Reframing Shame: How and When Blame for Student Low Achievement Shifted

The shame that many teachers and principals feel at being made responsible for a school’s low academic performance is a recent phenomenon. Historically, policy elites and educators explained poor academic performance of groups and individual students by pointing to ethnic and racial discrimination, poverty, immigrants’ cultures, family deficits, and students’ lack of effort. School leaders would say that they could hardly be blamed for reversing conditions over which they had little control. Until the past quarter-century, demography as destiny was the dominant explanation for unequal school outcomes.

Things began to change by the mid-1970s. Other explanations for low academic performance among different groups of students gained traction: The school—not racism, poverty, family, culture, or even language differences–caused disadvantages in students. This explanation grew from research studies of urban elementary schools with high percentages of poor and minority students that did far better on national tests than researchers would have been predicted from their racial and socioeconomic status.

These high-flying 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 established high academic standards with demanding classroom lessons, frequent testing, and an orderly school (PDF el_197910_edmonds-2).  These “effective schools” proved to many skeptics that high poverty urban schools could be successful, as measured by tests. Students’ race, ethnicity, and social class did not doom a school to failure. And most important, that committed and experienced staff working closely together 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.

This fundamental swing in blame for the causes of inequities in outcomes are captured in the words of national leaders who often  admonish 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 completely from students’ shoulders to those of their teachers, principals, and superintendents.

While most of us cherish the egalitarian thought—enshrined in NCLB that all students will test proficient by 2014–research studies and the facts of daily experience should give us pause before nodding in agreement. Perhaps this total equality in results may occur in heaven but not on earth where variability in families’ behaviors and students’ talents, motivation, interests, and skills remain stubborn facts.

Thus, within a few decades, a 180-degree shift in responsibility for chronic academic failure has occurred. Neither extreme, however, squares with the facts. Responsibility rests with both community and district, both school and family, both teachers and students.

Blaming others may be momentarily satisfying but unhelpful in either improving schools or motivating students to do their best. On the one hand, expecting a school staff to have the full responsibility for students’ academic results neglects the long history of research and daily experience of students who come to school unready to learn. Family income, parental education and interest, health, neighborhood, and other factors influence what happens to growing children even before they enter kindergarten. If there is one fact researchers have established over and over it is that family income and education play a large role in children’s behavioral and academic performance in schools.

Striking a balance between documented facts of inequities among students when they appear at the schoolhouse door and documented facts of some educators’ shabby inaction while other educators turn basket-case 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 and schools for gaps in achievement, high drop out rates, and low graduation numbers (SAN11-01).

In the current frenzied climate of state and federal penalties for low performance, what students bring to school, both their strengths and weaknesses, are seldom mentioned publicly because of policymakers’ and educators’ fear of being called racist, making excuses, or having low expectations. The dominant one-liner repeated again and again is that efficient, well-managed schools and districts are accountable for students’ academic success.

This situation pains those federal, state, and local policymakers and reformers who want to address those socioeconomic structures in the larger society that contribute to economic inequalities and students’ disadvantages such as tax policies favoring the wealthy, residential segregation, lack of health insurance, immigration policies, and discriminatory employment practices but find it hard to do in a political climate where top-down, business-driven reforms that blame teachers and their unions and use test scores to determine futures of teachers and schools blow like gale-force storms.

In such a climate, entrepreneurial reformers, federal policymakers, and wealthy donors direct attention to only fixing schools, a strategy that is both politically attractive and economically inexpensive compared to the uproar that would occur from attacking those who enjoy privileges from leaving those policies and structures untouched.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

21 responses to “Reframing Shame: How and When Blame for Student Low Achievement Shifted

  1. Pingback: Reframing Shame: How and When Blame for Student Low Achievement Shifted @Larrycuban | A New Society, a new education! |

  2. Jeff Bowen

    Thanks for you thoughtful perspective. Effective schools research helpfully contradicted prevailing interpretations of Coleman’s classic studies. But I also recall that those who promoted and ultimately marketed Edmond’s work also emphasized that things don’t get taught unless they are measured, thus to some extent precipitating today’s almost obsessive pursuit of high stakes standardized testing.

  3. Pingback: Reframing Shame: How and When Blame for Student Low Achievement Shifted | Rethinking Public Education |

  4. One of the best written blog posts I’ve ever read, Larry. Our national obsession for the “easy fix” in nearly all things, witness the Presidential elections, hinders real improvement and focus on the true, key levers of change. Keep up the great work sharing your seasoned perspective on a national treasure that must be improved if our nation wishes to outlast that of the Greeks, Romans, and other great peoples.

  5. Bob Calder

    One has to wonder why, after obsessively graphing results, seeing no appreciable trend post 2003 didn’t alarm anybody who was previously obsessed with graphs. It’s probably a version of the Global Warming graph assault that breaks the trend down into mini-trends that conveniently agree with one’s interests.

  6. Thank you for this insightful post! Shame and blame always have a negative effect on growth – especially when it happens within a profession build on communication, like education. From my perspective the root of problem lies in the word “achievement”, because learning is something that happens naturally in children and humans in general, and we teachers are just supposed to help students in it. Students can (and will) learn, if we are not shoving the content down their throats all the time. Shouldn’t learning be the highlight of public education?
    Measurement-craze and the wild creation of new schools are also indicators for GERM (Global Education Reform Movement), which can be described as ideology emphasizing restriction over empowerment in education. Too much time and money is spent in hunting down the reasons while the focus of education has been lost.

