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Repairing a Culture of Blame

December 2, 2011

Maybe we can all agree on a basic starting point: no one is perfect, and every individual and organization should strive for growth and improvement.

To go a step further, perhaps we can all agree that it is our shared responsibility to monitor public institutions – including schools, school districts, state and federal governments – and hold them to high standards.

What happens when we fall short?  Or when “they” fall short?  How do we respond?  What do we want to see happen?  Too often in this culture, I think we assign blame.  Someone must be held accountable – and if it wasn’t my job, then I certainly can’t be blamed for the results.  By shaming or punishing those responsible, we feel like we’ve done our job as monitors or guardians of whatever values we uphold and whatever institutions have let us down.  It feels good, doesn’t it – seeing the scandal hit home, the lies revealed, the hypocrites exposed, the inept upbraided and the corrupt brought low?

But I think we’re conditioned to look for someone to blame.  For some, casting blame is an addiction, and the most addicted individuals can’t even be bothered to find new targets for their blame.

What happens, then, if there is no one to blame?  Can there be a failure without someone to blame?  Of course, hindsight being as keen as it is, we can often figure out how a mistake might have been avoided.  But does that mean someone has to take the blame because foresight didn’t match hindsight?

I ask these questions not purely out of intellectual curiosity, but because I think the problem of blaming is insidious and has practical consequences.  We make faulty assumptions about how people operate within a system or organization, falling for fundamental attribution error: we attribute success and failure too much to people’s individual traits and not enough to the context in which those people operate.  We carry misguided ideas about motivation, and try to compel high performance through potential punishment, while neglecting people’s natural drives, to seek challenges and improvement.

So if a school seems to be “failing” – an increasingly useless word in the twilight of NCLB – we need someone to blame.  Incompetent teachers.  Apathetic parents.  Intransigent unions.  Politicized school boards.  Spineless legislatures.  We must hold someone accountable, and it definitely won’t be ourselves.

What if we try a different frame?  Could we move, as a society, away from the individualistic and towards the systemic view when diagnosing a problem?  Can we break our behaviorist habits and binary mindset, stop thinking of threats and rewards and instead focus on a more organic view how people and organizations operate?  I think we have to.

In school reform efforts in Los Angeles Unified School District, Superintendent John Deasy and union president Warren Fletcher have announced a tentative agreement on a new approach to governance and accountability in the state’s largest district.  Most notably, schools will have new flexibility and more local control, and less threat of consequences imposed by the district.  Scanning Twitter for some reactions, I found skepticism from at least one veteran of the L.A. education reform scene, Mike McGalliard.  In a matter of minutes, our exchange of comments could have been construed as one or the other of us potentially blaming the school board, district administrators, the superintendent, or the teachers for whatever has gone wrong in the past or will go wrong in the future.  For that, I blame Mike.  (/sarcasm).

But seriously, what it brought home for me is that we can all easily get caught up in figuring out who makes the mistakes and who takes the blame.  Instead, we need to keep asking non-blaming questions, more analytical, more systemic and solution-oriented.  It’s not that I just want everyone to join hands and think happy thoughts, (though I do think managing “the people part” is an underrated skill). But we need more trust and more problem-solving.  Instead of asking who’s responsible, who’s to blame, who will be accountable for failure, we should be asking smarter questions about schools and school systems.

What outcomes matter most to us right now, and how can we improve?  

What do we need in order to be effective, and how will we determine our effectiveness?

How can we support other people involved in carrying out this work, and ensure their success?

How can we change current practices and conditions that prevent schools, teachers, or students from reaching their potential?

Assume good intentions.  Avoid fundamental attribution error.  Understand what motivates people.  Work like crazy to create the conditions in which people have a sense of shared purpose, can develop autonomy, and are given the time to learn and improve, without threat or fear, to reach increasing levels of mastery.

The culture of blame is holding us back, and must be repaired.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Davis permalink
    December 3, 2011 10:47 am

    In addition to attribution tendencies, I find proprietary interest to be fundamental. As a boy on a Missouri farm, I saw the proprietary interest the hogs had in the trough where they were fed. They might jostle me as I fed them, but clearly they owned that trough. Perhaps too few in key positions and circles feel a passionate, proprietary interest in our public schools – and perhaps in other institutions and services. I propose a “public trough” policy – those who eat at the public trough use public institutions and services, e.g. if you draw your check from the public, your children attend public schools — all the way through. I imagine an enormous effect, and not only on schools in Washington D.C. (although the effect there might be revolutionary). In LA, children of the mayor and mayoral staff, of judges and city/county/state attorneys, of bureau chiefs salaried staff would attend public schools along with those of the custodians and street department employees who can only afford them. Think your schools would benefit from a different degree and distribution of proprietary interest? Eventually we would have 2nd & 3rd generation legislators and policy makers who had been educated in public schools and universities, not in elite private schools. And perhaps if legislators and those who work for/with them received only the health and retirement benefits they could pass for everyone, those programs would be healthier? Come to think of it, observing behavior around the trough is a lot like another familiar maxim: follow the money. JSD

  2. December 12, 2011 2:06 am

    The New York times editorial page has just this morning (finally) admitted the existence of the real underlying factor in the NCLB blame game. In an editorial retracting their own previous blindness to poverty as a factor in education outcomes, they drop this bombshell:

    “A final rationale for denying the correlation is more nefarious. As we are now seeing, requiring all schools to meet the same high standards for all students, regardless of family background, will inevitably lead either to large numbers of failing schools or to a dramatic lowering of state standards. Both serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system is failing and needs fundamental change, like privatization.”

    Stop a minute, colleagues, before we all join hands with Desey and sing Kumbaya together, and assign some blame to his mentor and sponsor, Eli Broad. Think before you embrace the Walton family, Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and the other sworn apostles of private profit from the public sector. Their own data has finally exposed their sock puppets and hired wreckers as cheats and liars.

    So, by all means, lets escape from the blame trap they built with their “accountability” takover scam. Don’t blame each other, or the children of poverty, or the parents or the community. But do blame the architects of this disasteroous assault on our schools.


  1. The Best Resources For Helping Students (& The Rest Of Us) Learn The Concept Of Not Blaming Others | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

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