Who's responsible?

 There was something about all the criticism of teachers, all the talk of “failing” schools that  bugged me, but for the longest time I hadn’t been able to put my finger on just what it was. 

Then I I saw a cartoon. 

There were two panels.  In the first, two parents and a child were standing in front of a teacher seated at her desk.  They were holding the child’s report card, filled with Ds and Fs.  They were glaring at their cringing child, demanding he explain his failure.  The panel was labeled 1960. 

In the second panel, the participants were the same, except that the parents and child were glaring at the teacher, who was cringing.  And they were demanding that she explain a report card filled with Ds and Fs.  That panel was labeled 2010.

            Today, the teachers and schools are regularly criticized for the poor performance of children on their standardized tests.  The teachers and schools are being berated for children not doing their homework and not getting good grades.  But I suddenly realized a very important thing thanks to this cartoon.  I asked myself the obvious question: who is it that listens to the lectures, does the homework and takes the tests?  I don’t think it’s the teachers.

            If a student does well in school, the parents praise him for working hard.  They tell him that he overcame obstacles.  They praise him for his determination.  They’ll talk about how he got good grades because he applied himself, because he focused on the goal, because he cared about his future.  Some parents will pay their children cold hard cash for each A they bring home.

            But if the student fails?  If his test scores are low?  Then the parents, pundits and politicians will explain how the schools and the lazy, incompetent teachers have failed. 

Success is because of the student working hard.  Failure is the fault of teachers and their unions.

            This is, quite frankly, very strange.  And rather unjust and wrongheaded.

It used to be that when children received poor grades in school, or didn’t do well on tests, it was the children who got in trouble.  Although the children always wanted to blame the teacher, explain how “she hates me,” or come up with some other excuse as to why they didn’t get the grades they should have gotten, parents knew that it was their students’ responsibility for how they were doing in school.   

When we watch the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, and we see George Baily, played by Jimmy Stewart, yelling at the poor teacher on the phone, the point is for us to understand just how unhinged and depressed George Baily has become.  The scene is designed to shock us.

But now, according to the politicians and pundits on television, George Baily was absolutely right to berate that teacher.  In fact, he should have gotten her fired!  And on top of that, the teacher’s unions are at fault for protecting that incompetent woman and all her colleagues who infest all the failing schools and who resist the reforms that would surely lead us to the promised land of educational perfection.  If it weren’t for bad teachers being coddled by a corrupt union, all the children would be getting straight As.


            It must be nice to live in a world where it is always someone else’s fault other than the person who does a bad job. The child is the one who takes the tests, not the teachers.  The child is the one who does his or her homework—or fails to do his or her homework—not the teachers.

            This all seems so obvious I’m puzzled why no one has said a word or noticed the shift in blame.  It is said that “schools are failing” because the students are not learning, as demonstrated by their failure to pass standardized tests. 

            So tell me again.  Whose fault is it that students aren’t learning?  The teachers, or the students who don’t bother doing their homework, fail their tests, and intermittently come to class?

            As I recall, if I got a bad grade in a class, my parents blamed me and punished me.  That seems obviously right, since I was the one who had earned the grade, whatever it was.

If I’m writing a book and I make mistakes, I really can’t blame my editor.  If a worker on the assembly line is drunk and fails to properly tighten all the bolts on the machine he’s assembling, it will usually be that worker who gets fired.

            But if a student fails a test or doesn’t learn algebra?  Why, of course it’s not the student’s fault for not studying: it’s that stupid teacher and her stupid union. 

            Makes perfect sense—if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t believe in taking responsibility for your own actions.