Who Blames Teachers?

by Robert Pondiscio
August 5th, 2010

Guest posting at Eduwonk, Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project purports to “unmask the blame-the-teacher crowd.”  

“Strangely, nobody can credibly identify any members of this nefarious crowd. We know who’s not in the group. Not Barack Obama, who has made clear that he is “110 percent behind our teachers,” and made good on it by supporting tens of billions of dollars to save teacher jobs. Not Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who recently paid tribute to teachers and said that his “job is to fight for them, empower them and support them.” Not even Bill Gates, who earned multiple standing ovations during his speech to the AFT convention. In fact, the only people talking about blaming teachers are the ones supposedly defending them from this threat.

Fair enough.  Point taken.  No one “blames the teacher.”  To the contrary, we “support our teachers” just like we “support our troops” regardless of our feelings about the wars they wage.  The question to be asked is whether “we support teachers” is a meaningful statement or an empty platitude.

The typical teacher in a low-performing school was poorly trained, has no say over curriculum (and as often as not, no curriculum whatsoever), little leverage on disciplinary issues, and often has to prepare and deliver lessons in a manner explicitly prescribed by administrators, consultants or others. Professional development typically adds nothing of value, and administrative feedback when given too often tends toward management by checklist, principally concerned with ostensible “visible evidence of learning,” such as kids working in cooperative groups, up-to-date student work on classroom bulletin boards, and lesson aims and standards written on the board in child-friendly language.

When teachers succeed under these conditions, we support them. When they fail, we may not “blame” them, but neither do we ask why they fail. And there’s the rub. Remaining incurious about why well-intentioned, hard-working people fail despite their best efforts and doing what they’ve been asked how they’ve been directed may not be “blaming them,” per se.

But it’s close.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sara Mead, Robert Pondiscio. Robert Pondiscio said: Saying "we support teachers" means squat if you're incurious why good people work hard and still fail. http://bit.ly/95PHTL [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Who Blames Teachers? « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- Topsy.com — August 5, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

  2. First of all, the “blame the teacher” rhetoric isn’t just a figment in the imagination of some teachers. Remember the Newsweek story proclaiming “The Problem with Education is Teachers?” An extreme example, to be sure, but it’s hardly without precedent in the current debate.

    The “blame the teacher” tendency could be a flip side of important arguments about the importance of teachers. With the help of recent research, people have caught on to the fact that teachers are very important. If they’re so important, some seemed to suggest, they must be the cause of poor performance. The culture that celebrates individual teachers as superheroes fighting against all odds can just as easily create villains who lie down on the job and drag down the fortunes of poor children.

    So your comments on the conditions under which teachers must work is spot on. There is unfortunately plenty of blame to go around. If we could focus more thoroughly on the teachers, the conditions under they must work, and the support they receive, the conversation would become a good deal more constructive.

    Comment by Claus — August 6, 2010 @ 8:55 am

  3. Excellent post. “We support our teachers just like we support our troops”–brilliant.

    We send our troops the things they need–from tube socks to toilet paper–just as we feel it’s perfectly fine to ask parents to send in such basic items as kleenex and hand sanitizer. The elevation of rhetoric over substance.

    Thanks for unmasking the unmasker.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — August 6, 2010 @ 9:39 am

  4. Anre Duncan a champion of teachers? What planet does Tim Daly live on?

    Comment by bill eccleston — August 6, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  5. When the low quality curriculum, lax discipline and micromanagament by administrators predictably results in poor test scores, who do you think gets blamed?? Teachers do. Maybe not by the White House but definitely in the monthly staff meetings…

    Comment by Mike Sullivan — August 8, 2010 @ 9:52 am

  6. To Mike: I would add an “elephant in the room” –kids who don’t try very hard. I have never worked in a school where there were any real consequences for sitting on your butt and doing nothing all year. F’s are not deterrents for many kids, especially when there’s no chance of retention. And since we have no tests that are high-stakes FOR STUDENTS (like those in most Asian and European countries) many kids make a rational calculation that relaxing and socializing is the best course. We need to change the incentive structure for kids.

    Comment by Ben F — August 8, 2010 @ 11:11 am

  7. Ben,

    What state are you referring to?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 8, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

  8. Robert, I think you are being too kind. Implicit in the statement of “teacher accountability” is the premise that it is poor teachers that are causing our students to perform poorly on national/international exams. There has been no comparable statements of “student accountablity” or “school district officials accountability” or “state educational department accountability” or “publisher accountabilty”.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — August 8, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  9. If teachers are inadequate, what does that say about the schools of education that graduated them and certified them as teachers? To criticize teachers and give ed schools a pass is to put the cart before the horse.

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — August 9, 2010 @ 8:23 am

  10. I agree, HG, and Erin put it even more bluntly than I did. I’m tempted to suggest that the current approach to teacher quality would be comparable to removing all construction and materials codes and judging architects based on whether their buildings remain standing.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 9, 2010 @ 8:27 am

  11. Erin, your commentary cuts right to the heart of the growing anger among teachers for pundits and the press. Take the most famous recent example of the “Blame the Teachers” syndrome, the Central Falls RI High School story. Journalists have absolutely no credibility as critics of teachers when they have done such a horrible job of reporting as they did with that story. Use any search engine available on the planet and you will find—and I am writing directly here to any reporter who just might be reading this—you will find that among the thousands and thousands of articles written, not one—not a single one—investigated the administration side of the story. Not one “journalist” in the whole country had brains enough to ask, “Gee, what responsibility does the RI Department of Education have for the poor performance of the C.F. students? After all, the RI Board of Regents has been directly in control of the C.F. school for the past 19 years, haven’t they? What’s up with that? And what’s up with the 20 administrators they’ve hired and fired at the school for the past five years? What are their names? What did they witness? How taut was the administrative ship in their view? How well was the school really run from the top?” It truly boggles the mind how badly this iconic story was reported and CONTINUES to be reported to this moment. The sorry state of educational journalism is certainly one of the biggest and least appreciated problems we face in the struggle to improve schools in this country. Thank you for putting that in perspective, Erin.

    Comment by bill eccleston — August 10, 2010 @ 8:25 am

  12. Bill,

    Thanks. We all ought to pick up on your question and challenge journalists, scholars, bloggers, and possibly even policy analysts to ask those questions.

    Comment by john thompson — August 11, 2010 @ 9:53 am

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