At What Point Do We Stop Blaming Teachers?

At the beginning of this school year, TNTP released a report called The Opportunity Myth, in which they repeated a golden oldie from the reform agenda’s playlist:  Public schools suck and it’s mostly because public school teachers suck. They didn’t come right out and say that, of course, but it’s hard to interpret the report’s introduction any other way. Judge for yourself:

Far too many students graduate from high school still unprepared for the lives they want to lead. They enroll in college and land in remedial courses, or start jobs and discover they’re missing skills they need. We wanted to understand why.

To do this, we followed nearly 4,000 students in five diverse school systems to learn more about their experiences. What we found was unnerving: classroom after classroom filled with A and B students whose big goals for their lives are slipping further away each day, unbeknownst to them and their families—not because they can’t master challenging material, but because they’re rarely given a real chance to try.

In fact, most students—and especially students of color, those from low-income families, those with mild to moderate disabilities, and English language learners—spent the vast majority of their school days missing out on four crucial resources: grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers with high expectations. Students spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that weren’t appropriate for their grade and with instruction that didn’t ask enough of them—the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject. And middle and high school students reported that their school experiences were engaging less than half the time.

The report is exactly what you’d expect if you’ve been in public education for any length of time, and if you’d like to read why you can safely ignore it, check out Peter Greene’s criticism here and Matt Barnum’s here.

What strikes me is how reformers continue to shamelessly want it both ways.

They have, for the most part, won. They rammed through the standards they wanted. Tenure protections have been decimated in many states. Schools are more “data-driven” than ever. School choice continues to expand. Teachers can now be held accountable for their students’ performance on a standardized test. Reformers have managed to convince 7 out of every 10 Americans that our public schools deserve a C or D rating, even though most believe their children’s own schools are just fine.

School leaders, in their quest to take individual teacher differences out of the equation and standardize lessons just as much as we’ve standardized tests, have adopted Common Core-aligned programs and required strict fidelity to them. They’ve done everything they can to take teacher judgment out of education, going so far as to forbid educators from using anything that hasn’t received prior approval from central office administrators. Some of these programs literally have scripts for teachers to read, and many districts require teachers to follow pacing guides to make sure they cover all the material before the big exam and to ensure continuity across the district. Because I guess that’s important.

The way schools are run today is different than they used to be run, and it isn’t because schools decided they needed to change or parents demanded it; it’s because those changes were forced on them by people with the same ideology as those who write reports criticizing teachers for their weak instruction, below-grade-level assignments, inability to engage students, and low expectations.

It’s the same thing that infuriates me whenever teacher effectiveness is discussed at a district level.

As a teacher who has been told to teach a program as it’s written, how the hell is it my fault if the assignments students get are not challenging enough? I’m not the one who designed the assignments.

If you’re requiring me to read from some stupid script written by publishers who’ve never met my students, then how can you fairly evaluate my instruction? It’s not my instruction.

Should we be surprised that students aren’t engaged during a lesson that’s delivered by a teacher who had no hand in creating it and who sees it as the contrived lump that it is? I’m not a terrible actor, but hand me a lemon and I’m going to have trouble convincing even the most eager-to-learn student that I’m giving them lemonade.

Why would we expect students to be engaged when they’re walked through standard after standard with the goal of preparing them for a test? Last week, my third graders read an article (out of the district-mandated curriculum) on the transcontinental railroad. They were interested and asked lots of questions. I went rogue and showed an unapproved video of how it was built. They had more questions. I could envision us spending the next two weeks learning about westward expansion. We could discuss Manifest Destiny and investigate why certain large western cities are located where they are today. We could read about how the railroad affected the environment and how it upset Native American hunting grounds and led to the taking of their land.

Instead, I had to move on. I had to teach about sequence and cause and effect because I had a test to give on those skills and a new topic (completely unrelated to the American west or even American history) to start on Monday.

I had to do those things because that’s what’s in the standards these reformers so badly wanted and because my district needs data to make decisions and because I can’t be trusted to make decisions about how to best prepare my students for those tests, much less for anything more important than tests.

But TNTP wants to tell me it’s my fault students aren’t engaged?

If I’m doing what I’ve been told to do, then how do you evaluate my effectiveness? Shouldn’t you really evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum you’ve forced me to use?

