The Blame for Our Failures

It’s been another miserable year for educators.

I could spend some time giving a detailed list of all of the negatives, but I’m tired. So just trust me on this.

I do, though, want to try to summarize the most disheartening thing to me. That is, the continued narrative that makes schools both the savior of our society (read, “economy”), and therefore, as the gap between our aspirations and our reality remains,  the recipient of the blame for our failures.

Unfortunately, I can continue to provide much evidence for this within my state of  Michigan. More precisely, my state’s approach to “fixing” the “problem of Detroit schools.” First of all let me begin to deconstruct the narrative of this line of thinking.


This narrative of “fixing schools” depends upon the myth that education is the means of escaping poverty. Unfortunately, with exceptions that prove the rule, this simply is not true. Matt Bruenig shows,”One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility…

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds,  went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and   poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor. 

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor  and getting a college degree.”

So  let’s be clear. “Fixing schools” is not the means  for students to escape poverty


In fact, “Fixing schools” can not occur without addressing poverty. The narrative of “fixing schools” addresses issues in isolation from the context they exist within. It ignores the context of poverty and racism, and imagines schools, teachers and children as isolated from the debilitating effects of these. Then, because these effects are ignored, the logic of this narrative leaves no one to blame for “poor performance” except teachers, children and their parents. In addition, the use of “achievement data” (ie., high stakes test scores) as the means of measuring the success of schools ensures that those schools most affected by poverty and structural racism are also set up for failure by these measurements.  As I’ve written previously,

“My point is not that standardized tests reflect a reality that students of color  are ‘under-performing’ in schools.  My point is that the design and context  of the tests are an imposition of a racist frame upon this so-called ‘reality.’ My point is that the tests…actually ensure the outcome before the tests are even taken.”

To summarize, this narrative of “fixing schools” depends upon the myth of education as the answer to all societal ills, works to effectively ignore the conditions of poverty of racism while reifying the conditions of poverty and racism, blames schools, teachers, children and parents for the failure, and finally, as a trump card of the double bind, uses this blame as justification for disinvesting in public education.

It’s truly twisted, and leaves me tired and despairing at the end of this year.

This narrative appears subtly. And it mostly appears in what is not said. Here’s a brief example from the Detroit Free Press’s lauding of the new ESSA act:

“The new law maintains a focus on making schools accountable for the performance of poor, minority, special education and limited English speaking students. That’ll be key in a state like Michigan, which ranks as among the worst states in the U.S. for the performance of African-American students on a rigorous national exam. There are also troubling, large gaps in performance between minority students and white students on the state’s exam.” (Emphasis added)

Note that there is no mention of the effect of poverty, merely the mention of individual, “poor, minority…students.” This obscures the effect of the conditions of poverty while individualizing these conditions. We are left with a fantasy of individuals who can “be saved” from poverty, rather than on poverty as a condition itself that is addressable. It also reinforces the measurement of tests that serve to reify racism, without mentioning racism as a cause of these “large gaps.”

And who is left accountable for the ills of society? Schools.

It’s crazy.

We won’t change schools until we address the structures that stratify according to race and class. It’s simple. And it’s difficult. But to put our hope in anything else is a waste of time.

MLK Poverty

I’ve recently discovered the work of Lisa Patel. (Read it.) She succinctly summarizes:

“To critique education as an institution is, then, to critique the nation itself. To reckon with the longstanding race, class and gender stratification that is, in part, delivered by schools is to acknowledge that schools are deeply connected to the bidding of a larger national structure, put in place hundreds of years ago and reshaped into subvariants throughout history.”

Sure, it’s a big task. But let’s not waste any more time.

Please read:

Education as the Great Equalizer Deforming Myth. Not Reality, Paul Thomas

Photo from


2 responses to “The Blame for Our Failures

  1. Bill,

    It was around the end of my first semester of my doctoral program that I came to a similar conclusion. I was coming to the end of the very best class I had ever taken, a beautiful course of the history of education in the United States. My instructor, David Arsen, had put together a selection of readings and lectures from a sympathetic viewpoint…one that was exceptionally balanced. I would often get annoyed at him during lectures as I tried to ask him questions that would reveal his opinion, he simply would not budge from his dispassionate sharing of the story. I finally came to a very sobering moment. I will never forget where and when…Erickson Hall at MSU, mid-lecture, early November. I realized that we in education were complicit in offering to solve the ills of society and those interested in forfeiting any shared responsibility in doing so were happy to let us make the offer. I believe we (educators) made this offer because we truly believed we could. However, I do not believe that we bargained for doing it alone. I do not believe we bargained for becoming the focus of the struggles of our nation beginning with A Nation At Risk. I do not believe we bargained for being painted as greedy, uncaring, and ineffective by legislators who played to their donors who believed the only answer is choice. I do not believe we bargained for the influence of Dewey being dumped for that of Friedman. I do not believe we bargained for community services being gutted from our neediest populations and schools to become the social service centers of communities. I also believe we did not bargain for people being unwilling to see the very obvious link between poverty and the opportunity to learn. In short, we really believed we could make a huge difference…….together……instead we were left alone to fulfill this offer.

    This I Believe – If we are not advocates for all of our kids to have the same opportunity to learn regardless of the affluence of their respective communities, we need to understand we are part of what started with A Nation at Risk and will end with the commoditization of education. I for one respect the offer the educators who came before me made. I am willing to endure the criticism, simple/singular solutions to complex problems, and often hurtful admonitions of our calling in order to serve our kids and those brave enough to enter our profession. I am also willing to challenge the ridiculous failure narrative about our work every chance I get. Our kids are worth it, our families are worth it, our colleagues are worth it, our communities are worth it and I am worth it:)

    Thank You for Being an Advocate and Ally for our kids Bill


  2. Thanks RJ. This beautifully adds the needed twist of the kind of hope that isn’t necessarily tied to outcome, but to our identity in answering the question; what kind of people do we want to be?

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