How to Blame the Teachers: A Manifesto of Nonsense

John SenerBy John Sener

I’m glad that the recent Washington Post article, “How to Fix Our Schools: A Manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and Other Education Leaders” (10.10.10), was written since it captures current thinking about schools which has been bothering me for a long time: if schools need “fixing,” when did they break? Who broke them, and were they working just fine before that? If they’re now “failing,” when in the past were they succeeding, and what happened to change that?

Asked this way, of course, the reality reveals itself: schools have never worked fine for every child. They have always worked for some, and not well at all for many others. They need massive improvement, not “fixing.”

The distinction is crucial: saying schools need “fixing” opens the door to all sorts of handy “solutions” to fix what’s “broken” or “failing.” Saying schools need improving at least offers the possibility of seeking approaches which recognize the situation in all its complexity.

Unfortunately, it was no surprise to see that this manifesto offers a handy solution, as illustrated by this quote:

A 7-year-old girl won’t make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master’s degree – she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success. By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career. Each day that we ignore this reality is precious time lost for children preparing for the challenges of adulthood.

Translation: “blame the teachers.” This is foolish, destructive nonsense – specifically, the ill-conceived notion that there is a force out there which propels all students to a college career, and the only thing holding thousands of them back is a “poorly performing teacher.”  It is tempting to wish that any leader who spouts this idiocy be required to spend their time instead dealing with all those other factors holding children back – feeding hungry kids, getting uncaring parents to care, not to mention creating the jobs that are currently not waiting for graduates if by some miracle this manifesto were to succeed. But let’s be more charitable and simply say that the leaders who promote these ideas are colossally misguided.

Teachers do share the blame. Goodness knows there is a multitude of problematic teachers out there. “My teachers could have ridden with Jesse James for the time they stole from me” has long been one of my favorite quotes. But the notion that a cadre of poorly performing teachers are the reason why students don’t succeed in school is pathetically, if not necessarily willfully, blind. It was this kind of nonsense which precipitated the misguided thinking of Disrupting Class – simply get the teachers in line/on board, and everything else will fall into place.

It is also an example of the rational-scientific paradigm run amok, as illustrated by the embedded elements of efficiency, control, and compulsion – “precious time lost” as if learning happens on a massively synchronized timetable; using technology to “make instruction more effective and efficient” as if that is the sole or best way to use it; compelling students to reach for “success” as defined in the narrowest of terms, which in practice means reading and math test scores. It’s bad enough to judge teacher and student performance based on one or two snapshots, but it’s gotten even worse than that – performance is being reduced to a single simple equation, as exemplified by the one used to rate LAUSD school teacher performance (see p. 4 of Richard Buddin’s “How Effective Are Los Angeles Elementary Teachers and Schools?” LA Times, Aug. 2010) – an efficiency expert’s dream, but a human nightmare in the making.

It is this reductionist vision of education and the leaders who espouse it that are failing. Perhaps a remedial homework assignment will help:

Review the research on education achievement and current thinking on future challenges, then write a 500-word essay explaining why “teacher quality” is an inadequate factor for student success:

  • Discuss the possible role of grade point average, family income, parents’ education, socioeconomic level, and other extracurricular factors.
  • Discuss the tentative nature of most research findings and explain why commonly cited factors such as grades and test scores account for so little of the variance in students’ future performance.
  • Make sure to mention the political advantages of ignoring these other factors and focusing on teacher quality instead.
  • Describe how the current emphasis on standardized test scores ignores and marginalizes the vast majority of moments in education and elsewhere (e.g., the home, the neighborhood) where learning actually takes place.
  • Explain how instruction organized around preparing for standardized tests helps students develop the ability to generate creative solutions to problems, understand other cultures, think and collaborate creatively, and otherwise be prepared to work at jobs and deal with problems which don’t even exist yet.
  • Briefly describe how you would remedy the situation by dealing with its complexity rather than offering simplistic solutions instead.

(Better make that 1000 words.)

But the really massive error being made here is the notion that we already know how to educate everyone, and we just need to remove the remaining obstacles like “poorly performing” teachers. We have raised our expectations to reach every child through education, but we haven’t yet figured out how to meet them. It is a noble, historic, risky, and ultimately awesome enterprise to undertake, but it is badly undermined by pretending that we know how to do this, or ever did.

