Book details: Assigning Blame by Mark Hlavacik. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press, 2016, 208 pp., $30.00.
Policy experts David Tyack and Larry Cuban explained in their seminal work Tinkering toward Utopia (1995) that discussing and debating the institution of formal schooling is “one way Americans make sense of their lives” (p. 42). With this understanding, it is important—and in fact necessary—to understand the substance and tone of contemporary discussions about educational reform. This is why rhetorician Mark Hlavacik’s Assigning Blame is a contribution that all educational researchers, policymakers, and the public in general need to add to their collections. Throughout the book Hlavacik examines the rhetorical strategy of “blame” and describes through well-selected case studies how this strategy has led to current movements shaping educational policy and politics in the United States.
The chapters appear more or less in chronological order and offer a snapshot of the history of recent educational reforms through a rhetorical lens. Cases include economist Milton Friedman’s push for school choice, the federal government’s game-changing A Nation at Risk report, Jonathan Kozol’s call for equity in Savage Inequalities, the controversial federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, and famous educational reformer Diane Ravitch’s changing sides on educational issues. These cases showcase rhetorical strategies of blame, explaining their efficacy and what the individual uses of blame have collectively done to the education reform conversation overall. Blame is a powerful rhetorical strategy for the moment, Hlavacik argues, but over time it wears out the vitality and public trust in educational reform conversations.
Hlavacik uses the introductory chapter to introduce the rhetorical tradition surrounding the concept of blame and defines key terms. In this section Hlavacik defines “public blame” as the “politically calculated performance of accusation undertaken as a means of persuasion” (p. 9). He also takes the reader through a brief synopsis of educational reform history in the United States and describes the rationale for selecting his cases.
Blaming has promoted a tone and tenor that has led to mistrust and unhealthy debate, which in turn has led to a lack of productivity in resolving debates about major educational issues.
After using the introduction to describe the concept of blame, in the first chapter Hlavacik describes his first case study. The case includes how Milton Friedman’s arguments about educational bureaucracy mark the initiation of blame in educational policymaking. Through colorful vignettes, Hlavacik takes the reader through Friedman’s tactics and illuminates how Friedman employed the strategy of blame during a popular PBS series on school reform. This example not only helps underscore why Friedman was successful in pushing his market-based educational agenda, but also is useful in training the mind how to watch current political debates and identify when the rhetorical tactic of blame is deployed.
Next, the book moves to A Nation at Risk, which Hlavacik argues, “blames itself.” In other words, Hlavacik shows the reader how the A Nation at Risk report deftly uses self-blame to establish a call for all of society to demand “quality” as a solution. An unintended consequence of this was to undermine President Reagan’s attempt to eliminate the federal Department of Education because, well, who would want to remove a Department of a social institution now deemed as failing? Reagan didn’t want the blame pointed at him. This conversation on the widely cited educational report that helped drive the most recent wave of educational accountability is a new look at a well-studied and reported topic.
The book then moves to Jonathan Kozol, who had the right target in his book Savage Inequalities. However, though well intentioned, Hlavacik shows how the book uses the wrong signaling and strategy. Hlavacik explains that Kozol’s blaming achieved the result of great attention to underprivileged schools, but ultimately the strategy led to addressing symptoms through more educational funds, rather than fixing the underlying problem of broader social and economic inequality. While Kozol has become a beloved figure to educational reformers and one who rallies folks around fixing problems in education and society, Hlavacik argues that the use of the blame strategy undermined the goals that this constituency hope to achieve.
The final two cases in Assigning Blame are NCLB and Diane Ravitch. NCLB seemingly blames everything and everyone in the educational establishment, especially teachers and schools. This was an obvious selection for Hlavacik to use because it was clear that NCLB and blaming go hand-in-hand. The blame strategy angered folks desperately needed to be included in the solutions to educational woes and, not surprisingly, never really achieved its goals. Finally, and relatedly, Hlavacik turns to Ravitch, who gained increasing clout by pulling a mea culpa—she was at first a supporter of testing and accountability reforms like NCLB only to turn to blaming NCLB for the problems related to US education.
Assigning Blame ends by tying the book’s cases together and blaming blame for the reason our educational politics are so divisive and unproductive. And indeed this is true—not only have the politics of educational reform been able to split Democrats and Republicans on issues, but also they’ve caused internal party splits (think Common Core for Republicans and charter schools for Democrats). Blaming has promoted a tone and tenor that has led to mistrust and unhealthy debate, which in turn has led to a lack of productivity in resolving debates about major educational issues. One of the major points Hlavacik hopes to hammer home within this reality is that we as a society need to graduate from using blame as a rhetorical strategy in discussions on how to make America’s schools better and work for everyone. He concludes, “such a reconsideration would require that Americans be more thoughtful about how they discuss education as a public enterprise” (p. 173).
With this in mind, and thinking about the cases and commentary collectively, this book offers two major contributions to understanding educational policy. One, it offers a fresh look through a conceptual tool often not discussed in educational policy classes and in academic and political discussions. Two, the explanation of this tool leads to a fresh and intriguing telling of educational policy history that will help guide conversations about these topics, particularly for faculty in their classes.
The critique to Hlavacik’s suggestions and comments are probably apparent to most of us who have followed recent political events. Reading this book after one of the most contentious (and arguably thoughtless) Presidential cycles in modern history makes calls for an improved narrative to appear to be a bit idealistic and beyond reach. But I am with Hlavacik in that we have to start talking more about how we have the conversation. Maybe this notion is idealistic and naïve, but the past strategies clearly have not gotten us where we have needed to go with education and public policy.
So as one who hopes to help change the discourse on educational policymaking, Hlavacik ends the book with notes of hope on the future about our conversations on school reform. In an election season where the lowest common denominator got lower by the day, this book was a breath of fresh air. Instead of blame, Hlavacik suggests, try also using its sibling praise. But how we get there is the big question that comes next, so I will be looking forward to the sequel of this book, which I predict will be titled: Implementing Praise.
Hlavacik, Mark. 2016. Assigning blame: The rhetoric of education reform. Harvard Education Press: Cambridge, MA
Tyack, David B., and Larry Cuban. 1995. Tinkering toward utopia. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
Bryan Mann is a managing editor for the American Journal of Education and PhD candidate in the Educational Theory and Policy program at Penn State University. His dissertation focuses on the impact that school choice has on traditional public schools, particularly through the emergence of charter schools and online learning platforms. He is a former high school English teacher from New Jersey who holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.