Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

Teaching Students to Be Responsible With PLCs

In a blog post last year called Do PLCs Enable Students to Act Irresponsibly? (February 16, 2010), I presented the premise that schools should do more than hope students act responsibly but rather should put procedures in place to require students to do so. I acknowledged that almost all educators would prefer that students act responsibly because responsible behavior is important to their success in school and in life.  I also suggested that regrettably, some of the students who enter our schools do not act responsibly. The question facing educators then is how to respond appropriately when students do not demonstrate the behaviors that we believe are vital to their success.

I argued that a school that allows irresponsible students to elect to fail by not completing assignments or putting forth the effort necessary to learn does not teach students to act responsibly. In fact, it is counter-intuitive to suggest that allowing an irresponsible student to choose to act irresponsibly teaches responsibility, a fact that has been demonstrated for over a century in our schools.

Schools that are committed to providing students with essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions (including work ethic), would put systems in place to hold students accountable for doing what responsible people do—and responsible people do the work. They would provide incentives for completing work on time and consequences for failing to meet deadlines or achieving the acceptable standard of work. What they would not do is absolve the student from the responsibility of doing the work. These schools bombard students with the message, “We will not let you off the hook. We will see to it that you do what is necessary to be successful. We won’t place you in a less rigorous curriculum, nor will we lower our standards for this course or grade level. We will give you the support, time, and structure to help you be successful, but we will not lower the bar.” This approach is the antithesis of enabling.

This blog led rdr72 to weigh in with a series of questions challenging the premise of the article. He presented two basic arguments. First, if we actually insist that students act responsibly in school by requiring them to complete their work, we will not prepare them for higher education or the work force because there will be no system of intervention there requiring them to do the work.

In Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, students are required to demonstrate responsible behavior. If they do so, they earn increasing privileges as they advance through school. If they do not, the school becomes more and more directive, insisting that they complete their work and do what is necessary to succeed in school. As they demonstrate that responsible behavior, the school becomes less directive, and the students earn privileges. Students learn that good grades and responsible behavior are rewarded and that there are meaningful consequences for bad grades and irresponsible behavior. This system helped the school reduce its failure rate from 35% to 1%.

So how have those students fared when they left Stevenson and faced the challenges of higher education? Each year, the school conducts a survey of all seniors as well as a random sampling of its graduates one year after they have left the school and five years after their graduation. The results from the most recent survey are typical:

  • 92% of seniors reported that their experience at Stevenson helped them become more responsible for their own learning.
  • 99% of students who completed their first year of college plan to return to college for a second year. The national average is 70%.
  • 73% felt their academic preparation in high school was superior to the other students in their college, 26% felt it was the same, and 1% felt it was not as good.
  • 95% of these college students reported they became more responsible for their own learning as they advanced through high school.
  • 86% of the students who had entered college upon graduating had earned a bachelor’s degree within five years. The national average is 39%.

So, to answer the question, does insisting students learn to act responsibly in high school prepare them for college, the answer is an emphatic, “YES.” Rdr72’s premise that we better prepare students for the rigors they will face beyond the K-12 system by supporting their irresponsible behavior is clearly not only flawed but illogical. If he is seriously interested in preparing students for the “real world,” wouldn’t he support a process to teach them one of the most vital skills—acting responsibly—rather than enabling them to continue with irresponsible behavior?

His second argument is the real crux of the matter. He suggests that the purpose of schooling is not to ensure students learn, but merely to give them the opportunity to learn. Apparently, students who choose to live in conditions that are not conducive to learning—high poverty, families unable or unwilling to support their learning, no positive role models—should suffer the consequences of their decision. This premise allows schools to simply serve as a sorting and selecting mechanism. Students without the innate abilities and dispositions can simply be allowed to fail and ultimately, withdraw from the educational system. Of course, those who do will earn 33 cents for every dollar a college graduate makes and 66 cents for every dollar a high school graduate makes, will have a life expectancy that is ten years shorter than a college graduate’s, will have an unemployment rate that is 5 times higher than those with post-high school education, will be far more likely to live in poverty, and will have only a 1 in 17 chance of their own children every attending college. But, hey, that’s their problem for not winning the genetic lottery.

It is ironic to me that someone who purports to be so interested in ensuring students act responsibly defines his job in such a way that it absolves him from any responsibility for seeing to it that his students learn.



After reading your blog and recently attending the PLC Institute in Seattle, Washington, I must admit that I have changed my outlook regarding assignment completion. I was one of those teachers that thought holding a student responsible meant I could give them a zero. I failed to realize however that many students were happy with a zero because they were getting out of the work. Little did I realize they were also getting out of the practice and the learning that I was being paid to help them with. I want to thank all the presenters at the recent PLC Institute for opening my eyes and helping me to be a better facilitator of learning for my students. With encouragement from my PLC I know this year I am going to be a much better teacher and help more students to achieve at higher levels.

