The Blame Game and Lousy Learning Outcomes for Our Students

Oct 2, 2018 by


Can we find someone to blame for the sorry state of public education in America? For years we have played the Blame Game, looking for someone to blame for our lousy state and national educational performance.

During the decades of “school reform”, we’ve blamed the states, and added federal requirements for common learning outcomes and assessment systems. We’ve blamed the local districts, and stripped local authority over graduation requirements, course content, teacher evaluation, and hiring practices.

We’ve blamed the teachers, and added onerous evaluation systems, course requirements for certification, CEU requirements for ongoing licensure, and reduced pay and benefits especially for new teacher practitioners. We’ve blamed the unions, and changed tenure and employment rules to reduce their influence. We’ve blamed the administrators, and added layers of mandatory plans, reports, school grading systems, and other bureaucratic requirements. We’ve blamed the parents, the students, and modern media and technology. We are pretty good at blaming.

Maybe we’ve been overlooking something. Casting blame on others may not be a solution. Adding more pressure to our antiquated design structure for schools may not add up to any improvement at all.

In this article we will first review some likely culprits who might be the object of our blaming. Then, instead of continuing the blame game, we will consider who is responsible for stepping up to build the most effective and engaging educational system in human history.

First, let’s consider the apologists. These voices espouse, in the face of overwhelming public opinion, that our schools are doing just fine. They point out that our reading and math scores have not declined, that teachers are working harder than ever with less-prepared and more-challenging students, and that somehow we still produce enough entrepreneurs to lead the world in innovation. They point out that in our country we educate all kids, including undocumented children and those with special needs. They celebrate that a few more students are graduating from high school than a decade ago.

It is true that America’s assessment data trail shows the same level of 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) outcomes now as we had in the early 1970s. The apologists can claim this as a victory because our society has changed, bringing us more challenging kids, fewer intact families, an absence of positive family routines, and more digital entertainment distractions in the lives of our students.

But it’s a hollow victory, since students in other nations have accelerated far beyond the achievements of American students, since minority students and poor kids still perform at abysmally low levels, since two-thirds of our fourth graders cannot read proficiently and do math at grade level, since 75% of high school seniors are not deemed eligible for military service, and since millions of technical and trades job go unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates.

The apologists are not to blame for the failures of our system. Even if they inspire some confusion and inaction among decision-makers, they are neither the visionaries nor the builders of our system. They are the spin-doctors, part of the cacophonous background noise of modern society, and no one can expect this group to lead us to better outcomes.

We could try blaming our American teachers and administrators. But even a cursory analysis would show that teachers are working hard, for less money and fewer benefits, and that they are doing everything their leaders have asked them to do. They are covering long lists of content standards (CCSS or some derivative) with all their students, keeping up with a rigid pacing guide, and administering many days of required assessments. They have passed teacher training entry evaluations and teacher certification evaluations. They attend required trainings measured in seat-time rather than learned skills or knowledge. They are doing every single thing the system demands of them. For most, the joy of teaching is a distant memory, replaced now with a high-pressure and high-anxiety system which tells them exactly what to do, and then blames them when it does not work.

In many ways teaching has become more challenging over the decades, in part because we have held onto the expectations of a one-size-fits-all instructional design, expecting all children to be ready to learn grade level content on the same day and with the same lessons. We have so many content expectations that teachers must “race” through the learning plans to manage to get it all “covered”. We add pressure with rigid pacing guides, student assessment systems, and fear-based teacher evaluation systems. We give the clear message that all kids must be expected to learn the same grade level material in the limited instructional time allowed.

We are driving many of the best educators away from this noble profession. No one can blame them for leaving a system that pays them less, blames them more, and treats them with disrespect. The educators who persevere are heroes, waiting for their chance to build something better.

We could certainly try to blame the parents for sending us these kids who have poorly developed language skills and motor skills, and who demonstrate a lack of self-regulation, empathy, social skills, and self-efficacy. We might decry the lack of reading routines at home, or wonder why parents fail to follow through when kids misbehave at school.

