Blame Schools, Not Students, for the “Failure of School Reform”

Last week Robert Samuelson in Newsweek took on the topic of The Failure of School Reform, and came to the conclusion that it is because students don’t like school (with which I agree), and that this is the fault of our students (well, no).

The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If the students aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure.

The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, which helps explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

Of course Samuelson is right to say that student motivation is enormously important to educational progress and success;  he is also partially right in the list he provides about what stimulates student motivation.  I wish he had delved more deeply into that list; surely in addition to peer pressure and “intimidating teachers” (sic, ?) in his short list of motivations he could have added real-world relevance and connections,  project-based learning, respect for student autonomy and individual passions, and technological tools integrated into learning.  (What would you add?)

I agree too that we should attend to the data that demonstrates student motivation declines from elementary to secondary schooling.  High school students, generally, are less motivated in school, but for Samuelson to go straight from that fact to the conclusion this must because of “strengthened adolescent culture” seem to me to be a bit of poorly founded logical jump.

To blame our students for their own lack of motivation is infuriating, demeaning, disrespectful, and ultimately, deeply detrimental to the cause of improving education.

We do need to confront the problem of under-motivated high school students, but let’s not blame our kids for the fact that school is boring them.

Our secondary schools are boring and undermotivating to our students because too many of our schools have fallen prey to a teach-the-textbook approach that sees its only accountability as a multiple choice testing  regimen in which kids are evaluated by how well the select the right answer, over and over again, on subjects that have no relevance to their life.

We ask kids to sit in desks in rows 20 or 30 or 40 in a room while a teacher talks to them, and then we ask them to  do homework about a topic which nobody has even tried to connect to their life and their future, and we then blame the kids for not loving it.   We think that students who have listened to teachers carefully enough to remember what they have said, and read the textbook closely enough to remember what it stated,  are being successful in true learning when they repeat it back to us on tests which ask mostly for factual recall and formulaic problem-solving.

The problem worsens for high school students, as Samuelson says, not because of “strengthening adolescent culture,” but because we have worn these kids down over the years, and stripped away the natural enthusiasm for learning they bring to elementary school.

Truth is, few of us as adults would be willing endure these “learning environments” on a daily basis,  even if we were paid well to be in them.  We adults seek out environments where we have purpose, where we enjoy autonomy and respect, where we can grow in mastery over skills that we care deeply about, to borrow from Pink– and most high schools provide none of these things.  Some adults work in these envirionments, but let’s recognize this is only because they are paid to do so, and paid more than any other alternative available to them.

I write this not just from opinion but close observation; two years ago I spent a season visiting 21 American high schools, spending an entire day at each school shadowing a student (usually a junior), sitting in the student seats, and live-blogging what I saw was happening and whether it was genuinely motivating to students and facilitating student learning.   Most of the time it was not.

But there are exceptions, and the exceptions demonstrate more powerfully than anything else that it is not our students’ fault they are undermotivated.   What those of us who are paying closer attention than Samuelson know  is that there are plenty of schools where students are motivated, where they do work hard, where they do like school, and where they do succeed and prepare for successful careers and college educations.  Schools like High Tech High, New Tech Network schools, CART, and others are serious about providing learning which is meaningful to students, where they find purpose in their learning because they see its connection to the world they live in and the jobs they are aspiring to.

These are also schools which recognize, like Google, the value of greater autonomy in our professional lives, that we all deserve to have more choice and more voice and do our work, our learning, in ways that are meaningful and rewarding and which we choose.   They are also places where we use the technological tools that empower us to be creative and collaborative communicators and producers.

These are also schools where students and learning are assessed in ways other than multiple choice bubble tests.  They are schools which are serious about student engagement, measure it, and use the data to improve their students’ motivation for learning.

So yes, I do agree with Samuelson about the problem: educational reform is failing because kids aren’t motivated.  I agree also with Samuelson that Arne Duncan’s solution to put a great teacher in every room isn’t going to work (nor will testing kids in boring, soul-crushing ways.)

But he could not be more wrong to blame the kids (or whatever it is he means in that weak formulation of “strengthened adolescent culture”) for their boredom.  Instead, let’s fix schools so that kids find joy and relevance and purpose and reward and autonomy and mastery and creativity and productivity and collaboration in their classrooms every day.

[cross posted, with substantial revisions, from]


  1. Clay Boggess said:

    As a former high school teacher I couldn’t agree more. We have become so systematic and rigid in how we teach and evaluate students learning that we haven’t stopped long enough to ask if it’s really working or not. The educational process has become so homogeneous so that we can better measure and evaluate student, school, and district success compared to standards as a result of students taking a state test. This ‘cookie-cutter’ approach may work well in a lab but it is proving to not work as efficiently in real life as people had hoped. It’s time for a ‘real-world’ change!

    September 20, 2010
  2. Andy W said:

    Schools are just child minding centres that measure you for univirsity entrance …………. Who cares for those that fail ?

