The Blame Game: The Game Where No One Wins


By Katherine K. Merseth
Senior Lecturer
Harvard Graduate School of Education

So often in the world of school reform, we look to leaders who will save us from the blame game that puts the K-12 American education system’s failure to attain both equity and excellence at the feet of every professional educator.

Teachers look to school administrators and systems with a hope of paternalistic protection. It isn’t the teacher’s fault, they argue, but it is the fault of the school administrator. It isn’t the building principal’s fault, the building principal decries. It is the result of poor system leadership. It isn’t the superintendent’s fault, the superintendent association states, but the result of a lack of funding and policy support from the state legislature. The state legislators say it is the fault of the taxpayers, while taxpayers state they should only have to pay for high quality.

Any sensitive teacher or thoughtful administrator knows that bashing public education is a popular spectator sport. A brief scan of recent headlines in Texas reveals the following:

  • Amid growing concerns about ACP (Assessment of Course Performance) exams, Dallas ISD releases video touting them;
  • Lawmaker: Too many Texas schools make [football] playoffs;
  • Audit: Little oversight for school district tax breaks;
  • New math standards a hurdle for some students and teachers in Texas;
  • Trustees discuss concerns with new teacher evaluation.

How can one persevere in the face of this negativity? How can a professional educator push on and do important work without discouragement and depression? Courage, as the Webster’s dictionary defines it, is “the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous”— the word being derived from Anglo-French and Latin meaning the core or the heart.

Certainly working with children is difficult and challenging. Every child, every class, and every school present a complex and ever-changing web of emotions, social forces, and psychological needs. Each day the web changes, stretching along one dimension and shrinking across another. School administrators and teachers must respond, sometimes instantly, to changes at the individual, school, system, state and society levels.

And yet, in the face of this challenging and ever-changing environment, the vast majority of school people work tirelessly to do the best they can for each student. They seek to provide students with the academic, social and emotional skills to become fully-integrated and contributing human beings in society.

In short, administrators and teachers act courageously every day, often without realizing it, and more frequently without proper acknowledgment. Professionals in schools engage in this challenging and difficult work because they know what a difference they can make. They know the importance of a special teacher or an encouraging administrator. They know the deep truth that, as motivational speaker and author Josh Shipp said, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.”

“Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.” – Josh Shipp

School leaders are courageous every day and in every way, whether they are consciously aware of being courageous or not. They are courageous because they care.

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