07/01/2011 05:17 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2011

Who's Responsible for Improving Student Achievement?

As graduating seniors filed into the cavernous Patriot Center basketball arena for the ceremony that would reward them their diplomas, they all looked the same. Cap and gown bedecked, from the rafters where we sat you could not tell them apart.

Yet, of course, they were not all the same. The differed in nearly as many ways as people can differ, and especially significant on this day was how they differed in academic achievement. Less than one out of five, though not a paltry proportion, received academic awards.

Academics, of course, are not everything. A balanced life requires social as well as mental skills, the arts as well as the sciences, relishing life as well as reading about it. Nor is academics a guarantee of later success. But academics is not nothing either, and American students who do poorly can find their life journey a little (or a lot) harder. The entire "No School Left Behind" movement is aimed at closing the academic gap between the highest and lowest performing students and between U.S. students and those of other nations who consistently and significantly outperform us.

In American education, we have no dearth of explanations for low student achievement. Poor teaching is a favored cause, for which removing tenure and bad teachers are seen as solutions. Lack of adequate and frequent testing, and associated remedial learning, are also seized on as part of the problem. A short school day, and a school year that sends students home for three months (a relic of the nineteenth century when they were needed on the farm in the summer), are also popular explanations. Despite spending more per student than other nations, more money is a consistently cited remedy. Sociologists are most likely to cite broken families, crime-filled neighborhoods and low socioeconomic status as causative factors. No doubt all of these account in some degree for the poor performance of many American students. Teachers, parents, school administrators, school board members - they all bear some of the responsibility.

But what was striking on graduation day 2011 was that these students were all from the same school, with the same school resources, the same teachers, the same funding per pupil, the same socioeconomic surroundings, and the same length of school day and school year. The variation here was within not across schools. If the conditions of their learning were so similar, how do we account for the wide variation in performance?

There is one explanation we seem reluctant to cite: the students themselves. If we were to make a list of who's responsible for ensuring that students do well in school, the first group on the list should be students. In America, we seem prone to look for explanations outside ourselves for the ills we face, and it is true that to some degree external factors are contributing causes. But when we forget where primary responsibility lies, we excuse the one factor that accounts for most of the variance: the individual. So, this being about education, we should go back to the "basics."

The basics are not pretty. In 2005, a study of 90,000 high school students in 26 states by Indiana University found that 55 percent spent three hours or less a week preparing for their classes. Just 11 percent of those who reported they were on the college track spent seven or more hours a week on assigned reading, less than an hour and a half a day. It's pretty commonly known that many students spend more time texting and socializing than they do studying.

The situation does not get better when students go to college. A major study of 2,3000 students, released earlier this year by the University of Chicago, found that half did not take a single course in which they had to write more than 20 pages during the semester, a third did not take any courses with more than 40 pages of assigned reading a week, and, on average, students spent only 12-14 hours a week studying. Not surprisingly, students improved only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college in tests of critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing.

If we want to close the achievement gap, it may be useful to focus on how we instill responsibility in students, for moral character is at least as important a precursor of success in school and life as is math. Many American children, it would seem, could use a much heavier dose of responsibility than they currently accept. We owe it to them, to their future and to ours, to demand that they take it. It will not solve all the student achievement problems, to be sure, but those problems will never get solved without it.