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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/ 1/2010

First blame the teachers, then the parents

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Maja Wilson, who taught high school English, adult basic education, ESL, and alternative middle and high school in Michigan’s public schools for 10 years. She is currently a teacher educator at the University of Maine while finishing her doctorate in composition studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Heinemann, 2006).

By Maja Wilson
The next victim of the Department of Education’s campaign of blame? Parents!

We have been told repeatedly that our educational system is broken. Our response to this news says more about us than the news itself. If our children are indeed suffering, it might make sense to offer them what they need. Instead, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and others in the school reform movement have engaged in a ceaseless campaign to demand “accountability” -- in other words, to figure out whom to blame.

This campaign has hinged on merciless and increased standardized testing of our children. The results of these tests form the basis for sanctions doled out to whomever is currently deemed guilty. Recent victims of these sanctions include students, teachers, administrators, and entire school districts.

Confronted with evidence that the accountability movement has undermined rather than improved education—by narrowing the curriculum, diverting resources from educating to testing, and putting anxiety rather than intellectual curiosity at the center of the educational process—the DOE simply looks for more parties to blame.

Peter Cunningham, the DOE’s Assistant Secretary for the Office of Communications and Outreach, spoke Nov. 21 at the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention in Florida. During the question and answer session that followed, several teachers expressed frustration that teachers are always blamed first. Cunningham’s response gives a clue to the next victims of the DOE’s campaign of blame:

“...under the system we would like to propose, we would like to increase accountability for principals...[and] superintendents....I hear a lot of requests by teachers to put more of these accountability pressure on parents....I don’t really have a good answer for how to do force them to do what they’re supposed to do....”

Despite Cunningham’s claim of ignorance, his boss, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, does have an idea for how to “put the accountability pressure on parents.”

When Duncan worked for Supt. Paul Vallas in the Chicago Public Schools, Vallas sent home report cards every five weeks—report cards that graded parents. Measures of good parenting included: enforcing bed times, dressing children in clean clothes, and showing up to school events.

Parents who didn’t measure up were to receive sanctions including visits from school volunteers and “crash courses in parenting.”

Whether or not Duncan plans to use his national platform to spread the blame to parents, this one-year experiment in Chicago should give us pause. In that pause, we should question whether or not accountability is the right frame for educating our children. The frame of accountability leads us to ask the following questions:

—Who is to blame?
—How can we measure the degree of their guilt?
—How can we punish them?

If answering these questions doesn’t actually lead to improved education for our children, we start the cycle of unproductive questions again, starting with: Who else is to blame?

Perhaps the frame of accountability makes sense for dealing with corporations that stand to gain by putting the environment and the public’s safety at risk. But when it comes to our interest in the intellectual and moral development of all of our children, it is time to consider a different frame with a different set of central questions:

—What do children need to become intellectually curious and engaged, skilled, thoughtful, ethical, and knowledgeable citizens?
—What do parents and teachers need to support this development?
—How can we give what we have to parents, children, and teachers?

Notice, there is no blame in this frame and no measurement of guilt, simply an effort to understand what our children and schools need and how we can give that to them. Not only is there less anger and anxiety, but also more efficiency.

We can take all the energy and money spent on testing and sanctions and apply it directly to what we already know that children need: books, adequate food and medical care, and plenty of one-on-one time with skilled adults who are more interested in children’s intellectual development than in their performance on multiple choice tests.

Naming this alternate frame is problematic. Responsibility might work because of its root word, “response.” But it proves too easy to substitute the word “responsibility” when we really mean “accountability,” as in, “Let’s hold parents responsible for their children’s performance on standardized tests.” In fact, that’s precisely what Cunningham did minutes after I suggested responsibility as an alternate frame for accountability.

Testing, measurement, sanctions, and anxiety are at the heart of the accountability frame.

Needs, support, care, and giving are at the heart of an alternate frame.

Whatever we might choose to name the latter, I would challenge those who are concerned with the DOE’s campaign of blame to stop trying to fiddle with the particulars of its policies (“Let’s change the wording of this standard.” Or, “Let’s test in May rather than October.”) Instead, let’s invest our precious time and energy in imagining a different way to engage with our children and schools.

