Blaming students the wrong approach to meaningful school reform

Jay Bullock is a teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools and a regular blogger at, therefore he’s a colleague.

He recently wrote a column about the proposal to create a “recovery district” in Milwaukee for schools that are failing. Nobody knows what that district would be, who would run it, how it would be funded or anything else. But Bullock is against it.

I agree, but for totally different reasons. For me the idea of school reform in Milwaukee and Wisconsin has always focused on who gets to control what pot of money. The answers to meaningful school reform are not to be found in governance changes.

So Bullock and I are on the same side on this issue, but I’m deeply troubled by some of the implications in his column.

“Many of the children in Milwaukee are hard to educate well,” he said.  ”Urban, poor, minority children pose a seemingly insurmountable educational challenge.

“Because, as I have said before in other places, we’re not talking about failing schools here; we’re talking about failing students,” he said. “The vast majority of schools in Milwaukee of all sectors, are … staffed by talented people who believe in their students and want them to succeed and are willing to try many different tactics to get there.”

Bullock may not realize what he’s saying here, but it sounds like the old “blame the students” philosophy that has been spouted for so long by educators, led by their union representatives. We have all heard the complaints. “These kids have a terrible home life.” “Nobody cares about helping them with homework.” “They have no idea of discipline.”

I am not an expert in this and I have never taught a class in my life. But I have worked intimately on school reform efforts and plans in nine urban districts in this country. Some have made a little improvement, some have not.

But one thing I have learned and believe deeply is that it is not the fault of the students that achievement is low.

As Cassius says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

I am a great believer in the philosophy and reform efforts of Dr. Jeff Howard, a Harvard trained social psychologist who runs The Efficacy Institute in Cambridge.

Howard has three things, just three things, that are at the core of his work.

One is that all children, especially minority children, can learn vastly more than most of them do right now. The second is that the biggest barrier to achievement is the low expectations that schools and teachers have for these children. And the third is that the most important thing to teach these children is to work hard at achievement.

I’m not going to write about the statistics from Efficacy’s work. It’s too complex to cover here but you can read about it at their website here.

There is evidence that once people stop blaming the kids and stop feeling that it’s the fault of the children and their environments that keeps them from achieving, real change is possible.

A number of years ago I was working on reform efforts in the New York public schools. One of the consultants was another guy from Harvard, Arthur Kempton, who has worked at the highest levels of several urban districts.

One day, during a meeting with the head of the New York teachers’ union, she said that teachers were just overburdened trying to teach these kids who had so many problems.

After the meeting I recall Kempton saying, “How do we ever get real change when someone like that has it so ass-backward?”

I believe that Jay Bullock is a well-meaning teacher and that he undoubtedly wracks his brain trying to find a way to help all kids achieve. He ought not be distracted by these crazy ideas like a recovery district, that’s been tried in other places and has proved ineffective.

But school reform is a complex business and one of the big things about it is that nibbling around the edges doesn’t do anything important. Big change is what’s needed.

And a part of that change is to stop complaining about the students and stop trying to get tiny improvements in standardized tests and start having faith in the concept of hard work being the single most important factor in success.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *