The changing blame game in U.S. education

 

Teachers have felt under such heavy assault for the past several years by school reformers intent on using assessment methods that experts say are invalid, reducing their collective bargaining rights and other actions that it may be hard to remember that it wasn’t always this way. In the following post, Larry Cuban, a former superintendent of Arlington Public Schools, writes about the changing “blame game” in American education. Cuban was superintendent for seven years, a former high school social studies teacher for 14 years and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. This first appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

The shame that many teachers and principals feel at being made responsible for a school’s low academic performance is a recent phenomenon. Historically, policy elites and educators explained poor academic performance of groups and individual students by pointing to ethnic and racial discrimination, poverty, immigrants’ cultures, family deficits, and students’ lack of effort. School leaders would say that they could hardly be blamed for reversing conditions over which they had little control. Until the past quarter-century, demography as destiny was the dominant explanation for unequal school outcomes.

Things began to change by the mid-1970s. Other explanations for low academic performance among different groups of students gained traction: The school—not racism, poverty, family, culture, or even language differences–caused disadvantages in students. This explanation grew from research studies of urban elementary schools with high percentages of poor and minority students that did far better on national tests than researchers would have been predicted from their racial and socioeconomic status.

These high-flying ghetto and barrio schools had common features: staff’s belief that all urban children could learn; the principal of the school was an instructional leader; staff established high academic standards with demanding classroom lessons, frequent testing, and an orderly school (PDF el_197910_edmonds-2).  These “effective schools” proved to many skeptics that high poverty urban schools could be successful, as measured by tests. Students’ race, ethnicity, and social class did not doom a school to failure. And most important, that committed and experienced staff working closely together could make a decided academic difference in the lives of impoverished children of color. No longer could teachers and administrators blame students and their families for failing. Now, it was the responsibility of school staff to insure student success.

This fundamental swing in blame for the causes of inequities in outcomes are captured in the words of national leaders who often  admonish teachers and administrators to avoid the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” This reversal of responsibility for inequitable outcomes has shifted the burden for academic success completely from students’ shoulders to those of their teachers, principals, and superintendents.

While most of us cherish the egalitarian thought—enshrined in NCLB that all students will test proficient by 2014–research studies and the facts of daily experience should give us pause before nodding in agreement. Perhaps this total equality in results may occur in heaven but not on earth where variability in families’ behaviors and students’ talents, motivation, interests, and skills remain stubborn facts.

Thus, within a few decades, a 180-degree shift in responsibility for chronic academic failure has occurred. Neither extreme, however, squares with the facts. Responsibility rests with both community and district, both school and family, both teachers and students.

Blaming others may be momentarily satisfying but unhelpful in either improving schools or motivating students to do their best. On the one hand, expecting a school staff to have the full responsibility for students’ academic results neglects the long history of research and daily experience of students who come to school unready to learn. Family income, parental education and interest, health, neighborhood, and other factors influence what happens to growing children even before they enter kindergarten. If there is one fact researchers have established over and over it is that family income and education play a large role in children’s behavioral and academic performance in schools.

Striking a balance between documented facts of inequities among students when they appear at the schoolhouse door and documented facts of some educators’ shabby inaction while other educators turn basket-case schools into high-fliers is essential. But it is hard to strike this balance in the current unforgiving climate of state and federal accountability rules that name, blame, and shame districts and schools for gaps in achievement, high drop out rates, and low graduation numbers (SAN11-01).

In the current frenzied climate of state and federal penalties for low performance, what students bring to school, both their strengths and weaknesses, are seldom mentioned publicly because of policymakers’ and educators’ fear of being called racist, making excuses, or having low expectations. The dominant one-liner repeated again and again is that efficient, well-managed schools and districts are accountable for students’ academic success.

This situation pains those federal, state, and local policymakers and reformers who want to address those socioeconomic structures in the larger society that contribute to economic inequalities and students’ disadvantages such as tax policies favoring the wealthy, residential segregation, lack of health insurance, immigration policies, and discriminatory employment practices but find it hard to do in a political climate where top-down, business-driven reforms that blame teachers and their unions and use test scores to determine futures of teachers and schools blow like gale-force storms.

In such a climate, entrepreneurial reformers, federal policymakers, and wealthy donors direct attention to only fixing schools, a strategy that is both politically attractive and economically inexpensive compared to the uproar that would occur from attacking those who enjoy privileges from leaving those policies and structures untouched.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · October 23, 2012