The reality is that we don’t know how to educate everyone so we need to build and learn and develop new skills we don’t currently have, such as how to introduce every child to the culture of education without turning schools into curiosity – and creativity – killing robot factories. There are obstacles to be removed – the bottleneck caused by trying to squeeze everyone into college instead of reviving multiple paths to adult success would be a good one to start with – but the creation process we have to do is far more important. That would be a manifesto worth getting behind…

11 Responses

  1. I understand John’s response to the “manifesto.” Too few teachers actually are bad. The heads of the districts who signed the manifesto must be very frustrated with the problems associated with removing those few bad apples to have written as they did. I could go on to analyze this situation more, but others probably can do a better job than I.

    However, I do feel compelled to comment on the following quote.

    “We must equip educators with the best technology available to make instruction more effective and efficient. By better using technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction, we can help transform our classrooms and lessen the burden on teachers’ time.”

    This statement is so amorphous and ambiguous that I cannot begin to use it as a starting point for developing a technology program for schools. What is “best technology?” Who determines that and how? Exactly how do you collect data on student learning? By feeding test results (interactively online or loading from offline) into databases? Do test results really show anything about student enthusiasm for learning or for any subject? Will some amount of automated individualized instruction really “transform our classrooms?” How will creating individualized instruction “lessen teachers’ time?”

    If we’re to make an impact with technology, we must get down to brass tacks and do so quickly. Instead of seeking a “best” technology, we must reject those that don’t work, that don’t produce a learning improvement commensurate with their cost. Most computer-based learning software would fail and be eliminated if it were truly evaluated on benefits to students rather than on improving standardized test scores.

    The remaining technologies would likely be useful in different situations, at different grade levels, with different subjects, and with students having different learning issues.

    As a scientist, I have grave doubts about the ability of simulated animations to substitute successfully for science labs. Were I the one making these decisions, I’d be able to eliminate these quite quickly and then focus on what’s left. That’s what I mean by my comments above.

    Technology holds great hope for education. The wrong technologies or others that are utilized improperly can cause more harm than good either directly by stifling learning or indirectly by siphoning scarce funds into useless or marginally useful products. Technology, per se, is not the solution. It’s all about how we use it, what we build with it.

    Attempting to adapt business technologies to classrooms will likely lead us down a dead-end path. Our best hope remains building new learning technologies from the ground up specifically for learning.

  2. This manifesto was certainly very shallow in its observations of learning and deep in its focus on fixing blame. With regard to technology – before even getting to the argument of what, when and how to apply it – the manifesto speaks with forked tongue – (1) we must get rid of ineffective teachers however (2) we must equip the new teachers with the technology that enables them to get the job done. If lack of technological resources contributes to teacher ineffectiveness – then why wouldn’t some of the ‘blame’ be put on the system that did not provide those failing teachers with the resources they needed??

    • Good catch, Karen. Interesting how once we start to ask some fundamental questions, these sweeping manifestos quickly begin to crumble. The search for a magic bullet, a teacher-proof curriculum, a one-size-fits-all answer to ed reform is a politician’s dream and an educator’s nightmare. It’s a way to spend billions in an attempt to show that something can be done. Whether that something makes pedagogical sense or effectively addresses the underlying issues doesn’t matter.

      Appearance is everything. The goal for the powers that be is to appear to be doing something in a manner that appears to be scientific. How much more “scientific” can they be than to, first, quantify learning in yardstick fashion and to hold that yardstick up to the entire education enterprise.

      This is like using a stopwatch in a 100-meter dash. How much more objective can you get! All runners can be graded and sorted according to their times.

      But this begs the question: Should learning be quantified in this way? Is learning this one-dimensional? Is learning the same as a track meet?

      As educators, we ask our students to think, to ask “Why?” Yet we often fail to take our own best advice. -Jim S

  3. Thanks for an interesting article. There are several points that strike me, but I will focus on one.

    How do we define poorly performing teachers? Are they the ones who lack content knowledge? Are they the ones who lack teaching skills? Are they the ones who use only one kind of instruction? Are they the ones who spend more time on their cell phone than in instructing their students? Or are they the ones whose students do not score well on standardized tests?

