Moving beyond ‘blame the teacher’

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Most of the current efforts to improve public education begin with the flawed assumption that the basic problem is teacher performance. This “blame the teacher” attitude has led to an emphasis on standardized tests, narrow teacher evaluation criteria, merit pay, erosion of tenure, privatization, vouchers and charter schools. The primary goal of these measures has been greater teacher accountability — as if the weaknesses of public education were due to an invasion of our classrooms by uncaring and incompetent teachers. That is the premise of the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” and of the attacks on teachers and their unions by politicians across the country.

We see distressing parallels between this approach to quality in education and the approaches that failed so badly in U.S. manufacturing. Recall the reaction of domestic manufacturers in the 1970s as Japanese competitors began to take market share: Many managers and an army of experts blamed American workers. They denounced workers’ “blue-collar blues,” lackadaisical attitudes and union job protections as the chief impediments to higher quality, productivity and competitiveness.

It took nearly two decades for manufacturers to realize that this diagnosis was deeply flawed and that the recommendations that flowed from it were leading U.S. industry further into decline. Recall the success of Japanese-run auto transplants operating in this country during the 1980s: They reached world-class quality levels with a U.S. workforce, in some cases a unionized workforce, while domestic auto companies continued to blame American workers and saw their quality levels stagnate.


Noticing the discrepancy, a growing number of manufacturers turned to the teachings of the quality guru W. Edwards Deming. Deming argued that U.S. industry’s failure was not in its workers but in the system they labored under. He taught that pushing workers to work harder in a poorly designed system cannot improve outcomes. U.S. firms were being outcompeted because they relied on an outdated management system in which decisions were all top-down, tasks were narrowly specialized and workers were told to leave their brains at the factory door. To fix quality, manufacturers needed to fix these systems, and to do that, they needed to involve workers in that effort. Do those two things, and American workers were willing and able to achieve world-class levels of performance.

Much of the current wave of school reform is informed by the same management myths that almost destroyed U.S. manufacturing. Instead of seeing teachers as key contributors to system improvement efforts, reformers are focused on making teachers more replaceable. Instead of involving teachers and their unions in collaborative reform, they are being pushed aside as impediments to top-down decision-making. Instead of bringing teachers together to help each other become more effective professionals, district administrators are resorting to simplistic quantified individual performance measures. In reality, schools are collaborative, not individual, enterprises, so teaching quality and school performance depend above all on whether the institutional systems support teachers’ efforts.

There are, thankfully, some examples of education reform that have moved beyond the blame-the-teacher view. A 2010 study by researchers at Rutgers University unpacked the lessons of six cases — from across the country, urban and rural, large and small — in which teachers, unions and administrators have worked together in their school districts to improve student performance. One case, the ABC Unified School District, about 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles, created a partnership between the administration and the ABC Federation of Teachers that goes back more than 10 years.

In this partnership, teachers, union representatives and administrators have developed rigorous peer assistance, mentoring and evaluation systems that have raised the level of teaching quality. They have worked together on recruiting, compensation and retaining high-quality teachers and administrators. The district has collaborated with teachers on planning, curriculum design and improving instructional practices. They have brought teachers together in teams to integrate student learning across disciplines and evaluate student progress. They have expanded opportunities for parent involvement.

Performance results have been outstanding. Although 25% of students are English-language learners and about 46% get free or reduced-price lunches, over the last decade the district has performed well above the state average on California’s Academic Performance Index, with strong growth in these scores of about 10% per year. The district’s graduation rate is 89.1%, while the statewide rate is 74.4%.

Another example is the Plattsburgh City School District in upstate New York, where the Plattsburgh Teachers’ Assn. participates in, and sometimes leads, committees that oversee textbook selection, professional development, teacher evaluation, mentoring and peer coaching, curriculum development, long-range planning for the use of information technology and analysis of student test scores and performance. Since 1977, the union has been an integral part of the search and hiring process of teachers and administrators, including the superintendent. Here, 52% of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, yet student performance exceeds the averages for proficiency across the state in language arts, math and science. The Plattsburgh high school graduation rate improved from 72% in 2004 to 88% last year; the statewide average was 73.4%.


These cases and many others like them were highlighted in February at the U.S. Department of Education’s conference on “Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration,” and in October at the “National Conference on Collaborative School Reform,” organized by the American Federation of Teachers working with Rutgers University, Cornell University and MIT. These districts offer proven models consistent with the best practices of U.S. industry.

As school begins, we would do well to remember Deming’s lesson: In education as in industry, progress toward quality will require collaboration among administrators, teachers and their unions.

Saul Rubinstein and Charles Heckscher are professors at Rutgers University and co-directors of the Center for Organizational Learning and Transformation; Paul Adler is a professor at the Marshall School of Business at USC. The Rutgers study referred to is available at