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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: How Blame for Low Student Achievement Shifted from Family to School

The shame that many teachers and principals feel at being blamed for a school’s low academic performance is a recent phenomenon.

For over a century and a half, policymakers, citizens, and educators explained students’ poor academic performance by pointing to their lack of effort and family deficits. By the 1970s, however, other explanations had come into vogue such as ethnic and racial discrimination, poverty, and immigrants lack of schooling. Policymakers would say that they could hardly be blamed for reversing conditions over which they had little control. Not until the 1970s, however, did demography as destiny fade as an explanation and, instead, the school and its teachers became an explanation for unequal student outcomes.

A half-century ago, then, other explanations for low academic performance among different groups of students gained traction: The school and its teachers—not racism, poverty, family, culture, or even language differences–caused students’ low academic performance. Blame shifted from home to school (and its teachers ) when research studies of largely minority urban elementary schools scoring well on national tests appeared.

These high-achieving ghetto and barrio schools had common features: staff’s belief that all urban children could learn; the principal of the school was an instructional leader; staff’s establishing high academic standards with tough classroom lessons, frequent testing, and an orderly school (PDF el_197910_edmonds-2).  Such “effective schools” proved to many skeptics that high poverty urban schools didn’t automatically fail; they could produce high scores on standardized tests.

Therefore, students’ race, ethnicity, and social class did not doom a school to failure. And most important, when committed and experienced staff worked closely together, they could make a decided academic difference in the lives of impoverished children of color. No longer could teachers and administrators blame students and their families for failing. Now, it was the responsibility of school staff to insure student success.

By the early 2000s, this fundamental swift in blaming the school rather than race, ethnicity, or family income for the causes of low academic achievement turned up in the words of national leaders who admonished teachers and administrators to avoid the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” This reversal of responsibility for inequitable outcomes has shifted the burden for academic success from students’ and families’ shoulders to those of their teachers, principals, and superintendents.

While most of us cherish the egalitarian thought—enshrined in the federal law of No Child Left Behind (2001) that all students will achieve and subsequent legislation, Every Students Succeeds Act (2016)–research studies and the facts of daily experience should give us pause before nodding in agreement. Perhaps total equality in results may occur in heaven but with wide variability in families’ income, students’ motivation, per-pupil spending across states, and teachers’ skills–such an outcome won’t happen on earth.

Nonetheless, within a few decades, a 180-degree shift in responsibility for chronic academic failure has occurred. Neither extreme of blame-and-shame of children and families or no professional responsibility for schools’ academic outcomes, however, squares with the facts. Responsibility rests with both community and district, both school and family, and, of course, both teachers and students.

Blaming others may be momentarily satisfying but ultimately unhelpful in either improving schools or motivating teachers and students to do their best. On the one hand, expecting a school staff to have the full responsibility for students’ academic achievement neglects the long history of research and daily experience of those students who come to school unready to learn. Family income, parental education, individual health, immediate neighborhood, and other factors surely influence (but not determine) what happens to growing children even before they enter kindergarten, much less as they go from grade-to-grade. If there is one fact researchers have established repeatedly it is that family income and education play a large role in children’s behavioral and academic performance in schools (see here and here).

Striking a balance between documented facts of inequities among students when they appear at the schoolhouse door and a large body of evidence that other educators have turned failing, largely minority schools into high-fliers is essential. But it is hard to strike this balance in the current unforgiving climate of state and federal accountability rules that name, blame, and shame districts, schools, and teachers for gaps in achievement, high drop out rates, and low graduation numbers. Consider that in 2019, 34 states used test scores to judge teacher performance.

Currently, state and federal penalties for low performance and concern for what students bring to school including both their strengths and weaknesses are seldom mentioned publicly because of policymakers’ and educators’ fears of being called racist, excuse-makers, or having low expectations of their students (or all three). The dominant one-liner repeated again and again is that efficient, well-managed schools and districts must be held accountable for students’ academic success.

This back-and-forth rhetoric and policies over the past half-century sharply limits those policymakers and reformers who want to address larger socioeconomic structures in the U.S. that contribute to economic inequalities and students’ disadvantages. After all, it is no secret that tax policies favor the wealthy, that residential segregation reigns in most cities, and discriminatory employment practices persist. But reform-minded policymakers find addressing larger political and social structures in the nation very difficult to do in a climate where well-intentioned but misguided school reformers censure teachers and schools while continuing policies that link district test scores to academic performance.

Blame and shame do work.


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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...