This is the educational world the reformers have wrought, and the one they still have the temerity to criticize. They created this mess, and now they’re pointing at it, holding their noses, and telling teachers to do better.


The reformers’ agenda has had a chance to work. If it isn’t — if kids aren’t being given grade-level tasks, if instruction is weak, if students aren’t engaged, if teachers aren’t expecting enough of them — then it’s long past time for the reform crowd to own their failures and stop scapegoating teachers, many of whom are doing nothing more than exactly what they’ve been told to do with the materials they’ve been told to do it with.

If students aren’t able to pursue their goals, it’s not because teachers have failed them. It’s because reformers have.

If you want to blame teachers, then you need to allow them to make some decisions. You need to give them some power. Blaming teachers for the state of education today, when teachers have lost nearly every skirmish with the well-financed reform movement, is straight from the reformer playbook, where all the plays are designed wonderfully, but the damn players don’t know how to run them. If you want teachers to be nothing more than compliant replaceable parts, then you don’t get to blame them when your plans don’t work out.

If you want teachers to be nothing more than compliant replaceable parts, then you don't get to blame them when your plans don't work out. Click To Tweet

The army doesn’t fire soldiers when the general’s plan is a disaster.

NFL teams don’t swap out their entire rosters when the coach’s gameplans result in multiple losing seasons.

And reformers should no longer get to blame teachers when teachers are working under conditions created by those reformers.


I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

34 Replies to “At What Point Do We Stop Blaming Teachers?”

  1. The story at our school is that teachers who actually challenge students are required to have meeting after meeting with parents and students to explain their methods and address every criticism. All of this is stemming from parents who only focus on a grade, not learning, and the strange belief that a student will not get to go to college if they are assessed as an average student, the belief that a lower grade means their student is a bad person, and the comparison culture of a small school with gossipy parents.

    So the teachers who are really trying are constantly attacked from all sides-parents, administrators, other teachers who think we care too much about our work, and students who now think their assessment of our practices and their feelings trump our professional opinion and experience.

    If your job is harder because you are doing the right thing and all interested parties who benefit from your actions are unjustly criticizing you for those actions, it is very hard to keep going. Especially when the coach down the hall who gives everyone A’s and B’s and arrives late and leaves right at the bell is not criticized at all and has no “meetings” to discuss “concerns” of some parents and students.

    Sigh. Thanks for this post and the others. It is therapy for me and many of my colleagues to know we aren’t alone in this, but how do we fight back?

      1. As a 33 year veteran teacher, I get it. However, as a parent, I also see the grades side of it. Yes, I am that parent teachers dread to see coming because getting top grades is a fierce competition. There has to be a way to let kids try and fail without jeopardizing their grades. I often did activities with students to let them learn from their mistakes without being graded. This way, they weren’t afraid to try. Now, they have learned the material and are ready to be graded. Our top students suffer otherwise because they are developing severe anxiety toward school. My children, for the most part, had great teachers. When they didn’t, I made up the difference at home.

        1. This is where standards based grading can save the day! Students aren’t punished as they learn the material…they are rewarded when they reach mastery. They are given multiple opportunities to continue learning and reach their goals.

          1. Oh please…sbg is just another way to take the onus away from the student and put it on the teacher. Perhaps schools should focus on things that truly take away from student learning, like the high rate of absenteeism or the obsession with social media.

        2. My administrator and the school board at the high school where I teach has set the rule of 2 required grades a week and that every assignment must be graded. No formative assessment without a grade. Common Core is a common failure. We are not able to truly prepare students for college or the work force when the parents and the students are given the wheel and the teachers are told to get in the back seat.

        3. The grades are misleading! 90 in one school may equal 60 in other. The entirely different issue is the curriculum, which many if not most teachers – hate. It also all of it depends on what kind of subject it is and what is the age the students. The reason we can’t really blame the government is because their curriculum and their tests are made as such as to be easily stored, compared and measured. It is very hard to put real meaning to these tests but they think it is better than nothing. If anybody has a REAL idea while all things considered, please tell us but please don’t give us examples – even if they are from your personal experience, because they were good for that specific instance of space-time!

