Stop Blaming Teachers For Cruddy Systems

We are surrounded by systems. A heating and cooling system is right now controlling the temperature of your house. An operating system controls the device you’re staring at. Should you buy something online, you’ll be at the mercy of a web site’s checkout system. If you leave the house, you’ll either enter your city’s traffic system or take advantage of its public transportation system. Go to Starbucks and you’ll encounter a new system. McDonald’s, a different system. Should you need to visit a doctor or dentist, you’ll be pushed into yet more systems. And when you return home tonight and want nothing more than to lie on your couch to watch a movie, you’ll need to navigate Netflix’s, or Prime Video’s, or your local Family Video’s system to do so.

We appreciate some systems and are annoyed by others. I like Pandora Music’s system; hit a button and it does the rest for me. I like my employer’s direct deposit system. My car is full of helpful and easy to use systems. On the other hand, if I could, I would forever avoid America’s tax and health care systems, and I only visit the Department of Motor Vehicles when there’s no other choice, and only then when I think there will be no other people there (which is never, in case you’re wondering).

All systems fall into one of three categories. There are systems that are used because people like using them, systems that are used because there are currently no other options, and systems that don’t get used or get used incorrectly (we have lots of these in education).

If you’re the designer of a system that doesn’t get used, or that gets used incorrectly, then you have designed a system that is either:

a. not useful


b. too hard to use

Or both. It’s a simple rule: Systems that are easy to use and provide a benefit get used. Systems that are not easy to use and/or don’t provide a benefit do not.

Self-checkout is easy to do and provides a benefit. It will get used more and more until something better comes along.

Keurigs are easy to use and provide a benefit. They will get used until something better comes along.

Uber, Netflix, Amazon, Starbucks. All offer products that people want, but they also offer systems that are easy to use.

Those who create, promote, and sell systems are responsible for their system’s success or failure. You don’t get to blame implementation if people choose not to use your system or if they fail to use it correctly. That’s on you. Fix it. Make it easy to use and beneficial and people will use it.

School Systems

Last week, I attended a conference on PLCs. PLCs are professional learning communities and their creators believe that if all schools implemented their PLC system with fidelity then students would greatly benefit. One of the conference speakers, Dr. Anthony Muhammed, gave the closing keynote. It was about what he called “PLC-Lite.” PLC-Lite – where schools claim to be doing PLCs but aren’t doing them correctly – was a “stain on Rick Dufour’s legacy,” according to Muhammed. Rick Dufour being the mind behind the PLC system.

Following Dufour’s death, Muhammed has been tasked with using his charismatic personality and compelling voice to shame schools into using the PLC process as it was meant to be used. His words vicariously channeled Rick Dufour’s frustration with teachers and administrators. It was palpable. Dr. Muhammed lamented that schools were still screwing up the system some 13 years later, despite all the ink their authors had spilled, all the videos available on their website, all the speeches they’d given, and all the money districts had spent. He was saying, “We’ve done everything to make this system understandable. How can you still do it wrong?”

If you think of other systems, the answer is obvious.

Consider McDonald’s

If McDonald’s had taken the same approach as the PLC folks they would have long ago gone out of business. McDonald’s early success is largely attributed to its Speedee Service System. As depicted in the movie The Founder, the McDonald brothers believed that serving food faster than other restaurants would give them a competitive advantage. They designed a system to do so. In the video below, notice how their method drastically differs from how schools operate.

In the video, Dick McDonald starts with a system he thinks will work. In his head, it’s effective. But he’s smart enough to know that imagination is often rosier than reality, so he asks employees to practice it using a model he sketches on a tennis court. It doesn’t work. At first, McDonald is frustrated and he takes his frustration out on the employees (sound familiar?). He shouts at them. Says, “No, no no!” Even belittles them with sarcasm. Up to this point, it feels a lot like what we do in education. “You damn teachers are screwing up all my well-laid plans!” District leaders adopt a system and when it doesn’t work they blame those using it.

But then McDonald does what anyone who designs a system should do. He looks inward. He takes responsibility for his design. He stops everything and rearranges a few stations. They try again. It’s better but still not how he wants it. Finally, McDonald erases everything and redesigns his entire system. Six hours after starting, the work is a “symphony of efficiency, not a wasted motion.”

