Assigning Blame for Poor School Performance: A Look Backwards

In an article that Sarah Deschenes, David Tyack and I wrote a decade ago we examined the historical mismatch between schools and the students who attended them. In one section, we laid out how reformers over the past century have framed the problem of  children and youth failing in schools.  I ask readers to determine which, if any, of these four explanations for failure are currently being used.

The full article and endnotes can be seen at:

A. Students who do poorly in school have character defects or are responsible for their own performance….[L]ocating responsibility in the individual—a response with deep roots in American ways of thinking—has been the dominant way of framing the problem. In the educational system of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this manifested itself in a focus first on character deficiencies, which reformers believed children could overcome, and later on students’ low IQs, which students were thought to have no control over. Labels like ne’e-rdo-well, sleepy-minded, and limited exemplify this way of thinking about students….

In the twentieth century, when the “science” of education informed professional decision making, educators leaned heavily on psychological interpretations for school failure, primarily low I.Q. and inadequate motivation. This science of individual differences led to new responses: using intelligence tests to segregate pupils into different tracks or curricula presumably adapted to their talents; altering expectations for performance and seeking to find different motivations and incentives for different kinds of pupils; and, when all else failed, eliminating misfits from the mainstream by assigning them to special classes or letting them drop out at the earliest opportunity.

The belief that the school system was basically sound and the individual was defective in character, genes, or motivation has persisted. Current proposals requiring students to attend summer school or other remedial programs as part of the elimination of social promotion is consistent with framing the problem as an individual student’s responsibility.

B. Families from certain cultural backgrounds prepare children poorly for school and give them little support for achievement as they pass through the elementary and secondary grades. Some of the moral complaints against children in the nineteenth century spilled over to their parents: Parents were intemperate, ignorant, undisciplined, and unfamiliar with American values and customs. In the twentieth century, with the rise of social science, finger pointing became less moralistic. But still families were the culprit in theories that stressed the culture of poverty or the supposed cultural deficits in parents who produced seemingly unteachable children. Some of the labels used for students in these periods have some implications for families as well; if a child was wayward or was a laggard, why didn’t the parents do anything to address these problems?

If families were to blame for the academic inadequacies of their children—and this was a popular theory—it was not entirely clear how schools could improve parents. One solution was to create in the school a counterculture that would overcome the defective socialization children received at home. An extreme example of this way of thinking can be found in the attempt of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to place the younger generation in boarding schools far from their communities. A more common strategy was to “Americanize” the children of immigrants in the hope that some of their acquired learning would rub off at home. The kindergarten, in particular, targeted immigrant parents as much as five year-olds. Some city school systems sought to give adults special training, to work with settlement houses, and to use community schools as centers of “Americanization….”

C. The structure of the school system is insufficiently differentiated to fit the range of intellectual abilities and different destinies in life of its heterogeneous student body. In the Progressive era, many reformers argued that high rates of failure stemmed from the rigidity of the standardized curriculum and rigidity of age grading and promotion in schools. They did not frontally attack the graded school per se, for it had served their purposes well for the majority of students. Rather, they argued that a single, lockstep course of studies produced failures because not all students were capable of studying the same subjects at the same rate of progress….

This interpretation of failure obviously was closely related to the first—the explanation of failure in terms of individual deficits. It focused, however, on institutional changes that would leave intact the basic system of age-graded schools while finding places where the “laggards” could proceed at a slower pace and often in a different direction from the “normal” students. The remedy, then, was a differentiation of curriculum, grouping, and methods of teaching. This search for organizational causes and solutions led to ability grouping in elementary schools and to specialized curricular tracks in high schools, coupled with an apparatus of testing and counseling. …[A]s one phase of a top-down drive to make schools “socially efficient,” it was a fundamentally conservative movement that took as a starting point the assumption that educational planners should find a place for the misfits and prepare them for their likely (subordinate) roles in later life. It reified categories like “slow learner” or “hand-minded” or “ne’er-do-well” and attempted to find appropriate institutional niches for them. This differentiation often entailed watering down the standard curriculum for the “laggards” or assigning them to an inferior and segregated position within the system.

