Algebra, Pigs and Freedom

Accountability sounds like a good idea. If it’s my job to teach children, and I fail to do that, I am responsible.

But teaching and learning are not the same thing.

I am more than willing to be held accountable for whether I prepare lessons, show up for class, and work with students to help them understand and use the information and skills I am teaching them.

But am I responsible for what students learn?

Are parents responsible for their children’s success in life? If my sixteen-year-old son hangs out with the wrong crowd and gets in trouble, or my fifteen-year-old daughter gets pregnant, what is my job as a parent? What should I have done differently? Am I a bad parent?

Because I talk with parents of children like this a lot, I would say that parents have a lot of responsibility, but at some point their control over their child ends. I have seen good, concerned, caring parents despair over their son’s or daughter’s refusal to do homework, their truancy, their inability to resist peer-pressure. I don’t know how to assign blame for a child’s failure, but I’m sure it’s not just one person’s fault. It’s not as simple as taking away the cell phone or banning rap music.

And teachers – are they responsible for their students’ success? If a student will not do any work, sleeps during class, cuts class, disrupts class, responds to no motivational strategies, what is my job as a teacher? What should I do differently?

I am a parent of a hundred kids – for fifty minutes a day.

There is a huge push towards holding teachers accountable for students’ success or failure. There is no corresponding push towards holding parents accountable. I think both ideas are misguided.

Success and failure in school is assessed through testing. Let’s assume for a few moments that tests are a valid tool for measuring success.


Thirty students show up in my classroom for ninth grade English on August 25. In a year and a half, they will take a test that determines whether they graduate or not.

They are not blank slates; they have already received many hours of instruction and have taken many tests during elementary and middle school. They have different interests and talents, different goals and fears. They have families, friends, and hormones.

When they pass or fail the test as sophomores, what degree of responsibility is mine? What if they pass English, but fail Science? Should we punish the science teachers?

What if I teach art, or music, or gym, or Spanish? Which results should I be held responsible for – reading and writing? Math? All of them?

Should we go back and find the first grade teachers of all the kids who fail the Reading test, and hold them accountable? Maybe it’s the librarian’s fault.

It’s not a simple equation: Teacher Skill + Curriculum = Student Success. These things are all related, but in a more complex manner than most understand.
Back to our assumption: should we consider tests a valid measuring tool?

Testing drives everything in schools. A standard is set, tests are created, cut scores determined, and days are set aside in the school calendar to assess students. Teachers don’t do these things, nor do school districts; state boards of education do. How do they decide these things – what should be tested, what number equals success?
All I can say is, nobody asked me. As a teacher, my opinion is suspect.

In my school district, the target keeps moving. When we finally began to make progress towards the first tests, new tests arose, devouring the old tests, but growing no fatter. The truth is that you don’t make a pig fatter by weighing it, even if the scale is new and shiny. Students don’t learn more because harder tests are thrown in their way.

I confess that though I loved algebra, I have rarely used it as an adult. I am glad that I know certain things about science and history, and I am sure that I am a better teacher because of things I was taught in school.

I believe in liberal education – a curriculum that creates humane and critical thinkers who understand what freedom is and accept their responsibility as citizens to their fellow citizens. I believe that education isn’t just an accumulation of facts, but a training of the mind.

But I am not sure that everyone needs to know algebra, even if everyone is going to college.

I my opinion, every member of every board of education, every legislature that mandates testing for graduation – every one of these people should have to pass these tests.

Then we will see how we define success.

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