By: Bob Lucore
Would you like a job where your boss blamed you for things beyond your control? Over the last three decades it has become common for managers to blame workers for poor company performance. Now, unfortunately, this attitude prevails in America’s education system. We are told that our educational system is failing, and that the best way to “reform” that system is to lay the blame for its supposed poor performance at the foot of the teachers.
Recall that for years, while unfair trade treaties and the actions of flagless multinational corporations undermined American manufacturing, workers and their unions were commonly blamed. This “blame the worker” system was a total failure. Fortunately, the recent partial revival of the U.S. auto industry shows that when management, labor and government establish cooperative relationships of mutual trust, great progress can be made.
The airline industry is similar. Deregulation made the industry unprofitable. Management blamed the pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and others, who made countless concessions, and worked harder, only to see bankruptcy after bankruptcy. Fortunately, Southwest Airlines makes a nice counter example. Southwest is the nation’s most highly unionized carrier, has a history of excellent labor relations, and a culture of worker involvement instead of worker blame. Consistent financial success has accompanied this record.
Now the worker blame virus has infected education.
It is important to point out that by the best measures of overall performance, the education system has achieved astounding success, even for minorities and the disadvantaged. Richard Rothstein’s work for the Economic Policy Institute provides a good starting place for understanding the hidden success of our school systems.
Nevertheless, the administration’s Race to the Top program sets up test scores as a single-focus method for evaluating, compensating, and firing, teachers. Romney has much worse proposals. Although teachers are important in determining how well students perform, research shows that they are far from the most important determinant. Factors relating to the school (class size, availability of specialists, facilities and materials), the community (poverty rates especially) and home/family environment are all very important. The thrust of current policy is to evaluate teacher performance based largely on factors beyond the control of teachers.
The recent MetLife Survey of The American Teacher shows that as many as a million teachers may be preparing to leave the profession—a record high. Dissatisfaction in the profession has been fueled by the massive cuts in school funding due to the continuing economic crisis. But it has also been fueled by the rise of the blame the teacher mentality.
Fortunately, it does not have to be this way. There are a substantial number of examples where teachers, working through their unions, are collaborating with school district management to improve student performance. A Rutgers University study highlights ten promising examples of these collaborative approaches in education and provides lessons for those who would seek to implement this promising approach.
At the same time, we must renew our efforts to address some of the most important factors affecting student achievement, such as alleviating poverty and improving employment opportunities for parents.
Bob Lucore, a long-time ADA board member, is the former Director of Research and Policy for the United American Nurses and has worked for the Teamsters and the Department of Economic Research at the AFL-CIO. . He taught economics for several years at Centre College and Colorado State University and is currently studying Library and Information Science at San José State University. Bob is a member of UAW Local 1981, the National Writers Union.