One of the more common and vexing problems of the human condition is the desire to blame someone when something goes wrong, an outcome isn’t achieved, or behavior isn’t exactly what we’d like it to be. However, in organizations such problems are often caused by the system or working conditions even though a person receives the blame.
Social psychologists call this effect “fundamental attribution error.” It’s the tendency to blame people for systems issues. This is particularly true in large-scale governmental or quasi-governmental organizations, including public education.
Recently, the nation has fixated on trying to solve student achievement challenges by laying the blame on “bad teachers.” The solution? Nightmarishly complex teacher evaluation schemes to sort and cull out the supposed bad performers. And instead of selectively applying this scheme to the small percentage of weak performers, we are subjecting all educators to it.
Like any profession, education certainly has its share of bad apples (pun intended). But when anyone actually steps into the shoes of a teacher or principal and sees the complexity of their jobs, they realize educators work against a complex set of outside forces that have an impact on what happens in the classroom.
They also learn that teachers frequently work in a dysfunctional and nonsupportive work environment created by the latest and greatest public policy edict —1 where layers of rules and disconnected reform efforts create an unmanageable amount of red tape and chaos that further hinder instruction.
To put it bluntly, it’s not the individual teacher at fault — it’s the system in which they are working. Parents intuitively know this. In surveys, parents can rate their child’s teacher very high in quality, their child’s school as high in quality, yet rate the district as average or poor. How can a district comprised of great teachers and great individual schools only be average? It at once defies logic and locates criticism at the systems level.
Such criticisms are also levied at administrators. In my career, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “If the principals would just do their jobs.” This usually comes up in matters related to evaluation and documenting poor performance of teachers to establish a paper trail for firing. The logic is that if principals would just do their jobs related to evaluation and holding people accountable, then we would remove all ineffective teachers and fix the problem of stagnating student achievement.
To be sure, individual accountability is important. Sometimes, it is the case that an individual isn’t doing their job and needs to be held responsible for their performance. But we should always work to balance the notion of individual accountability with systemic support because environmental conditions have a significant impact on individual performance.
Eagle County Schools works hard to create environments where our employees thrive. We already have one of the best evaluation systems in the state (if not the nation). But we no longer focus on it as a driver for improvement in student success. In essence, our system has matured beyond that basic premise. The second stage of an effective evaluation system is professional support to address areas of weakness — ensuring teachers get better with experience in our system.
To improve student success, we hire positive and talented people, maintain a positive work environment, support them with ongoing training in educational best practices and empower our frontline educators to make important decisions because they are the ones closest to the kids.
Fundamental attribution error is the main reason we don’t rely exclusively on our evaluation system to drive improvement. Research further indicates that subjecting all employees to a draconian evaluation system actually has a more caustic effect on work culture with limited potential to raise performance on a systemic basis. That’s why international high performing school systems don’t use this approach to improve quality outcomes for students, either.
The “law of unintended consequences” is another fascinating phenomenon. It occurs when laws created to solve one problem create other, often more severe, problems — but that will have to wait for a future article!
Be on the lookout for fundamental attribution error. When you see something that doesn’t add up, ask yourself, is this a person-problem or a system-problem? Don’t get me wrong — sometimes there is someone at fault! But more often than not, it’s the system that needs to be held to account and change. We’re very proud of our carefully selected educators. As a team, we support one another for success and look for ways to improve our system as the front line of defense against sub-par student performance.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.