Taking responsibility for student learning

Woman with a study groupResearchers studying the achievement of a large group of beginning high school students found that achievement gains were significantly higher and more equitably distributed in schools where teachers took collective responsibility for students’ academic success or failure.

Researchers, Valerie E. Lee, University of Michigan and Julia B. Smith, University of Rochester, analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) on almost 10,000 teachers and more than 12,000 students in 820 public, private and Catholic high schools in the U.S. NELS tested students in core subjects in 8th grade and then again in 10th grade and interviewed teachers about their beliefs, teaching practices, and the working conditions in their departments.

Schools that promote collective responsibility for learning

Lee and Smith conclude from their analysis that teachers who hold certain beliefs about teaching and learning are more likely to be effective teachers. Teachers in departments that tend to take responsibility for the learning of all their students, regardless of their academic qualifications or social characteristics, create environments where students learn more and where learning is distributed more equitably across the entire student body. In such schools, social background is only weakly related to learning.

Teachers who believed it was their responsibility to ensure that all students learned, also reported high levels of cooperation in their departments and more control over their work environments. Small schools appear to be especially conducive to cooperation among teachers and to a collective belief in their ability to increase student achievement. Even when other factors are controlled, students learn more in small schools and there is also more equity in learning outcomes.

Lee and Smith conclude that this analysis of the NELS data produced some unequivocal results, in particular, that staffs who held themselves responsible for teaching all students, regardless of background, produced higher achievement in all subjects. These results took into account previous achievement and track placement and therefore, these researchers believe that it represents a solid finding.

In addition, this study shows how widely schools vary in the degree to which teaching staffs believe they are responsible for student achievement. In many schools, teachers share strong doubts about their students’ ability to learn and their ability to teach them effectively. Lee and Smith believe that changing such attitudes is very difficult and that it is not clear how change happens.

However, this study indicates that when teachers collaborate and work in teams to improve their instruction and their students’ achievement over a period of years, they slowly begin to assume collective responsibility for their students’ learning. Lee and Smith conclude that the structure of teaching environments in schools has serious implications for students’ achievement.


“Collective Responsibility for Learning and Its Effect on Gains in Achievement for Early Secondary School Students” American Journal of Education Volume 104, Number 2, February 1996 pp.103-140

Published in ERN May/June 1996 Volume 9 Number 3


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