Voices in Education

The Paradox of Public Blame and the Prospects of Public Education
Who is to blame for the failures of the public education system in the United States? Teachers? Parents? Politicians? Administrators? Students? Maybe it’s the economy? Segregation? Income inequality? It is a difficult question with a lot of potential answers, the kind that is probably best avoided over dinner with the in-laws. However, when Americans turn their attention to school reform—as they frequently do—who or what is to blame for the state of the public schools is a question that always comes up.
Indeed, the recent history of education reform in the United States can be understood as a contest between competing acts of blame. Advocates of school choice argue that the schools fail because they are monopolies. Social justice advocates argue that the schools fail because they are segregated or otherwise unequal. Advocates of standards argue that the schools fail because they have low expectations. The list goes on, but the rhetorical formula remains the same: arguments for education reform begin by blaming someone or something for the real or invented failures of the public schools.
There are other ways to argue for reform, such as praising successful schools or characterizing failed initiatives as mistaken, but those get less attention. Incredibly, reformers who disagree about everything else concerning public schools turn to the same rhetorical strategy when they seek to persuade the public. Just as Milton Friedman blamed bureaucrats for the failures of public schools as he advocated school choice in the early 1980s, Jonathan Kozol blamed structural inequality for the failures of public schools as he advocated desegregation in the early 1990s.
Despite its popularity and straightforward appeal, blaming in public is a complex political act. Unlike blaming in an interpersonal context, the audience for an act of public blame is rarely those who are blamed. For example, advocates who blame teachers and administrators for the failures of public schools usually seek the support of the voting public who witness the act of blaming, not the educational professionals who are its target. In addition, although the targets of blame are said to be at fault, they are simultaneously accorded difference-making agency. So, although an advocate might blame teachers and administrators for the public schools’ shortcomings in order to win public support, her act of blame simultaneously surrenders control over educational success and failure to those teachers and administrators.

Not only is each act of blame internally complex, but the cumulative effects of blaming are complex as well because blame has a paradoxical relationship with civic discourse. On one hand, blame expresses and therefore relies upon a great deal of civic faith. Each act of public blaming is a bid for hearts and minds. When a reform advocate uses public blame, she places her faith in the idea that the better argument will carry the day. 

But on the other hand, when public blaming becomes disingenuous or perfunctory, it is often received as a sign that the deliberation in which it appears has lost credibility. Thus paradoxically, blaming can undermine the same civic faith upon which it is predicated.

In Assigning Blame, I argue that the prevalence of blaming in the public discussion of education reform has important implications for public schools. As a rhetorical consensus, blame helped facilitate the rise of accountability. After all, if there is a great deal of blame to go around, then there must be an equally great need to hold the blameworthy to account. But, more importantly, this prolonged blame game in which public education now finds itself undermines our collective faith in the prospects for productive public discussion of education. If Americans lose faith in their ability to come together as a public to hold meaningful conversations about education, why should they continue to believe that they can come together as a public to be educated?


About the Author: Mark Hlavacik is an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of North Texas and author of Assigning Blame: The Rhetoric of Education Reform.