Educational reform that simply shifts or spreads the blame and redistributes the sanctions is no reform at all.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 1, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Accountability, Guest Bloggers, Parents, Teachers  | Tags:  accountability, arne duncan, department of education, school reform, teachers  
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Another great post. We should blame the legacy of centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and colonialism. Then it would make less sense to blame the parents, who also came from generational poverty, for giving into drug abuse and alocholism. It is a shame that modern medicine had made it tougher to blame parents with mental illness and PTSD. But still we can hold them responsible. (maybe we need a rubric to distinquish between earned PTSD, for instance, as opposed to giving into stress) But, in my experience, the even bigger culprit is canncer and heart disease. I guess we can then blame parents for not getting a good enough job with full health benefits and/or and unhealthy lifestyle. But before long that gets absurd. (at least now it does; maybe we can devise a metric to determine which personality types engaged in emotional interactions that contributed to disease, and we can hold parents accountable for their karma.)

We should blame the accountability hawks. After all the real purpose of data-DRIVEN accountability is saying that word loudly and repeatedly so we sound tough. Education "reform" is like Clinton's welfare reform. But if Democrats don't play that blame game, we end up with the Rightwing doing the education-bashing.

We could blame the central offices. For instance the latest Council of Great City's Schools showed that DC schools don't even have a definition of the word "absence" and cited a school that provided a reading specialist to "bubble kids" and dumped the lowest readers on the PE teacher. But didn't we all know the first rule of education that the feces rolls downhill? Rothstein and others have shown repeatedly how featherless bipeds react with a culture of compliance to arbirary accountability regimes.

I blame Peter Cunningham for not having a neat soundbite to answer the teachers' questions.

Nancy Flanagan said it well. Teachers learn to not blame the entire class to punish specific offenders. Or maybe we're to blame for that wimpy ethos. Maybe we need to start early, beat down kids, i mean hold kids accountable, as preparation for being widgets in a dog eat dog society, I mean a culture of accountability.

Posted by: johnt4853 | December 1, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

It is at best a fractured culture to blame. It doesn't start at any one part of education, it is the whole enchilada.

First, and foremost, the culture of children at risk will never find this article in their house. Only teachers will read about this because parents either don't subscribe to the paper or can't read/digest the information. So this will largely fall on deaf ears.

Next, it becomes nearly against everything we know to "force" parents into doing things they either don't want to do, or in many cases, can't. How would we get parents involved if they cannot see the importance or cannot change their literacy?

Finally, this MUST come from the community. Washington is big, but not nearly enough to get their arms around 50 states of education. Summits and brainstorming might help, but there's another issue.

I don't see the President or anyone from the administration pumping up education to the country, or even a community. I'm not talking about reading a book, smiling for cameras, or changing the lunchroom menu to salads. Let's talk about someone getting into the community for at risk kids, talking with parents and neighbors, and getting people rallied around things like "life long learning," "self-teaching," and "getting involved" for the sake of our nation and our future.

The kids need a bailout! What is so hard to understand?

Posted by: jbeeler | December 1, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Visits from school volunteers and crash courses in parenting aren't sanctions. They are precisely the kind of "support, care and giving" that you call for.

As a teacher myself, I'm struggling to understand what exactly you're suggesting as an alternative. There are more and better things that all stakeholders -- parents, teachers, school/district administrators, testing companies -- could be doing to move kids forward. If everyone would stop being so concerned about whether the blame is being placed on them, and instead think about what they could be doing better to improve the educational outcomes of their kids, we could have much more productive conversations.

Posted by: simmerdown1 | December 1, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Never blame greedy capitalists for destroying billions in house values;billions in pension funds; billions in stocks and bonds. The capitalist system is now producing fewer good jobs and fewer opportunities for upward social mobility. Globalization is central to our current problems in the US today. The reality is that the broken parts of our public educational systems map almost exactly to poor urban areas of African Americans and other minorities. If we focused on the dysfunctional urban areas rather than blaming teachers first and only we would quickly meet racism,drug wars, prisons and gangs and very few good jobs. Poverty does matter and generational poverty matters even more. We are a nation unmoved by poverty and racism. Some call them an excuse for failures in school. Most know them as the death knell for young minds. Do the schools need fixing? You bet. Do we need to drain the public coffers to education corporations that offer miracles? Definitely not. If charters have learned so many lessons how do they map onto the public school model? It's time to admit that there are excellent public, private and parochial schools. Why haven't we learned how they do it and adopt what works?

Posted by: fsg2118 | December 1, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

"Educational reform that simply shifts or spreads the blame and redistributes the sanctions is no reform at all." (I love it.)