  7. Jean

    Effective schools research is still with us today as represented in the book, “Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago,” one of the authors of whom is John Easton, who now heads the Institute for Education Sciences. Effective schools research not only makes it difficult to talk about and address “out-of-school factors” that influence teaching and learning, but also to improve services in/with schools other than instruction that have the potential to support engagement in schooling. Effective schools research performed a valuable role by changing the conversation, as you discuss, and we need to recognize how it limits the conversation now. At a lecture I attended recently, a representative of Teach for America said the best educators/leaders ignore perennial either/or debates around education and poverty. I’ve think he’s onto something — ignoring the debate is the intellectual leap we all need to make and then we need to ask, Where do we go from here? Fresh ideas, please.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jean, for comment. “Fresh” ideas to outflank “perennial either/or debates,” I thought, were charter schools in the 1990s and the expansion of parental choice; hybrid schools and expanding online learning in K-12 in the past few years. But each “fresh” idea seems to come with historical,socioeconomic, and political baggage. I am open to considering new ideas. Do you have any in mind?

      • Jean

        A lot the “fresh” ideas you mention don’t take on the complexity of improving education. Charter schools hinge on the idea of freedom from bureaucracy and parental choice. That gets us somewhere, in some cases, but notably not in others, and it doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of providing exciting teaching and learning opportunities in or outside the classroom. Hybrid schools and online learning respond to some opportunities and address some problems, but quality is still the challenge. Maybe I mean “fresh” in terms of the approach to research since I’m a researcher. I like the ideas in the newly proposed IES grant program focused on “continuous improvement” — researchers working with practitioners to solve common and significant problems of practice. We need to be designers and engineers who get deeper into the work and systems to support excellent performance. Seems a little fuzzy but compare it to debates that are disconnected from the realities of schools. Show me a good “no excuses” school and I’ll bet that if the school serves low-income, minority children, it has a range of social service and health programs beyond what are typically provided in the public schools. Compare it to research that is obsessed with finding effects, but can’t explain or describe what occurred in a way that can guide practice. I’d be curious to know your historical perspective on these engineering and design ideas.

  8. Dan Drmacich

    I think we need a 5 point plan:
    1. Financial incentives for suburban & urban school districts to create magnet schools on city/county borders for 60/40 socio-economic & racial de-segregation; much like Wake County, N. Carolina.
    2. A LBJ-style “War On Poverty” by Federal, State & local governments, generating some of the positive changes we saw during the late 60s.
    3. Equitable funding that would reduce teacher/student classroom ratios to 10:1.
    4. A focus on 21st Century Learning Skills (critical thinking, application to the real world, networking, curiosity, communication, etc.) vs. the lower-level skills often emphasized on high-stakes, standardized tests.
    5. A shift from comparitive, competitive test scores of individual students, schools and districts to individualized student standards focused on growth & development toward 21st Century Learning Skills, using portfolios of student projects, presentations & performances, teacher-created tests, teacher observations and student self and peer reflections.

    Dan Drmacich
    Retired Principal, &
    Chairman, Coalition for Justice in Education
    Rochester, NY

  9. larrycuban

    Jointly-designed interventions into classrooms–teachers and researchers collaborating–around questions that, if answered, can guide practice– what Ann Brown and Joe Campione did years ago and others have since make sense to me and while not “fresh” are worthwhile.
    You would lose your bet were you to look at KIPP schools.

    • Jean

      When you say that I’d lose my bet do you know of any research that’s looked at services in KIPP or other charter schools? I did have a KIPP school in mind when I offered that bet. It is only one school. Full-time social worker (half of the salary paid by a partner institution), social service programs for students with disrupted family lives provided through a partner organization (25% of the students served in a year), trauma intervention services through partner organization for a handful of students who have experienced the worst of inner city living (getting shot and death of parent), a parent who serves as a family coordinator and liaison between parents and teachers (KIPP teachers are young and aren’t parents themselves — the liaison helps smooth relationships). Vision services through a mobile medical unit. And last I heard the principal was advocating for a full-time nurse and was insisting that students need to be plugged into these support services when school starts so they don’t lose out on learning. This principal is “no excuses” through and through and as such is extremely protective of academic learning time. This picture doesn’t square with policy rhetoric and debates. Is this an outlier?

      In Chicago, I know of a charter school network that makes sure each elementary school has two social workers, one for the younger grades and the other to serve older students. In comparison in the typical public school, social workers are assigned two days a week to serve the entire k-8 student body and they move from school to school every year or two because they are employees of central administration and not individual schools.

      • larrycuban


        Those are solid examples at KIPP and other charter schools. I do not know of research on wraparound medical, social, and psychological services in charter schools. One of my former Ph.D students studied four small high schools enrolling mostly poor and minority students. Her literature search turned up very few small high schools that hired social workers. So I have very little to go on.

        What makes me smile, of course, is that early 20th century “progressive” schools in immigrant communities had set aside space for doctors, dentists, opticians, and community workers to work with children and parents in schools.

  10. Pingback: (De)Grading Schools: The PennCAN’s Scam | Education Policy Talk

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