D. Children often fail academically because the culture of the school is so different from the cultural backgrounds of the communities they serve. This interpretation places the responsibility for school failure not on culturally different families and individuals but rather on the schools themselves, arguing that it is the schools, not the clients, that should adapt to social diversity and the forgotten children, culturally different, and push-outs. Early advocates of this perspective, like Leonard Covello, Principal of New York City’s Benjamin Franklin High School, argued that schools should be community-based and responsive to the different ethnic and class backgrounds of the students and families. Covello attacked the cultural bias in I.Q. tests, for example, objected to the assumption that Italian-American youth in East Harlem chiefly needed vocational education, and claimed that the curriculum should reflect the linguistic and cultural traditions represented in the community. Covello’s community-centered school is one example of an attempt to remedy the mismatch between school structures and students.

The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s heightened awareness of the multicultural character of American society and the culturally monochromatic environment of most schools. In this view, the standardized age-graded school was insensitive to low-income ethnic and racial minorities and largely unconsciously embodied the dominant ethos of middleclass, White, Anglo-Saxon values, attitudes, and behavior. Intent on imposing (through teachers, curriculum, and daily routines) mainstream culture on the children, such schools displayed little respect for differences in language, beliefs, and customs. In this view, teachers were often unconscious of the ways in which they served as agents of a rigid cultural system geared to standardizing their pupils. Constantly correcting non-mainstream children’s speech, as if to say that there was only one acceptable way to speak in any situation, is one example of this rigidity. The teachers unwittingly became active agents in creating student failure. As a result classrooms became cultural battlegrounds in which teachers communicated lower expectations, failed to connect with their culturally different students, and thus contributed to low academic performance and high dropout rates. The analysis of cultural bias and rigidity led to solutions that focused largely on making the curriculum more multicultural, increasing the cultural sensitivity and knowledge of teachers, and building school programs around values that reflected those of surrounding ethnic communities.

Each of these different diagnoses of poor school performance led to different conclusions. Blaming the individual student or the family provided an alibi, not a solution. Blaming the rigidity of traditional education for its lack of proper niches for the “ne’er-do-well” exposed institutional faults, but it led to policies that all too often sequestered the misfits in an inferior and segregated corner of the system. Spotlighting the gaps between the culture of the school and the cultural backgrounds of students provided a useful corrective to the earlier ethnocentric explanations that blamed the students and parents, but the cultural conflict explanation typically did not question the basic structure and processes of schooling. Focusing on the cultural biases of teachers ran the danger of personalizing the answer: What was needed was more sensitive instructors (but where were they to come from and what were they to do once in the classroom?). Enriching the curriculum by adding Black history or bilingual strategies of instruction was surely an improvement, but such attempts to make schools multicultural typically were just that: additions to a familiar age-graded pattern of instruction, not recasting the character of the institution.

The standards movement departs from these previous explanations in the way it frames students and performance, but not in the solutions it offers students who do not fit its structures. Note that almost all of these previous problem definitions and the solutions they generated left the core structure and assumptions of the institution—in particular the age-graded school as the chief building block—basically untouched….

The standards movement … questions the assumptions if not the structure of schooling, arguing that all students can be held and should be held to high levels of performance. The contrast is striking between current reforms, in which all students would ideally get the same curriculum (though this is not always the case), and the nineteenth century, when individual students were judged on their character or individual ability, or the Progressive era, when reformers were proud of finding a different niche or a track for every student. The problem is now that the structure of schools still does not allow for the variety of students and the variety of areas in which they might excel. As a result, students who do not excel in the age-graded, narrowly academic world may once again be subject to the same kinds of labeling and failure that their predecessors were.

The pedagogical assumptions and practices embedded in the urban age-graded school—the scheduling of time, the segmentation of the curriculum, grouping according to notions of “ability,” annual promotions, elaborate bureaucratic structures of control, and views of learning, teaching, and knowledge— remained largely unquestioned throughout the [past] century. There were consequently not many options for solutions outside this structure.

We see a continuation of this today with standards-based reforms focused on requiring low-performing students to do more during the school year and during the summer or repeat a year of school rather than questioning why these students are failing and what structures in their schooling lead to failure. The standards movement, admirable in its goal of raising the bar for the entire educational system, must ask how it can ensure that this mismatch does not continue to let success elude large groups of students, many of whom live in impoverished urban and rural districts. The focus must be on what happens to the students who do not fit the mainstream academic mold and how school structures can change to meet their needs.


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Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

One response to “Assigning Blame for Poor School Performance: A Look Backwards

  1. Pingback: Advocacy, Critique, and Communities of Practice | Donna Lanclos–The Anthropologist in the Stacks

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