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Here are some ways to help end the education blame game

REUTERS/Rick Wilking
We all say we are on the side of students, but are any of us willing to stop blaming each other for systemic failures and work together to figure out what students truly need?

Pam Costain’s recent Community Voices article, “Stop the Teacher Wars,” rightly calls for an end to the polarizing debates in education and the beginning of a search for common ground. This ongoing tug-of-war has reached a critical stage: Our inability to find solutions to the problems facing education has harsh consequences, particularly for students caught in the ever-widening achievement gap that claims far too many children of color.

The longer we bicker, the more they suffer. But finding solutions in today’s political climate has proven to be difficult. Every player in the education conversation — teachers, administrators, board members, reformers, and community activists — has handed out and been on the receiving end of verbal bruising, hostility, and misrepresentation.

We all say we are on the side of students, but are any of us willing to stop blaming each other for systemic failures and work together to figure out what students truly need? And ironically, in the midst of the din, parents are reminding everyone that they are not willing to be on the sidelines of these debates. We are, after all, talking about their children, but are any of us willing to put down our agendas and listen?

Before I became a teacher, I worked in the area of family counseling. In any family conflict, identifying one person as the “sick” individual is a recipe for stagnation and dysfunction. Focusing on the one person allows the rest of the system to deny any responsibility for the overall patterns of dysfunction. Worse, when a family tries to force that member to change, it often backfires miserably.

And so it goes with our education debates. Depending on who writes the article or who testifies before the Legislature or who runs the meeting, the “patient” might be the bad teacher, the incompetent administration, the uninvolved parent, the self-interested teachers union, or the corporate-backed education reform group. When we talk about each other in such ways, we create resistance to change and make it nearly impossible for others to hear our very real concerns. In effect, we all become tone-deaf.

There seems to be no shortage of blame and shame going around, nor an end to efforts to force change through legislation, contracts, and elections. But our inability to see that we are all a part of an interdependent system with mutual responsibility for the failures and the solutions in education is a communal failure for our children.

The way forward must start with an acceptance of our mutual responsibility for the education of the children in our communities and a focus on how we can change our own part of the system. Put simply, the more time we spend pointing fingers at the “sick” member of the system, the more stuck and dysfunctional we will become.

The way forward+

When we stop blaming one another, we will be able to ask ourselves the tough question of what responsibility we must assume for improving our own part of the system.

 Like so many of us, I have more than one role in the education conversation. As a teacher, I must ask how my teaching impacts my students of color in both positive and negative ways. When the issue of a longer school day or year comes up, I have to consider the benefits this added time might bring to some students.

And though I believe with all my heart that each of my students can learn, I have to ask if I am willing to step up and name the roadblocks that stand in their way, even if it’s uncomfortable for me or puts my job in jeopardy. In addition, I have a responsibility to ensure that the needs of my students are a priority. They must have ample instructional time with me and I must provide targeted feedback to help them learn. That’s why I will continue to advocate for reasonable class sizes, caseload limits, and adequate planning time.

As a union member, I have to ask if we as teachers are willing to hold ourselves to the highest standards of the profession by asking for support when we need it, offering support when others need it, and embracing an evaluation process as a path for professional growth. Knowing how important it is to communities of color that their children be taught by teachers from their own race or culture, I have to be willing to find ways to help our district attract and retain a racially diverse workforce.

And I will stand up for my profession and remind others that the best and brightest teachers will come to and stay in this profession when we pay them enough to provide for their own children. 

As the parent of three children in public schools, I will continue to encourage my kids to work hard and do their best. I will read to them nightly, volunteer in their schools and offer homework support.

But for the sake of equity, I must also advocate for those schools that need more resources in communities with greater needs. I will assume responsibility as a taxpayer to write my elected officials urging them to sufficiently fund public education so schools don’t have to rely on Target or General Mills box tops to pay for critically important programs.

Responsibility for our schools is in all of our hands. When we stop thinking of each other as the “sick” party that must be cured and learn to listen to one another without blame, we will be on our way toward lasting change. For our children’s sake, we must do this.

Jim Barnhill is a special education teacher at South High in Minneapolis and  a member of the Minnesota Board of Teaching. He served on the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Executive Board from 2008 to 2013.