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I must say that I was one of the teachers that thought that we need to prepare our kids for the real world by letting them make the decision that if they do not their work they will get a zero. I used to tell my kids that if you do not work you do not get paid so be ready for a dose of reality. After reading the blog and attending a PLC conference I am humbled by the logic that is presented. We always have help in the real world and to those that say that they do it all on their own, it is a farce. We need to teach kids how to be responsible in the real world and know that support systems are in place for their benefit so that they eventually have no need for them. Raising the bar, high expectations, holding them accountable. All of these are great goals, but what are we doint to help them reach them? Do we say do it and sit back expecting results? If we are then we really need to think how that is helping them learn.

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I agree that we should hold the students accountable. Many times teachers are told to let things slide, like not completing their homework, and the situations escalates. When I hold my students accountable, they begin to take pride in their work and learn that completing their work actually makes them feel good as well. The students will only go as far as we push them. We need to raise the bar and hold students accountable.

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I definitely agree that students should be held accountable for completing the work and doint their best. Too many times we assign a "detention" and the slate is wiped clean, however the students do not even complete the work.

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I agree with elemtchr3000 point about life sklls. I was taught theses skills at home during the early seventies. It was a diferent time back then--most parents weregrounded in wanting a better life for their childen than the life they had growing up. This has changed some with the times--I see students from the perspective as a substitute teacher, and the respect for adults has not been decreasewd because of the student's home life is not the best it might be. Would you agree that teachers of today are having to not only teach content, but life skills that should be taught at home?

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The questions posed by rdr72 were thought provoking. AS I thought about them, I reflected on my own K-12 learning experience back in the late sixties - early seventies. School was for learning academics, but home was for learning life skills like responsiblity, integrity, honesty, get the idea. These days, if the student doesn't get the life skills at home, I believe it is the responsibility of the teacher to expose them to the concepts. If they don't get it at first, don't give up. Repeated exposure will have positive effect - eventually. Having said that, we can't save them all. We need parental involvement.

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Becoming responsible is a tough thing. It is a life-long skill that will constantly be honed and refined. I personally feel that a lot of kids are irresponsible because it is how they have been taught to be. Parents want to deflect their own parental responsibilities to others, only picking it back up when it is self-serving and their children watch this. In turn, children use what they have been taught to be irresponsible. Children are not in charge of where they come from or how they got into this world, but at some point, they must become aware of the consequences of irresponsibility. Re-teaching children the importance of responsibility is a worthwhile investment. I agree that teachers have an important role in this process. Thanks for your thoughts.

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I definitely agree that, as teachers, is our responsibility to make students understand their own responsibility, not only for learning, but for their own lives. I have always thought that what they learn at school follows them for the rest of their lives. Where I work at, my children's moms are scholar deserters, and I have always had issues with the administration because of the lack of assistance and lateness, and their lack of disciplinary measure actions to attend this issue. I believe they need to be disciplined about their classes schedules, and how important is their daily assistance, especially for their children. Also is important to teach them that they will face consequences for their actions. I really enjoyed a lot your blog, and it was very enlighting for me, because I totally share your opinion on this matter.

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I really enjoyed reading your blog. I agree that more schools need to hold students accountable for their actions. Many schools do not put systems in place on a consistent basis. I just feel that the students will regret it later on in life when they have to go out into the real world.

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Yes, I never thought of it that way. Allowing irresponsible students to fail is the fault of the school and teacher. It reflects on the school as a whole community. It is our job to show them and teach them how to be responsible. We need to teach them the importance of being responsible so that someday they will do it all on their own.

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Excellent points! I too have struggled with the thought of enabling vs. teaching responsibility, but with data to back it up the choice is obvious. Students do not choose whether or not there is support at home; therefore, we have to teach them responsibility. Empowering them with problem solving skills, responsibility, and motivation is much more important than any homework assignment.

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I just love that you gave credit to the teach a man to fish adage. Our students are fed daily, but are they taking that dose of information and using it toward their choices they make tomorrow. I teach life skills. Preparing students for the realities of life is what we do. Some of us do it better than others. I think, this is because we as teachers fall in to the same excuse making habits of the rest of society... "It's not my job to teach them that." Core, off-core, encore, specials, etc. What ever our specialization, it is our responsibility to lead them in the right direction.
We are all accountable for the successes of the students we teach.

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Rick, I could not agree with you more when you say that we must teach students to be responsible by putting systems in place for them to do so. Many students at my school have got to be extrinsically motivated, for example, a merit system in place that adds up to a gold, bronze or silver award at the end of a session, which is seven to eight weeks in my school, is something to work for. However, they have got to go beyond feat in most instances to get those merits, hence they strive for excellence. Young people are being dismissed from work study programs and full time job because they lack a sense of responsibiliy; so as a school we cannot continue to fail them. Yes, we have to let them know that there are consequences for failure, whether it be not meeting deadlines or not achieving what is considered as acceptable standards of work or grades.

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I also feel that responsibility is one of the most important things we should teach our students. I feel that as educators we must be consistent with our requirements for assignments or behavior. Most students I am in contact with are from a low economic backgrounds and live in homes where they do not see consistency.

