Suppose a patient goes to his doctor. The patient smokes and is slightly overweight. He asks the doctor what he can do to improve his health. The doctor gives him a prescription: start dieting and stop smoking. The doctor’s wisdom makes sense, but the patient doesn’t have the willpower to change his lifestyle, so he doesn’t. The patient returns to the doctor every few months for a checkup and the doctor continues to offer the same advice: start dieting and stop smoking. After enough time elapses, the patient returns to the doctor and learns that he now has lung cancer and diabetes. Now who is at fault for the patient’s failing health, the doctor or the patient?
Now suppose a student enters a classroom. Test scores indicate the student is reading at a sixth grade level even though the student is a sophomore in high school. The teacher gives him a prescription: read more. Cut back on the video games and television and read more. The teacher’s wisdom makes sense, but the student doesn’t have the drive to do as prescribed, and for a variety of reasons, the student's parents don't have the time to read with him or the energy to enforce the teacher's prescription. Nine months later the student takes an end of level test and the results show very little improvement has occurred. The student receives a poor grade and his parent’s want answers. Now who is at fault, the teacher or the student/parent?
Now I know some will feel I’m comparing apples to oranges here. I am. There are several differences. The first is the patient went to the doctor on his own accord. He wasn’t forced by some state-ran entity. Second, the patient asked the doctor what he could do to improve his health. He was conscious of his health and sought answers. And finally, the doctor interacted with the patient one-on-one without having to contend with 30 other patients. In the second scenario, the student was forced to enter the teacher’s classroom (with 30 other students), and although he was told what he could do to improve his reading, he never asked for his teacher's advice. Why would he care to improve his reading when there are more entertaining options waiting for him at home?
Why is it that we would never fault a doctor if a patient refused to adhere to a prescription and thus got sick, but the moment a student fails in the classroom, the blame must lie with the teacher even when the student ignored the teacher’s advice? Yes, there are bad teachers just as there are bad professionals in all professions, but maybe, just maybe we should be a little slower to point the finger at educators when student achievement isn’t where parents want it to be. After all, assuming a student has perfect attendance in a given school year, a teacher will only spend 90 days with that student during that school year (or 180 if the school doesn’t have a rotating daily schedule). But a parent to a sixteen-year-old will have had 5,840 days together. How can a teacher break a habit in 90 days that had over 5,000 to metastasize?
A farmer can lead a horse to water, but he can’t make him drink. Just as a teacher can lead a student to knowledge, but he can’t make him think.