Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan


Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan


Article excerpt


Metaphors help us understand students' role in education. Are students products, consumers, or clients?

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey calls active student engagement an essential factor of learning and education. "Making the individual a sharer or partner in the associated activity so that he feels its success as his success, its failure as his failure, is the completing step," Dewey writes (1916, p. 14). Though Dewey comments on the social environment, his philosophies can naturally extend to the school environment, which he calls the "chief agency" for social progress (p. 20). In this way of thinking, students are partners in the educational process, particularly in K-12 education reform in the U.S.

The No Child Left Behind law, the Race to the Top grants, and the Common Core State Standards together tell us that Americans badly want change in education. But many of these reforms have a common deficiency: They fail to account for a student's responsibility in his or her education.

Few reforms mention the role of students. Much of K-12 educational reform is guided by student achievement as measured by standardized assessment data--a limited gauge of academic capacity--and the focus on change has fallen heavily on teachers. When the student is considered, two metaphors have emerged over time: Student-as-Product and Student-as-Consumer (McMillan & Cheney, 1996; Tight, 2013).

But these metaphors are incomplete. In each, too much weight is placed on teachers and too little on students' accountability for their own learning. We propose a third metaphor: Student-as-Client, which more accurately captures the value and responsibilities of teachers and students in education. While the Student-as-Client metaphor has had many applications in higher education (Carger, 1996; Lee, 1996; Riessman, 1988), the metaphor has not been used to understand K-12 education reform efforts.


The Student-as-Product metaphor envisions the student as a product of the education system (Ramirez, 1999; Tight, 2013). In other words, as students move through the system, they acquire skills and knowledge that enable them to become productive members of society; federal and state standardized test scores demonstrate whether students have acquired the skills and knowledge the system promises. This method has roots as early as the mid-1800s (Ramirez, 1999). Yet today's K-12 students still take a flurry of high-stakes tests that are also being used to evaluate and inform teacher performance. Funding and resources provided to schools are linked to test performance as well.

The Student-as-Product metaphor closely aligns with reforms that link student assessment with teacher performance (Ramirez, 1999). Teachers are pressured to ensure that the "product" is the highest quality. If the product is defective, then the teacher is at fault and enters a strenuous evaluation process, risking dismissal without improvement to their practices and products. Ramirez notes that this view of reform assumes teachers are either inadequately skilled or lack the motivation to increase student achievement and therefore must be retrained or replaced (1999).

Reform models in Florida and Colorado align with the Student-as-Product metaphor. Florida awards public schools a letter grade based on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT). Districts that receive an A or B or demonstrate improvement in grades are rewarded with cash grants. In May 2010, Colorado passed the Great Teachers and Leaders bill, which ties 50% of a teacher's evaluation to student scores on standardized achievement assessments. Both state initiatives assume that teacher appraisal and punishment are "successful drivers" of reform (Fullan, 2001). We profoundly disagree with this assessment. Student achievement involves many factors beyond the teacher's capacity to teach or motivate; a student's failure should not be blamed solely on the teacher. …

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