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Very interesting post. I love how this situation was approached. I also agree that students should be taught how to be responsible individuals. In the future, they will not have to rely on others.

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I completely agree with your post. As a novice teacher I was expecting 1 or 2 students in my grade level to not want to work. Reality hit me when it was more like 10% of the students. I agree that we do need to TEACH responsibility by being persistent with our demands that students perform. You're right, in the real world an employer would not tolerate such disregard and we are doing our students a huge disservice to turn a blind eye to this undesired behavior. I plan to contribute to fixing this problem by setting the bar high for all students and keeping after those who think they have other plans. I also work in a low socioeconomic school, but I still have high expectations for my students.

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You make some very good points. As a 9th grade English teacher, I also see the need for holding students accountable for their behavior and work ethic. I work in a district with high poverty rates and a largely apathetic student body. While some of our students need skills for success in future academic pursuits, a significant portion require strategies for personal growth and development in order to rise above present situations. By building a firm foundation of responsibility and accountability in the 9th grade, my students are better suited for the rigors of high school and in becoming contributing members of society.

While rdr72 does have a point about continuing to enable students, the key is to use effective RTI strategies that promote independence. Those strategies should emulate the biblical adage: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”

Don’t hold your student’s hands; promote intrinsic motivators for meeting expectations of societal obligations.

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I have extremely high expectations for my students. However, I work in a low-income, high-poverty area. It is the assumption that these students are not worth spending time on because they have very little potential. Many teachers in my district have become okay with letting the children slide or allowing them to fall through the cracks because they would never be a valuable member of society anyway. This is horrifying to me because these children are the future workforce of our community. The students themselves have even begun to believe that they have nothing to look forward to or work towards, and therefore, feel little responsibility for their learning. I agree that there are many other factors influncing student achievement, but before we can analyze the quality of the work, we must motivate our students to complete it. We had a program in our school last year called "ZAP" (zeros aren't permitted). This was essentially a study hall to which students were assigned when they had incomplete assignments. During this time other students attended clusters, which were classes based on student interest, such as yoga, dance, arts and crafts, sports, photography, etc. The classes were held once a week, and if a student had any missed work, they could not attent clusters that week. This was an excellent program because while it did not allow students to recieve zeros, it did provide a consequence for not completing assignments. By the end of the year, we had very few students in ZAP and very few with zeros. We had a change in administration this year, and the program was cut. I have since observed an increased resistance to doing work because the only consequence is failure, something with which my students are comfortable and to which they are very accustumed.

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The fact that anyone would not teach responsibility to students is absolutely ridiculous! Our ultimate job as educators is to prepare students for the real-world. In the real-world it is imperative that we are responsible for our actions. I think it comes down to setting high expectations in your classroom and believing in each student you teach. Students will do more when they know a teacher cares. Also, effective homework is important. You will still have those students who consistently choose to do nothing. I'm not sure there is an answer for that. If anyone has any ideas, let me know!!

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I would be very interested in learning the methods that schools like the one you mention use and be more then willing to try to implement them. I am curious though as to if these privileges and consequences must be school wide to work. What privileges could I implement in my classroom that the students would actually buy into? Our PBIS team has implemented "Blue Bucks" into my school so that as students earn them in classes they can be used to buy actual items in a store (items range from I-Pods to power tools). Students were into the idea a first but interest drained. In my classroom I have had similar situations occur with incentives I allow them to earn. What about the consequences? Is a detention going to entice students to do their work next time around? I have a hard enough time getting students to come to detentions for more serious issues then just deciding to not do their homework all week long. I am completely open to new ideas because I have tried a lot but still have had little success with the frequent flyer failures.

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I too find everything you said to make very strong points. I especially agree with holding students responsible for their work. Students seem to be pushed along without actually completing all the requirements. Several students in my district have received circle 65, which means that passed but barely. I often think teachers may push them along in order to not deal with any consequences of not having this child succeed. Your point of responsibility and responsible people work could not be truer. I agree with incentives for students who complete work and consequences for students who do not. What do you think these consequences should be?

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I couldn't agree more. For any student to be successful, they must take ownership of their learning. Students must see the value in the work that they are completing and putting their name on. As an educator it is my responsibility to make sure that all students reach success. I believe that this starts will showing my kids that I care about each one of them as individuals.

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Thanks, Rick for stating this again. We are fighting with some individuals on the same topic and you did an excellent job of laying out the argument again. Keep laying it out for those that don't understand. Soon all will understand.

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Randall Squier

Thanks Rick for bringing more clarity to a fundamental shift necessary for higher student learning. Learning and developing the attributes necessary to be college and career ready is an essential part of our school's mission. Knowing what quality work is, having a strong work ethic, being responsible, having self-esteem, understanding how to directs one's learning and being creative are attributes just as vital as the core content. As educators, we have a responsibility to help our students develop these attributes in all subjects and all grades.

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Well said Rick. I find there are way too many people who confuse responsibility and compliance and you have done a great job in this piece being clear about what responsibility really is.

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