But no one can challenge the idea that parents are doing the best they can, often under tough circumstances. If more parents do not know how to encourage habits for learning at home, who will teach them?

We can blame the modern world, with its technology options, digital entertainment, fast pace, and busy lives. But other nations live in the same world, and some of their learning outcomes have improved. And really, we live in the age of information, ideas, and innovation. Learning skills have never been more important. Even with all our modern distractions, parents absolutely know that learning success will improve the lives of their children.

The world has changed, and the importance of learning has vastly increased, but our national learning outcomes have not improved. We hold onto the same basic systems design for education that we’ve had for more than a century. We deliver standardized one-size-fits-all instruction to children of the same age. We expect all kids of that age to be ready for the same aggressive content and curriculum. We cover a unit of instruction, give a test, and move onto the next unit. We give grades that quickly inform students whether they are winners or losers in the world of education. We use curriculum guides and rigid pacing guides to force teachers to keep up with the required pace of instruction. And we wonder why we have not produced better outcomes?

Rather than recognize and respond to the different needs of modern students, we get upset when they struggle to listen and attend to their lessons. Rather than slow down the pace of “coverage” for needy kids, we demand even more rigor in the form of more content coverage. Rather than deal with students’ social-emotional needs (which are not mentioned in CCSS, not covered in the curriculum, and not tested in our assessment systems), we double down on academic content coverage while cutting recess, play, music, art, and physical education. Rather than making parent education part of the school’s mission, or that of our churches or community organizations, we have walked away from the pressing need to help young families learn how to raise kids with character who love to learn and want to learn every single day of their lives.

It is a systems failure, so perhaps we can blame Horace Mann for bringing a curriculum-based, grade-based Prussian system to the first public schools in Massachusetts. But somehow blaming Horace Mann for a system used to develop public access to school in the 1840s seems misplaced. Schools adequately served their mission in the late 1800s by offering exposure to content and skills for academic learning to all in an age when few jobs relied on being great readers or mathematicians.

Or perhaps we should blame Frederick Winslow Taylor for bringing the top-down one-best-way industrial model to our schools. In the early 1900s this became the prevailing model for manufacturing, and it served us well as we became a manufacturing force in the world. It is no longer the prevailing model for industry, as technology, ideas, innovation, and collaborative problem-solving have replaced the old assembly-line. But one-size-fits-all is certainly still the design model for our schools, with our standardized age-based curriculum and pacing guides which limit the time available to teach or learn the required content.

When a system consistently produces the same poor result, decade after decade, with no discernable differences over time, who can we blame?

Who else, then, can we blame for:

· The continued inequity between rich and poor students?

· The failure to inspire so many kids to love learning?

· Our unwillingness to seriously prepare students for the jobs of the future which require collaboration, people skills, technology skills, solid math skills, basic scientific thinking, and a continued commitment to learning throughout life?

· A lack of confidence in the efficacy of a high school diploma or many college degrees?

· Falling further behind the student learning outcomes in other nations?

· The complete lack of a coherent plan for American education two decades from now?

While blame games are largely unproductive, in the United States today there are educators, and parents, and community leaders who continue to act as if there is no option to a one-size-fits-all instruction and assessment system. It’s the way schools work, some will say. I don’t have the power to change it, you may believe. It is the law, you tell yourself.

Our existing system is built to:

· cover content, test students, and sort them into winners and losers

· teach the same content at the same level of difficulty to all students

· allow many students to be taught within their frustration zone, week after week and year after year

· use a limited-time structure for each lesson before moving onto the next

· use pressure on teachers and learners to try to achieve better results

Over the last two decades, in the name of school reform, supporters of this system have doubled down on the standardized one-size-fits-all high pressure educational model that is driving good teachers away and convincing a lot of students that learning is not much fun.