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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by John Bracken on 10/22/2013 - 08:21 am.

    An Inconvenient Truth

    As a former teacher in Brooklyn Center I can assure you that teachers are not open to admitting the obvious. Money is not the solution. America spends more than Europe. I taught with so many grumpy 40 and 50 something teachers who no longer liked kids. They were waiting to retire. Get rid of tenure so we can bounce these people. Secondly, the lower achieving are predominantly from single parent families. The reason blacks are underachieving is not because they are black but rather the complete disintegration of the family. If the poor are to have any hope they need to start using birth control.

  2. Submitted by John Appelen on 10/22/2013 - 10:35 am.

    Excellent post though I am unsure where it will lead.

    Here is a list of various contributing factors that we created awhile back.

    The challenge is how do we get the diverse group of people to truly put the kids before their wallets (ie taxes/income), job security, fear of big government, parent rights,etc?

  3. Submitted by Julie Moore on 10/22/2013 - 12:18 pm.

    Great Subject

    Lots of reasons, but few solutions are ever offered. Having one student in college and two in high school/middle school I see the problem actually getting worse. We offer so many options for kids in the form of extra curriculars, in fact, participation can actually affect your college acceptance. We have introduced increased technology to students–my kids have ipads provided by the school. Homework continues to increase–as do the requirements of participation in the extra curriculars–and I’m not only referring to sports! Learning doesn’t seem to take place in the classroom–the same boring lecture style that was used when I went to school takes place now. These kids are used to action packed, fast paced technology–except when learning. I am amazed at the amount of “learning on your own” must be done–whether from worksheets or online sources.

    We need to reduce the extra curriculars or the homework load–one or the other. Teaching in class must be mandatory–no testing over material not taught by the teacher. Some kids are great at teaching themselves and they are our 4.0-5.0 kids. That is not your average student. Most students need to be taught by a real teacher who still wants to be a teacher.

  4. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/22/2013 - 01:56 pm.

    ugly statistics on children

    As was eluded to earlier the family structure in the US has been falling apart for all socio/economic levels but primarily the poor. As was eluded to earlier many children are in single parent households, it is estimated at least half the children in the US are in single family households. Statistically the majority of divorces that involve children put the mother and children into poverty if they are not already there. Approx 22% of children in the US live in poverty. Almost 30% of the US population is on Medicaid or Medicare. In many school systems the teachers do more than teach, they have to be family counselors and figure out why ‘Mary’ is missing so many days at school.
    Statistically the gap between the poor and wealthy is increasing which is a strong cause and effect why poor children not just those of color are falling farther behind academically. There are no easy answers but until children have support of their family at home the problem will not go away.

  5. Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/22/2013 - 02:51 pm.


    So on an article that asks that we refrain from assigning blame the first three comments do what? My only hope is that the next generation sees our current abjectly polarized society (on virtually every major issue affecting modern life) and properly tells us all to sit down and shut up. While they go about the business of creating solutions to all of the problems we just can’t come to an agreement on , of course.

  6. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 10/22/2013 - 03:29 pm.

    Nice piece, Jim!

    Thanks for writing it!

  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 10/22/2013 - 08:47 pm.

    Well written and…

    Well written, thoughtful and open-minded. Not sure a 50 word response will help move things ahead. Perhaps a meeting?

  8. Submitted by Jerry Von Korff on 10/24/2013 - 02:06 pm.

    Teacher wars in Minnesota arise from several hard cold facts. One is that there as an element in our society that wants to crush the role of government in virtually all aspects of our society except police and fire protection in the parts of town where the good people live, national defense, and subsidies for various business enterprises. Attacking teachers for them is a way of destroying government. Some of the reform movement tolerates and feeds off of the data that these folk supply to the media. The other is that the labor movement in education refuses to make transparent the fact that compensation increases are being purchased by increasing class size, reducing textbook budgets, cutting programs etc. At times, labor publicly demands class size reduction while simultaneously telling management that they need to make the teacher cuts necessary to pay for otherwise unaffordable compensation increases. And, in some districts, labor insists on placing management in a straightjacket similar to the two conductor in railroads. If we are going to make the progress we need, both sides are going to have to give up something; just papering over these problems will not work.

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