Null suggests that the view which sees teachers as the primary responsibility-holders to student learning confuse the business of education with most other businesses. There, if the product falls short of expectations, the workers are the likely culprit. As Null rightly points out, this ignores one key difference between "factories" and education: students, unlike cars and insurance policies, are agents that are often actively resistant to being "worked on." If a car turns out not to work well, something in the workmanship is likely to blame. If a student graduates history class without being able to recall history facts, it may be due to poor teaching by the teacher, or poor learning by the student.
Null provides an analogy to bolster the point:
[I]f a husband and wife enroll in, say, a marriage course at their local church, should the pastor who teaches these classes be blamed if the couple's marriage never improves? Or do the husband and wife have a joint responsibility to improve their own marriage?
Obviously, we would suggest that the pastor can persuade, guide, cajole, instruct, and remind. What we would not say, though, is that any of this can make the marriage work. In the end, teaching, guiding, and reminding are only so good as the will of the person recieving the instruction, guidance, and reminders.
That this is analogous to the limits of the teacher's role is obvious. What we do with this recognition is not. When teachers say things like, 'we can only do so much,' or try to shift at least some of the "blame" onto parents, students, and an anti-intellectual culture that many students come to us imbued with, we are seen as offering a subterfuge. In turn, teachers may be charged with laziness and unwillingness to be accountable.
In some sense, this view is sometimes justified. There certainly are such things as bad teachers, and often, those teachers ARE shielded from accountability by the ill-thought-out mechanism of tenure. And, as a "public service," there has to be some way to hold teachers accountable for results. Otherwise, poor-performing teachers can pawn all responsibility onto their students.
There are several other reasons for our collective uncomfortability with blaming at least some of education's failure on students:
(1) Doing so forces parents and society at large to take a critical look at their practices and whether they may be (inadvertently) sending teachers students who have not been taught such basic prerequisites to learning as respect for authority, impulse control, and some reason (internal or external) to value the enterprise of education. It is easier to blame teachers for students' low performance.
(2) As trivial as it seems, all of us have become familiar with the "feel good" teacher movies like "The Ron Clark Story," "Dangerous Minds," and "Freedom Writers," where a teacher is able to overcome all educational obstabcles with students by pure dilligence and tenacity. Take this, couple it with the egalitarian idea that every child has equal potential, and we grow intolerant with the view that student failure is not purely a symptom of bad teaching.
(3) As most of us have had at least 12 years of direct experience with teachers, teaching is the one job that most people have seen close-up, and as such, most people feel is not so difficult. I think that this inadvertently plays into notions that student failure is due to bad teaching because, unlike most professions, it is easy to "play at armchair teaching." Laypersons might not be quick to offer opinions on how accountants can do their job better, but are generally unafraid to criticize the "common sense" discipline of teaching.
It is difficult to know how to strike a good balance between holding teachers accountable for results and accepting that teaching, unlike other professions, requires willingness from producer AND PRODUCT in order to be successful. it may even be as simple as involving teachers who produce scores of underachieving students in more stringent observations and professional developments. It may also involve offering teachesr financial incentives, as some districts have done, for good results (thus not penalizing underperformance, but simply rewarding outstanding performance.
But what many don't realize is that teaching is hard as it is. It is even harder when we teachers are held solely or even primarily accountable for students low performance on tests (when they admit, as they often have to me, that they do not studey), for low homework grades (homework is the responsibility of the home), and even student truency.
As Null correctly notes, and as hard as it is for many parents and policy-makers to hear, "Individual agency matters. Put another way, one person cannot be held responsible for another person's behavior."