Society and Culture, Education

It’s time to end the blame game in education

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2012 saw its fair share of blame go around in education. School reformers blamed teachers unions for preserving the status quo. Unions blamed district leaders for budget cuts and stagnant pay. Some school leaders blamed poverty for weak educational performance; others blamed rules and regulations for tying their hands when it comes to managing human capital or increasing instructional time.

Here’s hoping 2013 might be different. In his recently released book Cage-Busting Leadership, Rick Hess shatters the traditional blame game in education. Rick argues that educators, policymakers, parents, and school leaders tend to misattribute responsibility when it comes to our nation’s educational woes. (For more on Cage-Busting Leadership, tune in to the launch event February 12 here at AEI featuring cage-busting leaders Michelle Rhee, Chris Barbic, Kaya Henderson, Adrian Manuel, and Deborah Gist): Based on his analysis, here are a couple of places where we tend to get it wrong:

Reformers blame teachers unions for strict bargaining contracts: Education reform advocates and organizations tend to argue that rigid union contracts make it downright impossible to make changes to curriculum, staffing, school calendars, and much else. This can be true. But Rick reminds us that collective bargaining agreements are signed by two parties – the union and the district – so “district leaders share the blame for dumb or destructive provisions.” This situation is exacerbated when a contract has an “evergreen clause” – a provision which stipulates that contract terms remain in force until a new contract is put in place. So when current school and district leaders agree to uncompromising provisions, future leaders bear the brunt of removing antiquated structures.

Teachers blame reformers for “one size fits all” policies:  The last four years have seen an unprecedented push (much of which can be attributed to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program) to evaluate teachers using a particular model – often using student test scores to measure teacher performance. Some teachers argue that these systems create incentives to “teach to the test.” They lament that standardized test scores are poor measures of teacher quality. Some even boycott the tests altogether. But ineffective school leadership is partly to blame here as well. Rick argues that “when school and system leaders fail to rigorously evaluate staff, spend dollars cost-effectively, or push the boundaries of the possible, reformers may decide they have to compel leaders to do these things.” How does this play out? Evaluation systems are written into policy, and end up creating obstacles for school leaders that want to create their own systems, which might be better-suited to their particular schools and communities.

Leaders blame laws, contracts, and federal regulations for their inability to act: As it turns out, laws, contracts, and regulations can be maneuvered with a little bit of knowledge and a dab of elbow grease. In fact, Rick argues that leaders have much more freedom from these impediments than is widely believed. For instance, leaders often grouse that they are unable to make changes to school start times, teacher pay, and evaluation because of restrictive union contracts. But a careful analysis of state collective bargaining laws shows that the majority of states have no state law regarding these topics. Therefore, leaders have much more liberty than they think when it comes to making these changes in their schools and systems. Cage-Busting Leadership also includes a handy chart to inform leaders about what they are allowed, permitted, or restricted from collective bargaining in their states.

By shining a spotlight on leaders who are working around the law, engaging lawyers on these questions, and “busting the cage,” Cage-Busting Leadership is a call to action to do something different. Rick argues that instead of playing the blame game, we need to better prepare and empower leaders to make the changes they want to see in schools and communities. He sketches a number of strategies to help leaders navigate policies, find the right tools, and engage partners in these efforts. So here’s to a 2013 with less blame, a little more elbow grease, and a whole lot of cage-busting.

7 thoughts on “It’s time to end the blame game in education

  1. Funny, there is no “blame game” that goes on in other markets. Markets where the people you serve are allowed to determine whether they are getting what they want from you — and if not, to go to another service provider. If ATT’s customers are going away, they don’t have to have decades of debate as to whether they should be doing something differently. And customers do not have to spend their time browbeating management into giving them what they want.

    How long do you think it would take teachers or administration in failing schools to figure out what was wrong if their jobs started disappearing along with the students?

  2. On the unions thing, as was pointed out discussions last summer, teachers are in the unique position that “labor” and “management” are the SAME people. That is, most school boards are populated with current or retired teachers. The charade of “negotiations” is merely one bunch of teachers asking another bunch of teachers how much they’d like to get paid and what they’d like to do at their jobs.

