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The United States currently lags behind other industrialized nations when it comes to education standards. In 2006 the National Center for Education Statistics completed a multi-year study which compared the test scores of 15-year-old students in the U.S. with students from other countries which are part of the Organization for Economic Development and found that the U.S. students placed below average in math and science scores compared to the other countries. This study serves as yet another basis for the assertion that we are lagging behind other nations when it comes to education. The study also found that even though the U.S. is not falling further behind, we are not closing the gap either.1 In order to compete globally we have to find a way to close this gap. This is why it becomes a big deal when we have students graduating from high school without being able to read or write and perhaps more importantly, lacking the foundation to take on post secondary education and beyond. Many people would say that improving our educational process starts with determining who should be blamed or held responsible, legally or morally, for our shortcomings. Then when we determine who is responsible we must then determine what we have been doing wrong and find ways to fix it. Who then is responsible? One could logically say that the students themselves, their parents, and the school systems are equally responsible when a student fails to learn. After all, it takes effort on the part of all three to ensure the education process works. But then you have to determine if one party is more to blame then the others. Most people would agree that the school systems, since education is their main purpose, should be bearing the lion's share of the responsibility for any student's failure to learn. But if we then place the greatest amount of responsibility on our school systems do we hold them legally responsible or say it is just a moral responsibility?
The scenario asks if the school system can be held either legally or morally responsible for ensuring that all graduating students be able to adequately read and write. First lets deal with the morally responsibility. The term responsibility cannot be used to fully describe what we are dealing with here. Who is responsible if a child fails all of his or her classes for a given year? One would have to assess the situation and assign levels of responsibility to all parties involved. Starting with the student you would have to determine if he or she made an honest effort to comprehend the information taught. Then if they found themselves falling behind, did they attempt to take advantage of any extra help made available like after-school tutoring programs. You would then have to look at the parents and determine what percentage of responsibility they must bear for the student's failure. Was it a single parent home where the parent had to work to provide support and a lack of free time may have not made it possible to help the student with his or her school work? Did the parent ensure the student maintained adequate attendance? Did they offer encouragement to the student during his or her struggles? Then finally that leaves the school system itself. Did the program of instruction they offered enable the student to learn. Did they attempt to intervene when they determined that the student was falling behind and offer additional help? Did they bring to bear all available resources to assist in teaching the student? Each of these variables would be hard, if not impossible, to evaluate to determine the percentage that they contributed to the student's failure to learn. Given this, how can one possibly accurately assign levels of responsibility or blame to any one party?
One can see that assigning responsibility alone can neither be accurate or helpful. You have to realize that accountability also comes into play when attempting to find the root of the problem. There is a difference between responsibility and accountability. The teachers, administrators, parents, community, and even the students themselves at some point are responsible for success or failure when it comes to education. This responsibility stems from the fact that there is an obligation on the part of all of those parties to participate in order to ensure the student learns, and in the sense that the parties all contribute to some extent to student learning, then one can accurately say that they jointly share responsibility. The teachers and school system administrators can be held accountable for student learning based on the fact that public school systems are created and publicly funded to produce student learning as a specific outcome. Once the child starts attending school the school system should be both responsible and accountable for ensuring the student learns. This accountability is due to the fact that the administrators and teachers are excepting a salary with the expectation that they will adequately teach the students. They should utilize every means possible to ensure this happens and make corrections when it does not. The school system should ensure an early intervention system is in place which provides academic support. There should be formal assessment guidelines in place to identify students who are falling behind. This is important not only to help the student who is failing at that particular time but also it will help the school identify what could have been done differently at an earlier point in time which will prevent future students with similar problems from failing for the same reasons. If attendance becomes a problem then a guidance counselor or social worker should become involved to address the problem. The school system has the responsibility to find ways to get the parents more involved in their children's education process. By doing this they can determine if other issues, such as transportation, are an issue if the student is not taking advantage of additional tutoring that may be offered after school hours. This and much more, is all part of what constitutes the school's responsibility and since they are paid to do these things then they can also be held accountable for the same.
To give an actual example to illustrate why a school system should be held accountable for any students who fail to learn I submit what I learned about the local school district where I live. The school district falls into the small school district category for comparison purposes. It is a Title I school district which operates a elementary, middle, and high school which they house in two separate campuses (the middle and high schools are combined). There are a total of 707 students currently enrolled in the district. The current school budget totals close to 12.3 million dollars with 9.1 million dollars allocated to the salaries of the administrators, teachers, and support staff. The cost per student is $17370.00 compared to the state average of $9033.00.2 One would think that we really have an excellent school system based on the investment we make. The elementary school is a Title I Distinguished School and has maintained this status for several years now. However, the high school was placed on the "in need of improvement list" by the state the first year it was started and has been assessed as "failing to make adequate yearly progress" the last two years. So yes I do feel the school system should be held accountable. How can the school district in good faith say we are getting our money's worth?
Education is the backbone of our county's effort to produce an adequate and capable workforce. As technology continues to evolve and our country becomes more and more dependent on complex production techniques, our work force has to adapt in order to be able to function. This adaptation relies primarily on education. Our country lives in an information age that is characterized by the industry and professional job positions that comprise its core work force. As such employers will be looking for people who have earned college degrees to fill their available positions. An ever increasing amount of career fields that in the past did not require a degree now do. This increased education requirement will ensure companies are able to take advantage of the latest technology and that they are able to compete globally. As such our nation must find ways to increase the number of students who seek and successfully earn college degrees.
The scenario states that it is unlikely that the person that brought the law suit against the school will win his case. Many people do not realize that it is possible to sue a school district for "educational malpractice". The person who brings the suit has the burden to prove that they suffered damages as a result of the school district failing to fulfill its duty to properly educate them. However in U.S. appellate courts today the claims have been unsuccessful thus far. The courts usually rule that there is a difference between "educational malpractice" and negligence. When a child fails to learn there are just too many variables to be considered to find the school solely legally liable for the student failing to learn. Many of these variables are ruled to be beyond the school's control such as home environment, nutrition, and language barriers.