    My guess is that the last one is the measure which is often referred to when a teacher is called “poorly performing.” As a teacher educator, I am keenly aware of how narrow this definition is. There are many variables that can determine how a student will do on a standardized test, or in school in general. These include their parents’ educational attainment, the family’s socioeconomic status, whether they live in an urban, suburban, or rural area, and many other factors that are not in the teacher’s control.

    However, no matter the students’ background and circumstances, a teacher can design instruction and assessment so that students can demonstrate knowledge and proficiency in a variety of ways. Limiting the measure of the teacher’s performance and their students’ performance to scores on a standardized test is disingenuous and may even be as destructive as the “poorly performing” teacher. Not all students perform well on standardized tests. That format may not fit their way of learning. For example, sometimes, a student who performs well orally, talking in class and giving presentations, does not write well. If we based all their assessments on their writing, we would not have a good picture of that student’s abilities and knowledge.

    For me the poorly performing teacher is one who does not see and act on the possibilities in her/his students. A system that focuses on one type of assessment will produce and support such poorly performing teachers.

  4. I am struck by the titling of the “manifesto” and the grouping of the assembled so called experts.
    The real experts, James Comer, Milton Chen, Larry Cuban, and Linda Darling Hammond , Chris Dede, come to mind.

    I read that in this age of media, those who make movies create the reality of what is remembered by the people who are reading shallow media. Here is an interesting post by a film maker George Lucas who has funded innovation and best practices in education and who tells the stories of education.

    Certainly more reliable and informed than many of the manifesto writers.

    . Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  5. This is another one of interest..

    Turning Learning Upside Down
    In the age of the Internet, we educate people much as we did during the Industrial Revolution. We educate them for a world that no longer exists, instilling values antithetical to those of a free, 21st century democracy. Worst of all, too many schools extinguish the very creativity and joy they ought to nourish.

    In Turning Learning Right Side Up, legendary systems scientist Dr. Russell Ackoff and “in-the-trenches” education innovator Daniel Greenberg offer a radically new path forward. In the year’s most provocative conversation, they take on the very deepest questions about education: What should be its true purpose? Do classrooms make sense anymore? What should individuals contribute to their own education? Are yesterday’s distinctions between subjects–and between the arts and sciences–still meaningful? What would the ideal lifelong education look like–at K-12, in universities, in the workplace, and beyond?

    Ackoff and Greenberg each have experience making radical change work–successfully. Here, they combine deep idealism with a relentless focus on the real world–and arrive at solutions that are profoundly sensible and powerfully compelling.

    Why today’s educational system fails–and why superficial reforms won’t help
    The questions politicians won’t ask–and the answers they don’t want to hear

    How do people learn–and why do they choose to learn?
    Creating schools that reflect what we know about learning

    In a 21st century democracy, what values must we nurture?
    …and why aren’t we nurturing them?

    How can tomorrow’s “ideal schools” be operated and funded?
    A plan that cuts through political gridlock and can actually work

    Beyond schools: building a society of passionate lifelong learners
    Learning from childhood to college to workplace through retirement

    Reinventing Learning for the Next Century: How We Can, and Why We Must

    An extraordinary conversation about the very deepest questions…

    Today, what is education for?
    Where should it take place? How? When?
    What is the ideal school?
    The ideal lifelong learning experience?
    Who should be in charge of education?
    And who pays for it all?

  6. I just spent several hours with a group of NYC principals. I find it incredibly ironic that Joel Klein signed the “manifesto.” As always on my visits to NYC schools, I found the administrators to be intelligent, earnest proponents of excellent education. They readily admit to having a few teachers who are difficult to handle and who aren’t “getting with the program.” If they believe that students suffer as a result, they work to remove the teachers, a process that can take a year or more.

    The principals discussed ways to make their courses less content-oriented and more focused on understanding. They spent lots of time on finding ways to evaluate teachers without depending on standardized test scores.