    November 11, 2010
  3. cortney dixon said:

    I personally feel that as a college student. Everyone has their part to play in being blamed. It can be the schools fault but you also have to think about it like this, it is also the students fault. They should automatically want to learn new things and although college may not be for everyone, they should want to further their education. It is as well the parents fault. If students see that there parents do not care, then they may feel that they also shouldn’t care. The world is full of communities, everyone should want to come together to help motivate every student and person, no matter the age to want to do and be more that they can be.

    May 1, 2012
  4. I’ve been surfing online more than three hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. Personally, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the net will be much more useful than ever before.

    June 23, 2012
  5. “Our secondary schools are boring and undermotivating to our students because too many of our schools have fallen prey to a teach-the-textbook approach that sees its only accountability as a multiple choice testing….” (blah blah blah)

    What complete and utter nonsense. Secondary schools have become this way due to boring and undermotivated teachers. But what can you expect from a generation of mostly passive and intellectually stunted automatons with limited attention spans and malformed communication skills? This is the result of spending your life living in the fantasy world of the internet filled with people who who aren’t what they claim to be. The walls of most bus station men’s rooms contain more accurate information than the internet. I have to laugh when someone cites wikipedia as a credible source of facts. What a joke. More evidence of the dumbed down approach to learning … oops, I’m sorry it’s called “21st Century Innovation.”

    June 23, 2012
  6. Don Smith said:

    If this country wanted a better educational system, we would it.
    We are our choices.
    This country is a disgrace when it comes to priorities. The country only works remotely well together in times of war. We used to work well in times of catastrophe but that all changed when it became easier or cheaper to blame the victims, the survivors rather than assist them.
    We don’t agree on anything in this country, as a country.
    Republicans now sport t-shirts that state they would rather be a Russian than a Democrat so naturally, the response from Democrats was, we would rather be American than Republican.
    One party brags they will accept any level or depravity, racism or treason from their president as long as he builds a wall, and purges the nation of illegals and stops the legal flow of Muslims and refugees from countries where America, under Republican control, invaded, destabilized and left in the hands of terrorists armed, trained and funded by the US.
    So what does this all have to do with education in America? WTF does it matter if our schools are failing if education is ultimately devalued by the corrupt forces that control the direction of this country? How could a teacher possibly make education interesting and relevant in a world controlled by the most ignorant folks on earth or the most morally bankrupt, smart people on earth? Take your pick. It doesn’t really matter, does it? What’s so frigging hot about a future led by bigots, despots, and criminals. The corruption at the highest levels in this country is not covert. Russia has more control in our elections than any group of citizens. We have a party of corruption that embraces the attack on democracy by Russia. The current administration has done everything it can to tell it’s cult members that the FBI and NSA or anyone who disputes his lies and Russian’s attack on America is the enemy of the people. Sounds more like Nazi Germany than America doesn’t it.
    Ask any Trump supporter. As long as he wins the election and remains in office they do not care how that is accomplished. Violating the constitution, breaking laws, rigging elections. slandering most of America that refuse to condone his depravity… nothing is unacceptable to Trump supporters.
    So tell us again. How is it that only schools are failing? How could anyone who has the job of preparing the educated citizens of tomorrow, today, accomplish that goal or any objective that ensures that goal, when it really doesn’t matter. We have never had to face the threat from within that makes education so pointless. Trump hates educated people. The right hates them. The call them names and refer to them as elites. So tell us again how education is failing because of unmotivated teachers and students. What exactly should students be looking forward to? How is education relevant when education is castigated and vilified every day by the Trump administration and his cult-like followers. Open-mindedness and curiosity are equated with liberalism and to the party of hate and Russian support for the destruction of democracy, liberalism is a mental defect.
    There’s really nothing here for students in schools in America – other than being bi-lingual – learning to speak Russian and bullsh!t.

    August 15, 2018
  7. Paul Curtis said:

    “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” -Socrates

    If you want to assess blame, picking students as a scapegoat is just as good as choosing parents or teachers. If you want to fix the problem, then blaming the “product” of the system probably isn’t productive.

    In earlier decades, a large number of dropouts was acceptable. We had jobs for them. That is not the case anymore and the situation will get worse with the growth of artificial intelligent technologies. The future economy requires schools to educate every child to compete in rapidly changing economy that demands highly skilled workers. When we can’t simply ship off the kids who aren’t motivated to work in the factories, we have to change our practices to motivate each child and not blame them for being lazy.

    This means building a great school culture based on trust, respect and responsibility. Building curriculum that is engaging and meaningful to students. Leveraging complex and collaborative projects. Giving students voice and choice in how they learn. And it means taking on the task of teaching and assessing essential skills like critical thinking, personal agency, growth mindset, and collaboration.

    Schools need to change and change is hard. We need to stop blaming people and start looking at solutions … schools that are innovative and getting results ( Few schools or districts can manage a DIY transformation. Piecemeal staff development without a broader vision of change doesn’t work. Most will need external guidance and support to succeed.

    There is always option #2: keep doing what we’ve done in the past and let other countries figure out how to build a world class workforce.

    August 17, 2018

Comments are closed.