Several weeks ago, I wrote an article in the Sun titled "Don't Blame the Teachers." My basic argument was that proposals for merit pay, performance pay, and other incentive plans assume that teachers are slackers who need more pay to do their best. I contended that in many classrooms, teachers confront students who have negative attitudes about academics, are not pushed to succeed by their parents, and are immersed in an anti-intellectual popular culture.
The responses I received to my article were fascinating. One prominent businessman wrote to complain that I was letting incompetent teachers off the hook. A friend who is a member of a New England state board of education said that she had met many lazy teachers. A parent advocate complained that I was blaming parents. A prominent journalist who writes about race and poverty said that I was blaming poor kids for their poverty, even though my article was about all sorts of students, not just poor kids.
Not surprisingly, the letters I received from teachers thanked me for recognizing that what happens to their students outside the classroom and the attitudes they bring to class are even more important than what happens in their classes. A response from a high school science teacher in Brooklyn, David R., was unusually thoughtful and detailed. He pointed out that he has students in his classes from 70 different nations, speaking almost as many languages, most of whom are lower-middle class or in poverty. Many of his students regularly miss their first or second period classes because they have a two-hour trip to school or they are expected by their parents to baby-sit for a younger sibling in the morning or they just don't care about showing up.
This same teacher said that even when attendance is good, large numbers of his students have poor language skills. In one of his classes last spring, he had 10 students who spoke only Chinese; in other classes, there were numerous students who spoke Spanish, Russian, or Hindi but struggled to comprehend English. Some had given up the struggle. Many were indifferent even when the teachers used videos or PowerPoint or other visuals to try to stir their interest.
But even among his native-born students, he said, apathy is rampant. Recently he warned a student that if she didn't improve her achievement, she was unlikely to pass her Regents' science exam. "She shrugged her shoulders. That shrug wasn't the shrug of one student: that was a collective shrug of many, many students." Despite field trips and projects and every trick known to the teachers' trade, many of the students "just don't care."
When the teacher reports a high failing rate, the principal naturally wants to know what he did wrong. What could he do differently? He knows what should be done for students to have higher levels of achievement. He knows the answers, but they are out of his hands.
Get the students to study instead of watching television or playing on their computers or hanging out with their friends. Get them to sleep at a reasonable hour. Get them to comprehend the connection between what they accomplish in school and their chance to have a decent income and life after school. Get them to see the value of visiting museums and libraries. Get them to spend free time improving themselves instead of sleeping late, partying, or going to the movies.
Almost everything that students need to do differently takes place at home. None of it costs an additional dime. It is all within the control and the choice of students and their parents.
The bottom line, says the teacher, is that parents and students must "take charge of their lives and academic careers." Certainly teachers must be well-educated, well-prepared, and give stimulating lessons. Certainly they should assign homework and respond to it promptly with helpful comments.
But even the best teachers cannot be held responsible if students don't show up for school, don't understand English, don't see the point of learning, and care more about what's on television or what their friends are doing than what they do with the rest of their lives.
Even the best teachers can't compete with a powerful pop culture that makes heroes of dumb entertainers while failing to put before our young any heroes worthy of emulation.
Until we as a society begin to recognize that students and parents must take responsibility for the part of their lives under their direct control, we will continue to be dissatisfied with our schools. Scapegoating the teachers won't solve our problems.
Ms. Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Brookings Institution.