    With New York City’s abysmal record with its graduation rates and state test pass rates, you’d hardly believe that these people are so remarkably focused and knowledgeable. Clearly, NYC’s problems are deeper than the school administration quality.

    One answer is higher teacher wages. Too many protest that we shouldn’t pay more money to bad teachers. They miss two points. Almost all teachers are good; some are great. Higher salaries will result in a larger pool of potentially better teachers and will improve their status in the community. It won’t solve all problems but would be a great first step.

  7. The person who can smile when things go wrong has thought of someone to blame it.

    In recent articles I have commented on the need to have a truly collaborative approach to school reform, including especially the kind of enlightened leadership that can make it happen. What is wrong with the manifesto is that it does seem to place blame solely in one area–teachers. What is equally wrong is a response that denies that there is any fault in the teachers.

    A number of studies, notably the Sanders study in Tennessee, have clearly shown that individual teachers do indeed make a HUGE difference in student achievement. Other studies have shown that within the same school buildings, some individual teachers consistently get terrible scores on achievement tests while a teacher down the hall consistently gets great results. These get reported to the public as an average that obscures that truth.

    And we do know a lot about what makes the difference in the classroom. We know far more than people seem to want to admit. I was a researcher on a project that identified key characteristics in 10 schools performing at levels above what would be expected by socio-economic status, and we found the same key characteristics in all 10. Nothing we found, however, was inconsistent with what has already been discovered by other researchers, and none of what we found is in the norm in public schools.

    Blaming the teachers will never work, because it absolves the leaders of their failure to lead teachers to successful practices. On the other hand, failing to accept that fact that teachers share the blame will also only help perpetuate the failure. As long as poor-performing teachers can sit back and continue poor performance under the myth that it is not in any way their fault, they will never have an incentive to improve.

    • John, you betcha!

      The issue that I don’t see data about is how many teachers are performing poorly enough to cause a significant number of students to fail. While it would also be nice to know how many teachers can change failing students into high-performing students, that’s much less important.

      In a school or district with good leadership, the poor teachers constitute a minority. How small is that minority?

      Secondly, if we identify those who are failing and, after attempts at teacher remediation, have to fire them, who will replace them?

      I continue to contend that we must pay our teachers well just a countries such as Germany do. Well-paid teachers must be held to the highest standard by the community, the district, the school, the teacher, and the students. If teachers fail to meet the standards ,then they should be replaced as soon as well-qualified applicants can be found to replace them. That’s the rub. That’s why pay is so important.

      Everyone shares in the blame, by the way. The community that fails to accept reasonable taxes to support their schools has part of the blame. The school boards who put politics above students share in the blame. The parents who won’t sacrifice for their children (e.g., read to your kids instead of watching football) share in the blame. District administrators who don’t require principals to be real leaders share in the blame. School administrators who refuse to lead because it’s hard or will create bad feelings share in the blame. Teachers who view their critical jobs as just an easy lunch ticket (real teaching is hard work) share in the blame. Politicians who play politics with our children’s lives and with our nation’s future share plenty of blame.

      I’d also like to echo John’s comment about knowing what works and what doesn’t. In reviewing over a 100 years of science education, I see a repeating pattern of doing and redoing the same things with little regard to past experiences. To trivialize this history excessively, it’s as though we go “back to basics” and then switch to “relevancy” over and over. StOP THE WORLD, I WANT TO GET OFF! What ever happened to balance?

      In education, no single solution works and extreme positions seem always to fail. Children are not widgets.

  8. I recently went to a Middle School Conference. They talked about the problems and even had a strand that addressed the topics that we find the press ignoring.

    There were workshops on literacy, dealing with ELL, teaching disaffected Black Males, Methodology for
    involving students with disabilities etc. etc.

    There were movies and initiatives from the field that demonstrated strategies for involving minority youth in
    STEM initiatives in a summer program at Johns Hopkins.

    Computers for Youth demonstrated ways of working with parents and families. How refreshing it was to
    see that there are groups who understand that there are many problems to overcome in education and who address them in pedagogical strategy initiatives.

    There is a group called FAST Families and schools together which is an outreach and multifamily group process designed to engage parents into increased involvement with their children , other families and community based structures including schools.



    Gotta stop this late night posting.

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