The McDonald brothers understood that if the system doesn’t work, it’s the system’s fault, not the fault of the people using it.

Dick McDonald didn’t tell everyone to go home and bring in different people. He changed the system so that whoever worked in a McDonald’s could do the job, which is why fast-food restaurants work efficiently today even though most of them are staffed by sixteen-year-olds.

It doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars schools spend. Oodles of research proving what works is similarly useless. Cajoling, scolding, threatening, speechifying, mandating, and begging won’t improve implementation if teachers are told to use a system that’s poorly designed from the outset. Systems that provide a benefit and are easy to use will get used. Those that don’t, won’t.

Systems (or processes or protocols or programs or initiatives) that don’t get used or that get used incorrectly are, by definition, cruddy systems. If lots of schools are failing to implement PLCs correctly, then it’s the PLC system (or in this case process) that needs work. If MTSS/RTI isn’t being used the way it’s supposed to, then the people who designed MTSS/RTI should have made it easier to use in real schools. If differentiation is really hard to do well, then differentiation needs tweaking. If no one uses the data warehouse your district purchased, then it’s not easy enough to use or teachers don’t see a benefit to using it.

There are three million teachers in the United States. We’re all different. We’re pressed for time. We work inside a structure that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Any system you design that you want people to use has to work within that structure. If it’s not getting used or it’s getting used incorrectly, that’s not the fault of those being asked to use it. That’s the fault of a poorly designed or overly complicated or simply impractical system. Don’t blame teachers for not doing it the way you want it done. Blame yourself for not making it so good and easy to use that teachers can’t help but use it correctly.

It’s a cop-out to blame teachers for poor implementation of a bad system. That’s the system creators’ absolving themselves of their responsibility. In the business world, if you design a system that no one uses, you don’t blame the customer. You fix your system or go out of business. If only the same thing would happen in education.



Some of you may be thinking “Well, some schools do this really well. If they can implement the system, why can’t every school?” To that, let me ask, would that be acceptable to the corporate offices of McDonald’s? Would Netflix be okay with their system only being used by the most tech-savvy among us? Would we maintain a public transportation system that only 10% of citizens could understand and use? There will always be a small number of people who can figure out any system. CPAs understand the American tax system. That doesn’t make it a good system.


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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 is starting this summer, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to receive a reminder email to sign up for Early Bird Access on June 8.

5 Replies to “Stop Blaming Teachers For Cruddy Systems”

  1. This article struck me to my core. I was harassed and ridiculed for not using the new curriculum with “fidelity”. I was not allowed to go to all the trainings, the curriculum guide is huge, unwieldy and complicated. It is not MY FAULT that they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on it.

  2. I recall my teaching of university students over many years in Japan. I had control of the system which I designed to suit my students and me. I implemented it – and there were some tweaks as I refined it – and away we went – it had a certain flexibility in-built but the pattern or process of the system worked for us all – students and me. When other foreigners s joined the faculty – who were NOT education majors – who had their own “systems” over long years of practice in other teaching/learning contexts – of course I gave them copies of my educational philosophy/practice statement – and some ideas on how to teach the students at the university – but I was employed at the same level – had no authority at all – merely my desire to do the best by the students – and pretty soon I realised that while my system worked for me – beyond perfectly (he modestly says) – the darkened room alongside my own meant that videos were being played and most of the students in that classroom would be sleeping. My story, Murph – is not exactly about a top-down system imposed on all teachers – such as you have been describing – it is about professional freedom. Able and willing to design one’s own system. I have seen and worked as best I could with programs (systems) imposed – but then comes my professional judgement. This is clearly not working – I could do better myself with this section – that is not an objective which makes sense to me. And what of this student or of those students – for this or those reasons this requirement will not advance them (in my professional judgement or understanding – but if I approach the student/s in this way with these aims and strategies – I know the outcome will be so much more positive. For them – and for me as the professional. Your article, as every time – resonates! I don’t know PLCs – I am from an earlier era and another country/other lands – but it sounds restrictive/constrictive – ignoring the professional diversity of teachers as well as the diversity of students themselves – it sounds like a straight-jacket system.

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