Moving Beyond ‘Blame the Teacher’

Most of the current efforts to improve public education begin with the flawed assumption that the basic problem is teacher performance. This "blame the teacher" attitude has led to an emphasis on standardized tests, narrow teacher evaluation criteria, merit pay, erosion of tenure, privatization, vouchers and charter schools. The primary goal of these measures has been greater teacher accountability — as if the weaknesses of public education were due to an invasion of our classrooms by uncaring and incompetent teachers. That is the premise of the documentary, "Waiting for Superman," and of the attacks on teachers and their unions by politicians across the country.

We see distressing parallels between this approach to quality in education and the approaches that failed so badly in U.S. manufacturing. Recall the reaction of domestic manufacturers in the 1970s as Japanese competitors began to take market share: Many managers and an army of experts blamed American workers. They denounced workers' "blue-collar blues," lackadaisical attitudes and union job protections as the chief impediments to higher quality, productivity and competitiveness.

It took nearly two decades for manufacturers to realize that this diagnosis was deeply flawed and that the recommendations that flowed from it were leading U.S. industry further into decline. Recall the success of Japanese-run auto transplants operating in this country during the 1980s: They reached world-class quality levels with a U.S. workforce, in some cases a unionized workforce, while domestic auto companies continued to blame American workers and saw their quality levels stagnate.

Noticing the discrepancy, a growing number of manufacturers turned to the teachings of the quality guru W. Edwards Deming. Deming argued that U.S. industry's failure was not in its workers but in the system they labored under. He taught that pushing workers to work harder in a poorly designed system cannot improve outcomes. U.S. firms were being outcompeted because they relied on an outdated management system in which decisions were all top-down, tasks were narrowly specialized and workers were told to leave their brains at the factory door. To fix quality, manufacturers needed to fix these systems, and to do that, they needed to involve workers in that effort. Do those two things, and American workers were willing and able to achieve world-class levels of performance.

Much of the current wave of school reform is informed by the same management myths that almost destroyed U.S. manufacturing. Instead of seeing teachers as key contributors to system improvement efforts, reformers are focused on making teachers more replaceable. Instead of involving teachers and their unions in collaborative reform, they are being pushed aside as impediments to top-down decision-making. Instead of bringing teachers together to help each other become more effective professionals, district administrators are resorting to simplistic quantified individual performance measures. In reality, schools are collaborative, not individual, enterprises, so teaching quality and school performance depend above all on whether the institutional systems support teachers' efforts.

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