Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Stopping the Educational Blame Game

July 15, 2012

When a student fails, who is to blame? It’s a question that breeds passion, vitriol and a variety of answers that often depend on which stakeholder in the education system is answering. Yet blame never breeds what we most need: solutions.

So let me be the first to say that as a teacher, it is my fault. And, to whoever is reading this, it is your fault too. We all own the staggering challenges that face public education today. As the cornerstone of our democracy, our industry and our future, education is not too big to fail but it is too big to abandon.

The notion that we can solve the problems of education by placing blame is unproductive at best and detrimental to success at worse. The blame game seeks to remove responsibility from one stakeholder and place it squarely on the shoulders of another, which impairs the discourse about reform in public education. Once we remove the compulsion to point fingers, we can get to the real work of fixing what’s broken.

Teachers have responsibilities within the system and should play an integral part in any reform effort in order for it to be effective. A good teacher must have high expectations of themselves, their students and their students’ parents. Teachers should never go a single year without self-directed professional development outside of their school setting, even if it’s only reading up on a new pedagogological approach with a group of like-minded colleagues.

Teachers should be vocal advocates for their students and speak out against attempts to water down curriculum with poorly designed standardized exams.  Whether they stand for or against the new Common Core State Standards (adopted by 46 states), these new standards present an opportunity to change the culture of standardized testing. Teachers can help by engaging actively in the conversation about how to measure the complex thinking skills outlined by them. We have an opportunity to emphasize authentic assessment over standardized scores.

Administrators also have a key role to play as well. One of their most important jobs is necessarily the evaluation of teachers, but this should not put teachers and administrators at odds. It should provide an opportunity to improve instruction through thoughtful feedback and professional development plans. Anyone who leads a teacher’s evaluation should have some sense of how teaching works. Administrators need to have been exemplary teachers themselves. They should be trusted instructional leaders on their campus and understand that even teachers who excel need the opportunity to reflect on their practice and learn from a thoughtful and thorough evaluation.

Administrators are often the lynchpin of a campus culture that promotes success. I have seen first hand the way a great principal can affect the dynamic of the entire community, both in and out of the school. I have also seen how the simple act of refusing appointments with parents can quickly chill any sense of cooperative spirit. The administrator’s job is exhausting and far-reaching; never to be underestimated. As a crucial link between teachers, the district, the school and its families, administrators need to be more than effective. They must find the fine line between leadership and support to ensure the success of their campus as a whole.

It’s difficult to write about the responsibilities of parents, because, in essence, they are the clients that I serve. They give me the best children they have, and trust me to use everything at my disposal to help them learn. Yet, even clients have a responsibility when we are in the business of educating kids. We all have a vested interest in the outcome. In 2008, A University of New Hampshire study found that schools would have to increase spending 1,000 dollars per pupil to equal the positive impact of parent involvement. And this was before the economic downturn leeched schools of monetary resources. A parent’s investment in their child’s education becomes priceless. 

Parents need to attend meetings and conferences, actively monitor their student’s grades and assignments, maintain high academic and behavioral expectations and work as part of a team with their child’s teacher. Schools play a role in facilitating this, but if parents want their child’s education to be a national priority, it must become a domestic priority.

Perhaps everyone’s favorite scapegoat is the student. When everyone is tearing their hair out trying to fix the system, the student becomes the easiest target. They are accused of apathy, laziness and of being downright intractable. Perhaps part of that is true, but these are the kids we have, because these are the kids we have made. If we want them to be better, we must teach them to be better. We know that students must play an active role in their education. They should not be consumers of information, but producers of real thinking. But, they are children. They are doing what children have done for eons; playing one adult against another to escape their own responsibility.

That is the real damage of the blame game. Students see their parents accusing their teacher of burn out, and their teacher blaming the administration of being unreasonable, and their administrator criticizing parents for lacking consequences. Students are learning that if you blame someone else for your problems you never have to fix them. You never have to reflect on and repair your own failures.

Problems are never solved by recrimination and finger pointing. They are solved through hard work and honest compromise. All of us: parents and teachers, unions and politicians, administrators and business owners, have failed our students who are continuing to fail themselves. It is time to quit playing the blame game, because it is a game where everyone loses.

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