
“Parents and teachers, also, can take responsibility for education. They can make the commitment to make sure those in their care are learning, especially learning to face up the their challenges with courage, to get skillful at conflicts, to learn from their mistakes and failure, and to keep in touch with their creative genius. A teacher’s job may be to teach some academic skills, but an educator’s responsibility is to lead each person’s genius out into the world to function creatively, effectively and gracefully within it.”
Responsibility talk involves (1) apportioning of responsibility (as in “Teachers are partially responsible, but so are parents”), (2) uses the past tense (“Research has shown that sociological factors are more important”), and (3) betrays a shortage of the first person singular. When people take responsibility the verbs look to the future and the subject is the first person. Taking responsibility is a 100%-0 commitment, not a 50-50 deal. Responsibility talk won’t make a difference; taking responsibility will.
Anyone can take responsibility. A teacher can take responsibility for figuring out how to inspire students even if the system seems to work against them. Parents can take responsibility for creating the conditions in which their children take responsibility. Each member of a community can find a way to make a difference and take responsibility for it–examples of such initiatives abound.
Responsibility is a very important word in education, please use it responsibly.