I think there is a fine line to walk when criticizing a government policy, like the NCLB law or the war in Iraq. The line is crossed, intentionally or unintentionally, when criticism for the policy is interpreted as a criticism of the people tasked to carry out that policy. For those criticizing current U.S. war policy, those tasked to carry it out are our servicemen and women in uniform. Similarly, I wonder if criticism of NCLB and current government education policy is often consciously or unconsciously interpreted as a criticism of those tasked to carry out those policies: The teachers and administrators in our classrooms, or the educational “trenches?”

I suspect this is the case. It is often interesting to see which blog posts invite commentary, and I have observed that those posts in which I take a strident political position are generally not commented on much. I can think of several hypotheses why this may be the case:

  1. Most people reading my blog are more interested in practical suggestions for using educational technology in the classroom, rather than pontifications about educational theory or politics.
  2. Readers agree with the sentiments expressed but don’t see a need or value in leaving a supportive comment.
  3. Readers disagree with the ideas, but don’t want to be confrontational or start a debate.
  4. Many readers are current school teachers or school district employees, so speaking out about educational policy issues is a bit risky. (Somewhat analogous to an active duty military person who might have a personal opinion about a government policy, but would not be able to freely share a dissenting political view.)
  5. Controversial issues (including most which touch on politics and religion) are often good to avoid, since people can get worked up and emotional about them.
  6. The first idea mentioned in this post is accurate in the reader’s opinion: The line between criticizing a policy and criticizing the people who are carrying out those policies (those under orders, so to speak) is sufficiently thin that the person does not want to come across as criticizing people. (In the case of educational policy, criticizing teachers.)
  7. Many readers of my blog (according to my ClustrMap) live outside the United States and aren’t particularly interested in my rants about U.S. politics!

I often take time during my presentations to share my sentiment that I am tired of hearing politicians, parents and the media beat up on schools and teachers. I think it was Sir Ken Robinson in his TED talk who reflected on the three primary, traditional influencers of young people: 1) the family, 2) the church, and 3) the schools. He observed that with the declining influence of the family (esp with the trend toward more nuclear rather than extended family living arrangements) and the declining influence of the church in many people’s lives, suddenly all this responsibility for shaping the perceptions and behaviors of young people has fallen to the school. It DOES take a village to raise a child, but unfortunately our society seems to be expecting schools to do all the raising in many cases.

The point I am wanting to express is that I do NOT intend to directly criticize or blame teachers or administrators as a group when I assert that NCLB has been a dismal failure and has taken our educational system in the wrong direction. Yes, as individuals educators (like everyone else) do bear responsibility for their actions. Corporately, however, just as the U.S. military has been required to promulgate an extended land war in Asia with an open-ended commitment by our political leaders, educators have similarly been tasked with the responsibility of establishing and enforcing a fear-laden educational culture of high-stakes accountability and testing for elementary and secondary students in public schools. The fact that these policies were created by elected officials is not the fault of teachers, any more than it is the fault of servicemen and women that our nation went to war in Iraq.

I think the line between criticizing a government policy and the perception that the person levying that criticism is simultaneously criticizing the people tasked to carry out the policy is a very thin one at best. I am not sure how to avoid or transcend this problem, other than to explain myself as I am attempting to do now. I guess this is sort of like a person who says “I support the troops,” but criticizes the President’s war policy. Some people would say, “You can’t support the troops and criticize the President.” Yet dissent and critical thinking about political issues are essential parts of our republican government and democratic culture. It’s always easier, I suppose, to not criticize and remain silent rather than enter into a discussion into which it is likely one may be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or rejected out of hand by those holding dissenting views.

I think we need more critical thinking in our schools and in our homes. We need more shepherds, not just sheep. Unfortunately, I think those encouraging “shepherd thinking” are often few and far between.

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6 Responses to Criticizing policies not people

  1. Tom Turner says:

    At the beginning of the school year all the staff at my school heard was, “We need to be more accountable. This year you are going to be held accountable.” Being a veteran teacher I immediately uttered the quick retort of, “HOW do we make our students and their parents accountable?” Unfortunately, failing grades is not the way. The view is that if a child doesn’t do well on a standardized test, well he/she is not getting the information presented to him the right way or he/she just has trouble with the concepts. The third factor is NEVER taken into consideration. How do you motivate the unmotivated?

    I usually preached to my students that my class would be very easy. We’ll do projects, hands-on activities, learn the content through digital video on demand with followup activities, podcasts, digital storytelling, etc. We might after everything is said and done read the text (although I didn’t really like doing it, but I was told by the Reading Coach I had to). Point is, my students learned the material and had fun doing it! However, in my throng of 135+ students I had maybe 10 to 15 students who were unmotivated to learn, not wanting to be in school, repeating 6th graders (some multiple times). In FL we have the FCAT and our schools are judged in success and failure based on their test scores. Also with Teacher Pay For Performance we are judged based on their test scores. Here’s the hypothetical then, what if there’s an abundant amount of students in that class? Somewhere along the line we’ve lost the ‘home’ accountability

    I know I’ve rambled here some… For the most part I think the politicos and beauracrats (sp?) are trying to help this. I’ve never once seen one of them come down to the teacher level and ask, “What do you need to succeed? What can we do to help?” Wouldn’t that make all the difference?

  2. I would generally put myself into category 2, but here I am commenting so I guess that puts me in a category of another kind?!

    I am extremely frustrated by NCLB and the pressures that it puts on the educational system. I think it drives all the attention to the few kids who are on the cusp of meeting expectations. Those far above and far below are not seen as making a difference to the school’s bottom line (test scores).

    The problem is I don’t have a solution. I do think that teachers should be paid based on a merit system that includes student performance and classroom observation. I do think that we need to pay attention to other aspects of learning, not just math, reading and science scores on a standardized test. I like the sound of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, but I don’t know how to measure a school’s achievement in many of the areas where they recommend change.

    So I think the reason that people don’t comment is because they don’t have an answer to offer.

  3. Rob J says:

    I dont’ think the American people have the guts to do what it would take to the make the appropriate changes to our public school system! I say that with some sarcasm because I work in a parochial school were we don’t have the rigerous standards based testing that my public school colleagues do 🙂

    Check out this interview with futurist Alvin Toffler about the future of American education from the latest edition of Edutopia.
    Would the teachers unions go along with this? Could the American public stomach it?

    Did the politicians push initiatives as a way of moving the debate forward because we as educators were too slow to do it? I don’t know, I’ve only been teaching for 9 years in a small parochial school! I can tell you that even though we don’t have the restrictions of public schools, our schools look a lot like public schools in many ways. So I can’t claim any more expertise in the matter than my colleagues. Monkey see, monkey do I guess!

    Just a thought?

  4. jim forde says:


    Interesting post.

    I agree with the need for more ciritical thinking and have been
    desperately trying to encourage some at my blog…edtechnot.

    Some would say that teachers are to blame for being too compliant.

    See this post

    I don’t agree with that but do feel the need for more engagement
    on topics that matter.

    Thanks…Jim 🙂

  5. I agree with Laura, I think people have a fear of being seen as simply whining if they don’t have a solution to offer. Of course, if there was a simple solution, we would have done it already.

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Wes, in an open democratic society, there is a need, and really, an obligation to speak up when we see wrongs, even if the solutions aren’t apparent. Many times it takes a long time for society to move to a place where change is even possible, especially when the change will impact entrenched cultural expectations and institutions. But if we are silent, we can be sure nothing will change.


  6. Thanks for the link to this page… It is very heart warming, and I agree with your thoughts!


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