How about "Humane Education Reform"

Posted by: realannie | December 1, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Teachers can't control poverty, teachers can't control parents; teachers can only control themselves, and what they do in a classroom. Ford, Apple, or Boeing don't blame their customers for their profits or losses; the work assiduously to meet their customers' needs. Instead of blaming parents we should find out what they need and meet those needs as best we can. If you know students don't have adult supervision from 3pm to 7pm, then a school should do what it can to provide that so homework gets done. Ultimately students appreciate those teachers that made a serious, committed effort even if they failed your class; When you demand much but care a lot students and parents will always be thankful.

Posted by: pdfordiii | December 1, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

It would be gratifying, appropriate, and professional, not to mention earning one's pay from taxpayer funds, for teachers to be responsible and accountable for the education they impart during school time.

Unfortunately, some teachers in the District's public schools do not easily take responsibility for what goes on in the classroom.

Or, they want to punish parents for not being good parents. They need to realize that the city government is not going to punish parents and does not have the authority or influence to make the parents meet DCPS teachers' "standards." Rather, it is somewhat the other way around.

Posted by: axolotl | December 1, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

What a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and gentle reminder that it's easier to catch flies using honey than vinegar. Leave it to Axo to take a metaphorical dump on the author in an ever-more-transparent attempt to cast teachers as the intractable enemies of educational quality. I could devote the next 2500+ remaining characters to an attempt at convincing Those Who Know Best that the human psyche, at least as regards motivation, doesn't work the way "conventional wisdom" says it does, but I suspect the effort would be in vain. If you're one of those (vanishingly rare, IME)souls who can withstand a challenge to your worldview, Daniel Pink has written a whole book on the subject. Of course, being open to different ideas requires a modicum of intellectual curiosity that the reformers of the past 2-3 decades are doing their best to beat into submission.

Posted by: Coachmere | December 1, 2010 11:22 PM | Report abuse

No, Ford and Boeing don't blame their customers for profits and losses--they just grab a few billion more from the government. If schools had unlimited funds to spend on alleviating the burdens of poverty on their students, this discussion would be unnecessary.

Posted by: bhorn1 | December 2, 2010 12:33 AM | Report abuse

Maja Wilson's analysis of the blame and shame game being used in the name of providing our youth with a better education is absolutely true. All the mandates, rules, competition haven't added anything of value, but instead have compromised learning and reduced learning to passing THE TESTS.

Colorado has developed even more senseless tests.

New York wants to charge school districts $5.93/student to develop and administer state regent's exam.

At a time when we should be spending money in more enlightened ways that actually enhance learning, our government and businesses want to spend money on useless tests in the name of accountability. What a silly, fruitless idea it is to spend time, energy, and money on senseless testing. The FEDs want data, and the data is sitting right in front of them if they know how to observe.

Save us from standards and testing ad nauseam.

Let's instead provide what we know is important as Wilson points out, "... books, adequate food and medical care, and plenty of one-on-one time with skilled adults who are more interested in children’s intellectual development than in their performance on multiple choice tests."

Posted by: Educator10 | December 2, 2010 12:45 AM | Report abuse

Coachmere -- read my....words, again, please. I refer only to the teachers who eschew responsibility for what they are paid for. There is a growing number of such DCPS teachers, quite evident in these blogues, and they are a real problem for us parents and other taxpayers who believe taking responsibility is part of the job. If you think not, you probably have/had no children in the public schools.

As for parents, many cannot imagine the school system or any other element of government being successful in forcing parents of SES kids to be better when it comes to education. The government is not the forcing function.

Try pondering these points rather than your flaccid ideas.

Posted by: axolotl | December 2, 2010 6:46 AM | Report abuse

It's not so much the article on this page that forced me to comment as the comments on the article. The Ford and Boeing analogy is flawed (and the response that throwing more money at the problem is also flawed but I'll save that for later). Ford and Boeing have complete control over their product from design to implementation. They make their product to specs and customers purchase the one with the specs that meet their needs. Whether it's Ford making a new Hybrid or Boeing building a new jet fighter. Yes, if it's for a government contract such as a jet fighter, Boeing will start out with the specs that the government wants and it's up to them to try to meet them better than the competition. In the public schools, we are charged with getting students from wherever they are to some contrived place called grade level by the end of their time in our class. I say contrived because "grade level" is not based on anything but averages...Where is the average 6th grade student in math? We'll call that grade level. Same thing with standardized tests...their based on averages. We're not designing lessons and then teaching them to a clientele that has chosen us. We're designing lessons and then changing them for every single customer that comes through the door. It would be like Ford building an F-150 and then the dealer asking each individual customer not just what color they wanted the interior but also how big they wanted the door and whether they wanted the windshield wipers to swing from left to right or right to left. Those type of customizations are impossible for those companies to meet but we in the public schools are asked to meet them every day. Maybe Johnny needs a bigger "door" in the form on extra one-on-one time in my class. If I give him an extra 60 seconds, that means someone probably won't get any individual or even small group time...their door just got smaller. I have to teach the 30 students in my classroom in 30 different ways.