    Here in the 21st Century, teachers still insist that they are in a Craft business where neither their products nor their work methods can be objectively measured or evaluated. This includes general failure to produce acceptable products (i.e., educated students) and, in many case, failure to act like adults while at work.

    Society and business constantly need fresh new citizens to help build and operate the nation and its various communities. We have been talked into letting Professional Educators have sole control of turning innocent, ignorant child citizens into healthy, happy, educated citizens. The Professional Educators have failed miserably under their monopoly, and their ONLY response is to claim that they need (i.e., want) ever increasing piles of tax money to churn out substandard products.

    If the Professional Educators (which includes an ever increasing number of “administrators” per student) don’t come up with an adult, businesslike answer to the communal problem, communities should step in and simply clean house and start over.

  3. The “problem” started when they took away the “shop” classes and all students were “expected” to go to college, thus having non-teachers want to see TEST SCORES rise to college expectations. The lack of courses that the non-college kids wanted made them disinterested in school other than a place where they were REQUIRED to “hang out”. THAT is why education has gone down hill but folks such as Arne Duncan or Micchelle Rhee are clueless to such things because they have no EXPERIENCE in real teaching to understand it!

    • I think this is the crux of the problem… the blame is a collective “OURS” because we haven’t spent much time debating what we REALLY want our high school students to learn in school.

      K-8 does a good job getting kids inculcated in the basics, but beyond that, the kids start to wonder, “Why am I learning this?” This is the same question my peers and I were asking 30 years ago. Back then, the answer “Because it’s good for you” was good enough for me. The problem is we’re STILL relying on this answer today, and our kids are smart enough to ask the follow-on question, “WHY is it good for me?” They’re also smart enough to realize that we have no good answer for this.

      Why do we care whether our kids do well on standardized tests? Is it because standardized test taking mimics productive adult activity? Of course not… when was the last time you got asked a question at work like the ones you got asked on the SAT? Never? Me neither… so why do we put so much stock in standardized tests? Why do we waste our children’s time teaching them irrelevant data that can so easily be found on the internet anyway? Is this really the best we can do for our children?

      Let’s start over… what do we want from our children when they get out of high school? Personally, I’d like to see self-assured, hard-working, personable kids that know how to take some chances in life and work through problems instead of just throwing their hands up in the air. Anybody that has this as a foundation can easily acquire the skills they need to be productive in most occupations we have today, and be happier about it to boot.

      There are no easy scapegoats in this complex issue.

      • How much time do you spend debating what you really want from any other provider of services to you? How much collective debate does it take to decide which airline to fly or which cellphone to buy or which gym to belong to? You simply select the one that fits your needs. It’s only because you have no choice in which school to use that we have to engage in collective debate. If we had to collectively decide which one supermarket chain to use and exactly what was going to be on the shelves of each of those supermarkets you wouldn’t get any more agreement than you do with “what we REALLY want our high school students to learn in school”.

  4. If anyone has read Mr. Bloom’s views on education, he is spot on. The classical liberal education in K-12 and at the university is being ruined by politically leftward socialist doctrine – it is horrible.
    The biggest wall of seperation for young people is the common cultural things we all were taught. Tom Sawyer, Jack in the bean stock, Romeo & Juliet, I before E, except after C etc… Social and cultural classics that bind us together.
    Not to mention if you pick up a textbook from 1950 for HS history or math, it will blow you away what was required knowledge. The lowering of the standards crowd isn’t winning…they have wiped the floor with our kids minds.
    It is the unions negotiating with the politicians they contribute money to, it ain’t brain surgery. William buckley or Reagan never pushed for sex ed, or teacher developement days.

  5. Unfortunately “ending the blame game” ends up meaning that problems can be fixed with good intentions, without change that affects people’s interests. Saying that there’s a lot more that clever leaders can do without reducing teachers’ job security to that of non-unionized professionals, doesn’t mean it isn’t a heck of good idea to do the latter. Sure, leaders including elected representatives and those who elect them agree to these contracts. So, you would agree that it’s not the blame game to advocate that these people ought not to permit traditional tenure. Correct? Getting rid of tenure and other contract restrictions so that leaders don’t have to waste their cleverness on navigating them is not blaming the teachers. The vast majority will survive being treated like the professionals at the non-profit hospital at which I work.

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