    1. Amen
      I am constantly being pulled into meetings because of the rigor and depth and high expectations I expect from my students. Parents are too focused on the grade and see failure as not an option. We all know failure helps the learning.

    2. I could have written this reply, word-for-word. Parents want to say their children attend a school with high standards until the kids get Cs for the semester. Counselors move students into easier teachers’ classes while undermining the one with appropriate standards.

    3. Heidi- yes yes yes! the criticism, meetings, ridiculous standards, tests that do not align with required curriculum, pressure to be more engaging (vying with phones/tablets/etc), lack of sufficient planning time, moronic professional development, the emphasis on activities over basic skills/knowledge mastery, and the sh*t rolls downhill mentality regarding discipline issues of every intensity. 💩

    4. I have seen many gifted, enthusiastic teachers lose heart when being forced into the role of a “dispenser of information” and not having the opportunity to use their own creativity and gifts in the classroom. This doesn’t even address the pressure coming at us from administration, parents, and even colleagues about test scores and grades, nor does it address discipline issues with unmotivated or otherwise distracted students. Some students’ objective is to disrupt as much as possible!

    5. Thank you for your post. Sometimes I come home and say to myself I’m doing too much and maybe I need to assimulate with the masses. But of course my nature won’t allow it so I continue to be true to my calling and come home exhausted and wake up and do it all over again. But after 21 years I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

    6. Heidi,
      That Coach you criticized got home at 1 am because one of his players’ ride arrived 3 hours late to pick the child up after the game. He/she left at the bell because they had to open the locker room, dry the practice uniforms and supervise the students, many of whom would drop out or have more severe apathy and behavior if it wasn’t for that coach you threw under the bus in your comment.

      1. If coach is teaching, he/she SHOULD be doing it with all the same expectations as the rest of us. That’s the job for the pay. That coaches take on more voluntarily, for more pay, is entirely on them, and while I respect them for that above and beyond, it is unfair that they get a pass. I coached cheerleading and did not shortchange my responsibilities for effective teaching.

    7. Heidi,
      I feel exactly as you do on this. Thank you for sharing. If nothing else, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. This has been my hardest school year in the 27 years that I have taught. I am so discouraged.😢It is very hard to keep going.

    8. Absolutely!! I work, tirelessly, to make sure that my students are engaged and captivated. I struggle against reading levels that are three-five grade levels below what they should be.

      Here’s what I know: I am
      turning 40, and my generation is a lazy parenting generation! Why are my children intelligent capapble individuals? It’s because I raise them! I don’t just co-habitate with them. I read to them. I let them play creatively, and encouraged them to use their imagination. I didn’t wait for the learning to begin when they were five. We started that process the minute they were born! We continue to push our children to learn new information because we expect them to be functioning adults in society, one day (I do enjoy their childhood). I am not just relying on the school system to teach my child everything need to know about life, but rather allow the school to
      supplement the education they receive from us!

      I have actually heard parents tell teachers to not send homework home because it’s not their job to help learn something. Pardon me while I scream, what!?! They were serious.

      It’s time to stop making excuses for our children and expect them to do their part in the learning process. Our children are not simply entitled to have something. They must put forth the effort to achieve the success in gaining that something. There comes a point when they too are accountable for their actions and must take part in the process of learning.

    9. And because the grades are over valued, and not the work, and the students know this they do not want to be challenged and actually accomplish learning the information at grade level.

  2. Spot on! The only way we can be effective is to have a partnership with the students like the enriching lesson you outlined, above. The invisible and disengaged admin and reformers are too disconnected to know what works and therefore assume it’s the teacher’s fault. Students of all ages like to feel like they have an investigatory purpose and are a part of the process.

  3. YES! Especially for students in categorical classes. No one expects ANYTHING from them except to be compliant lumps. The “curriculum” our son has been forced to use since 5th grade has effectively caused him to learn nothing except to hate school. He has one “teacher” that is actually a sports coach. He’s nice enough, but has no idea how to teach. The “system” has basically turned into “babysitters”. And they can’t even keep the students safe from each other. Serious overhauls need to be done. But who is going to do it? Everyone needs their jobs…we feel like hamsters on a wheel trying desperately to get somewhere. Until the public wakes up and acknowledges the problems it will only get worse. There’s so much more to fix than what is right in the classrooms. I shudder to think what our system will be like for future generations.