Teacher's training and jobs are to effectively teach their subject matter to the students they serve. If we can make personal relationships that it is great. However, to say that teachers should babysit students, who don't do anything when their sitting in our class period, from 3-7pm because their parents can't be home with them in the afternoon, is pathetic.

And to answer the question that you posed to the other person critical of your opinion...yes, I have three kids and I care greatly about their schooling.

I'm afraid I'm out of room so I can't address the issue of throwing money at the problem.


Posted by: allenmoore1 | December 2, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Oops. Sorry, I just realized that I mixed one person's opinion with another. It wasn't the person who posted the Ford/Boeing analogy who also mentioned that someone probably doesn't have children. Sorry pdford for insinuating that you did.

Posted by: allenmoore1 | December 2, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Teachers have been blaming students' lack of achievement on parents/families for decades.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | December 2, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I have read your comments, Axo. Quite a few of them. You consistently characterize anybody who doesn't embrace the idea that teachers should rightly be held solely and completely accountable for student achievement (in the form of test scores) as unwilling to "accept responsibility for what they are paid for."

I teach in a state that administers a High School Exit Exam. The results for the October test (administered to seniors only) came out today. Of the three teachers teaching the support classes, my pass rate was the lowest. The teacher with the highest % of students passing has never taught the class before. According to your logic, and that of every other person who mistakenly believes that test scores are a valid and reliable reflection of how "effective" a teacher is, I suck. Maybe I do. I *will* look at the data and talk to the other teachers in an attempt to gain insight into why my kids didn't pass, but I suspect I won't uncover proof of my incompetence. Rather, I expect to find that it boiled down to the luck of the draw when it came to scheduling. I will find solace in the two students I had last year who sought me out today to share their excitement that they'd passed; why would they do that if they didn't believe I played a part in their success? I will look at the rosters from my classes at the beginning of last school year, and note that all but 3 of the juniors I had then who I also have this year have passed. I don't think I'm doing everything THAT CAN BE DONE to help my kids pass this test, because that's an impossible task for one person. And even though I'll continue to seek to perfect my craft, I'm at peace with myself because I know I'm doing the best I can. The vast majority of teachers I know are doing no less, and the ones who aren't...they know it and the students know it. Administration knows, too, but either can't -- or won't -- remedy the situation.

For now, I'm going to be thankful that test scores are no part of the evaluation process in my district. Sadly, I'm not sure how much longer that will be true. I fear we are approaching a day when the tremendous effort and energy that conscientious, intelligent, and trained professionals put forth on a daily basis means nothing -- because it doesn't translate to high scores on tests that are either highly correlated to income level, assess incredibly unimportant "skills," or both.

Posted by: Coachmere | December 2, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

The first thing we need to do to "fix" the education system in this country is to get rid of the teachers unions. Then and only then can we begin to "fix" the education system in this country. The teachers unions have nothing to do with students.

Posted by: vichomer1313 | December 6, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Obviously looking for scapegoats to "blame" for problems in schools is not the most constructive tactic.
On the other hand, the focus on teachers seems unfair when one considers that teachers are asked to deal with a myriad of social problems and to compensate for the shortcomings of students who arrive at school unprepared (mentally, physically, emotionally and behaviorally) to participate in structured learning.
The fact that some teachers successfully meet all these challenges and motivate students to learn, is more of a marvel than it is a standard.
There is nothing wrong with holding teachers to a high standard but we must first determine what that standard is and how it can be measured.

My sense is that many of the qualities possessed by good teachers are difficult, if not impossible to quantify. On the other hand, standardized tests can be graded by machines and can geneate a never-ending river of statistics. In the hands of the wrong people, these statistics become a self-perpetuating rationale for more tests and a curriculum tailored to needs of the test-makers.

While "blaming" parents may not be the answer, it makes more sense to focus on the home and the community when searching for long term answers to our educational challenges, than it does to turn the vocation of teaching into a "numbers racket".

Posted by: OlSloaner | December 6, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

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