The Attribution Error and School Reform

In the 1979 film, “Being There,”  Chance (Peter Sellers) goes from an illiterate, TV-watching, not-too-swift gardener for a wealthy Washington, D.C. family to the confidant of a dying financial titan Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) who is on a first name basis with the President of the United States (Jack Warden).



This turnabout occurs after Chance’s wealthy employer dies and lawyers for the heirs eject Chance without a penny from the only home he has known. Well tailored–he took the custom-tailored suits of his employer–courteous and with a certain presence but he is completely unaware of life. As Louise, the black maid for the millionaire said about Chance, “you’re always going to be a little boy.”

Chance wanders into downtown D.C. where the chauffered Cadillac of Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), the wife of the financial titan, accidentally knocks Chance down. To make amends for the accident, Eve Rand brings him home to see Ben’s personal doctor. In the back seat of the limousine, when asked his name he says: “Chance the gardener.” Eve hears  “Chauncey Gardiner.”

Introduced to Ben Rand, the two men hit it off with Chauncey often repeating the last line that Ben had said. When the President comes to see Rand, his primary financial backer, he meets Chauncey. After the President’s asks Ben’s advice on an economic speech he plans to give to  prominent CEOs, he turns to Chauncey and asks what he thinks. Chauncey doesn’t have a clue about what the President is talking about but responds with a metaphor about planting in the Spring, harvesting in the Fall, and fallow fields in the Winter. The next day, the President uses the metaphor with the CEOs and mentions Chauncey Gardiner. In hours, Chauncey appears on national TV and again talks in metaphors of flowers and seasons which listeners hear as pearls of wisdom. He becomes a star among the political and corporate elite. At the end of the film, the pallbearers of Ben Rand’s coffin–all industrial and financial leaders–are talking about running Chauncey for President.

I offer this extended summary of the film because it illustrates the frequent errors all of us make daily of projecting onto individuals brilliance and wisdom on the basis of a few cues while ignoring the situation or context. Academics call this the error of attribution.

One example in education would be attributing gains in academic achievement to officials putting high-tech into schools. Consider Union City, New Jersey a place where student use of computers had presumably led to substantial gains in test scores.

What is often downplayed, however, is that the district had launched system-wide reforms in curriculum, teaching, and accountability 3-5 years before schools were wired, computers bought, and technical assistance provided. Yet gains in academic achievement were attributed to teachers adopting computers, not the deep structural and curricular reforms introduced years earlier (see here).

Another example of the attribution error is the off-and-on bashing of “bad” teachers as the source of poor schooling in the U.S. (see here, here and here). Mary Kennedy points out the error that critics make in confusing teaching with teacher quality.

We label teachers as caring, efficient, engaging, or boring, as if the events we see in classrooms sprang entirely from personal qualities that teachers bring with them when they enter the room…. [A]s our attention has recently turned to questions about teaching quality, we have started to examine the personal characteristics of our teachers–their credentials, licensure, test scores, skills, and personal values–and have overlooked aspects of their work that are outside their control, such as resources, planning time, and … school infrastructure that might influence the quality of teaching practice.

Very smart people attributed to Chauncey Gardiner personal qualities of good breeding–those splendidly tailored suits–and substance as a thinker who speaks in sage metaphors. Rather than considering the situation in which Chauncey was really Chance the gardener, could not read or write, and learned everything he knew from watching TV. Rand and the President attributed wisdom to Chauncey.

Very smart people today attribute teachers’ classroom performance and school success to their personal qualities–think Teach for America, teacher-as-hero films, and judging teacher performance using student test scores—and overlook or ignore the situation in which they labor.The daily work load, workplace conditions, unceasing bureaucratic demands, schools segregated by class and race, the use of fear and sanctions to spur improvement–none of these, they imply, have much bearing on student learning.

“Being There” is a film where attribution error has few consequences. To err in attributing sole power to personal traits of teachers or, in the contemporary reform hullabaloo to attribute power to new classroom technologies in “personalizing” learning, ignores the all-important school and community contexts. Such policy mistakes made again and again in school reform decisions  have significant consequences for schooling U.S. children and youth.


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