  4. What is missing is the larger picture of state starvation, avoidance of just taxation, centralized shift in the Department of Education to stop innovation and cooperation by shifting to contracts from grants, and buy-in from administration at all levels that educators have to be specifically excluded from resource allocation decisions—neoliberal economic garbage that has destroyed education in the US. Drown every hint of interdependence and the ethical ideal of a Common Good.

  5. We have been told not to give zeroes for homework not turned in and the grading scale has been lowered to 60 being a “D” . The article is ABSOLUTELY spot on.

    1. So true!!! Pressure is put on teachers NOT to give lower grades for appaling work or NO grade for missing assignments!!! So in the world of work if an employee never turns up, he/she still expects to get paid?????? 😫😡

    2. We are forced to raise every midterm grade to a 50 even if the student has turned in zero work so the student “still has the chance to succeed”. Tell me what job or career is going to do that for an employee? Talk about not being able to prepare students!

      1. I used to be there, too. However a grade of 50 is still an F. If the grade is 0 there is no comeback, and no incentive to try. I know I wouldn’t have. Preparing employees? That might be an argument for 3rd and 4th year high school students, but why would we want to shut down younger kids? This is supposed to be the time in their lives that they have opportunities to learn life skills. We can teach them that effort can be rewarded, even if they have slacked off in the past.

    3. I agree. Children are 2 grade levels behind, but must be promoted and not given a zero for zero work. It is a daunting task!

  6. Great article! I am so discouraged and fed up with spoon feeding information so kids can pass “the test” and having no one care if anyone really learned and retained anything. Children/people are not product on an assembly line. We are more than test scores for the moment.

  7. Every word true. In my migration from NJ Public Schools to WV Public Schools, I have witnessed every scenario in this article first hand.

  8. Why did NEA & AFT actively lobby with Centers for American Progress for passage of Every Student Succeeds Act ESSA that codified Common Core and data collection as well as replacing teachers with tech tablets rendering them facilitators? Can’t blame reformers alone when Teachers unions lobbied for and with reformers. TURN Teachers Union Reform Network Nationally supports and advocates reforms. They’re a combination of NEA and AFT.

  9. The hypocrisy of education reformers springs eternal. Personally, I’m always touched by the care and concern they demonstrate for the instruction high-needs students like mine are getting. It’s matched only by the care and concern they show for maintaining low, low tax rates on their funders’ vast fortunes. After all, if it’s just us teachers ruining students through our low expectations, there’s no need for functional school buildings with reliable heat, no vermin, working plumbing , and adequate supplies – let alone small class sizes and enough personnel to support students and their families. Not to mention the ongoing oppression and inequities in our school communities!

  10. It’s such a fine line to traverse: teach with rigor – stick to the curriculum. I’m a second-year teacher and it’s been a ride so far. Luckily, I now work for a school that allows fails as part of the growing process and also allows a certain amount of autonomy in the way we teach the curriculum. In the last place, I wasn’t allowed to fail students (60% was the cut-off), and there was a strict protocol to the teaching; it was a huge disservice to students and teachers.
    Kids will do the absolute minimum they are allowed (sad, but true) for the most part. They don’t understand the importance of completing a task and doing it well; especially if they aren’t taught it. My co-teachers and I do our best to instill in our students a sense of responsibility, morality, and drive. Still, parents will blame the teacher when their children misbehave, fail, or are cut from a team for poor grades. It’s hard. I’ve asked myself why I’ve chosen this career on occasion because of the stress, but I realize it’s because I love teaching and maybe – just maybe – I think if I can reach just ONE KID and they understand ONE THING I’ve tried to teach them, well, I’ve made the world a little better.

  11. Omg! I am an experienced senior teacher of foreign language in a high school in Brisbane, Australia. I have just read these posts and am just nodding in agreememy with everything that is being said. It is the same here. It is endless data for data’s sake. There is no room for creativity . The teacher is accountable/blamed for everything. The students and parents take no responsibility for their own learning or behaviour. (I work in a low socio-economic area with high level behaviour issues). I like orhetsxwho have posted here have a passion for what I do ….well ‘had’ a passion. The life is being sucked out of me. I just don’t know how much longer I can do this with the system the way it has become.

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