Student Accountability in the American Classroom

It is noisy out there. The debate over how we can improve the American education system has become a screaming match over the last few years. The focus has been on teacher- accountability and how to manipulate the teacher in order to raise Johnny's test score. I believe that we have missed the point. There has been much beating of chests and gnashing of teeth over the issue. Schools have closed, teachers fired, and all kinds of crazy programs put in place in an attempt to fix the problem. However, we have overlooked one very important player - Johnny himself.

In our quest for better schools, better curriculum, higher test scores, and better graduation rates, we have overlooked the most important component in the mix - the student. He has to have more skin in the game. We teachers are so busy working ourselves to death, crunching numbers, and wringing our hands that we have forgotten one important fact. The student, not the teacher, takes the test and earns the score. We have definitely left Johnny off the hook in the last decade as we twist ourselves like contortionists to get the test scores up. It reminds me of the children's story "The Emperor's New Clothes." Just like the brave child who finally spoke up and said aloud that the Emperor is naked, we must admit that it is time for the student to pony-up in the accountability game.

We need to re-focus our efforts on student accountability. That does not mean I take my job and my own accountability lightly. It just means that without the full involvement and cooperation of the student, no one succeeds. As test scores have become more and more important, we have expected less and less of the student. Instead, we have blamed the teacher for poor student performance. Now we need to focus a serious effort on helping that student take charge and take personal responsibility for his own education and ultimately his own future. It does not start in Washington D.C., or in the state department of education, or in the state legislature. It begins inside the individual classroom. This is where successful teachers change lives one classroom at a time.

Every student has the right to feel safe and comfortable in the classroom setting, regardless of ethnicity, ability, etc. This includes the stinkers as well as the achievers. The teacher has to have a well-thought-out behavior plan that is fair and equitable to all. My plan begins with telling my classes what they can expect of me. It sometimes surprises them. I also tell them that if they see me slipping at my job and not holding up my end of the bargain, they can call me on it. That is all part of our mutual accountability to each other.

Classroom safety and equitability is overseen by the teacher, but is created by the members of the class through a common set of rules and guiding principles. I sum them up in one sentence: "We will be ready, responsible, and respectful to everyone at all times." Ready - we are prepared to do the work every day. Responsible - we are a community of young adults who take personal responsibility for our own education and actions. Respectful - we respect each other and ourselves and do everything that we can to protect and promote the well-being of our community.

Once we establish this common ground, we can get to the business of guiding our students to become accountable for their own behavior, their own education, and ultimately their own lives.

Jenny Ellis has over 20 years teaching experience in the Florida school system. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and has been a Florida finalist three times for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching.
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