These mindless supporters of the status quo have:

· added layers of government control to content and assessment systems based on a one-size-fits-all model

· moved local control of content standards to state control, and then further toward federal control

· allowed government sanctions and funding threats to reinforce the importance of assessment systems based on this one-size-fits-all model

· consistently forced teachers to “cover” the required curricula without varying instruction to meet the individual learning needs of their students

· allowed teacher evaluation and potential economic consequences to teachers based on this one-size-fits-all instructional model

· spent billions of dollars on reform models all of which fail to question the one-size-fits-all instructional model

· created a high-stress low-respect environment which fails to attract our best and brightest students to become educators

None of the “school reform” initiatives of the last 40 years have produced better results. All the pressure, all the effort, all the money has been wasted on intensifying a grade-based one-size-fits-all instructional model. If you are holding onto this antiquated model for learning, and failing to realize that a kinder and far more effective instructional model is available, then look in the mirror and realize you are part of the problem.

It’s time to call you out!

1. Every educator who sits on a “curriculum committee” and considers which new one-size-fits-all grade-level learning program to use in your district.

2. Every educator who participates in constructing a one-size-fits-all pacing guide or an assessment system which reinforces the pacing guide.

3. Every parent who enrolls their child in school without wondering if that beautiful child will continue to love to learn.

4. Every administrator who has contributed to creating a high-pressure culture of fear for teachers or students.

5. Every state bureaucrat and university leader who has helped develop a teacher licensure system or a continuing education system based on seat-time rather than teacher skill development.

6. Every parent, school board member, community leader, and educator who rolled over when the state and national government took away local control over what to teach your students.

7. Every parent, school board member, community leader, and educator who does not protest daily the whole idea of “covering” a one-size-fits-all curriculum that does not in any way consider the learning interests and needs of each individual student.

8. Every participant in the development of national standards who did not stand strong for the relative importance of learning outcomes rather than standards for coverage. It doesn’t matter what was covered if no one is learning.

9. Every district administrator and school board member who supports contracts which allow poor teachers to continue in the classroom.

10. Every board member and district superintendent who has marginalized the importance of hiring and keeping high quality teachers. If you choose to hire teachers at lower salaries who manage to “cover” the curriculum, rather than teachers who are better problem-solvers and can meet the individual learning needs of their students, you are part of the problem.

11. Every union leader and member who protects unfit members at the cost of unsafe and unproductive classrooms.

12. Every State Board of Education member, local school board member, school administrator, union leader, and community leader who has failed to recognize and condemn the overwhelming bureaucratic regulatory stranglehold that crushes every attempt at innovation in our schools.

13. Every teacher and parent who does not protest daily that teaching and learning have become a race, and that joy has been stripped from the learning process.

14. Every teacher who has accepted that is your job to “cover” the unit and then move on to the next.

15. Every apologist who cries, “We need more money”, without first ensuring that we have a system with the potential to help all our children succeed as learners.

When a system consistently produces the same poor result, decade after decade, with no discernible differences over time, who can we blame?

· Those who benefit financially from the continuation of a one-size-fits-all system.

· Those who know better, but for reasons of employment or comfort accept the status quo.

· Those who value the power they hold within existing educational structures more then they value the precious lives of our students.

· Those who mindlessly participate in a system that crushes vulnerable children.

It is time to get beyond the blame game and construct a plan for building the finest learning system ever created in all of human history. If you are in a parent, educator, or community leader in a position to demand or create change, then you are responsible to stop holding onto a learning systems design that does not work for most students. You are responsible for stepping up, understanding the limitations of a standardized education system, and seizing the opportunity to create a new model that personalizes competency based learning so that far more students can succeed. Those who really understand the old one-size-fits-all curriculum-driven system, but also recognize its weaknesses, are in the best position to build something better.

Let’s start now.

About the Author Bob Sornson is a long time contributor to Community Works Journal. He is a best-selling author and international consultant, calling for programs and practices which support competency based learning and early learning success. Bob works internationally with school districts, universities, and parent organizations. His many books include Brainless Sameness: The Demise of One-Size-Fits-All Instruction and the Rise of Competency Based Learning. Contact

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The Blame Game and Lousy Learning Outcomes for Our Students

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