Risk Management in Education: Fantasies of Educator Omnipotence
©2004 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/2/11

For tens of thousands of years human beings relied on oracles, prophets, medicine men and resignation to try to manage unknown risks. Then, in the transformative 200-year period from the mid 17th until the mid 19th Century, a series of brilliant insights resulted in the creation of groundbreaking tools for rational risk taking.[1]

Discoveries such as the theory of probability, the Law of Large Numbers, the structure of the normal distribution, standard deviation and Bayes's theorem, transformed our understanding of risk. For the first time in human history, possibilities and dangers could be logically analyzed and managed.[2]

In modern times most serious endeavors, things like medical research, engineering, investment management, economics, space flight or planning for war, all use these tools.[3] But more than a quarter of a millennium after the new paradigm of rational risk management was invented, school policy is still largely a matter of guessing, wishful thinking and wistful longing.

Consider the contemporary discourse about youngsters said to be "placed at risk" of school failure.[4] Then ask, does this conversation resemble the contemporary analytic decision-making that characterizes, say, the insurance industry? Clearly, there is little resemblance.

Realistically, a forest of evidence discloses that a multitude of factors, both in school and out, place youngsters "at risk" of school failure. Importantly, most of these causes are way beyond any educator's grasp. Hence, the evidence overwhelmingly favors limiting our expectations for schooling. Despite this, the regnant educational discourse is limitless in its promises. Consider the No Child Left Behind Act. What promise could be more boundless (or irresponsible) than that?

Let's put this silliness aside for a moment and ask, what really is necessary for school success? The requisite conditions occur in four clusters.

First, there are necessary personal conditions. Developmental disabilities, emotional and/or physical illness, malnutrition, unmet psychosocial needs, inadequate self-esteem, parental abuse and/or neglect, debilitating anxiety, depression, substance abuse and indifference or hostility toward schooling, all can take a fatal toll. Crucially, none of these are under educator control.

Second, there are necessary social conditions. Poverty, unaffordable health care, juvenile gang activity, broken homes, unhelpful mass media messages, and abusive, neglectful or inept parenting all can place a child at risk of school failure. These too are totally beyond any educator's control.

Then there are necessary school conditions that must pertain if learning is to occur. School mismanagement, a badly crafted curriculum, overcrowding, dilapidated classrooms, inadequate or unsuitable instructional materials, rampant bullying or other disruptive behavior, all can hamper learning. Once again, teachers have little say here. School administrators do, but even they are limited by money constraints and the frequent absence of public support.

Finally, if children are not to be placed at risk the necessary instructional conditions must be in effect. Lessons must be well planned and expertly implemented. Classroom management also must be effective. In addition, within practical limits, individual differences have to be accommodated. In this area, finally, teachers have a good deal of control.

Crucially, if just one necessary condition in any of these four clusters of necessary conditions is unmet, a child is at risk of failure. These are the intimidating odds that educators face daily. Yet, even in the face of this humbling and inhospitable reality, irrational true believers adamantly insist that, given the right attitude, skill and perseverance, schooling practices alone can prevail. Foolish school administrators, dreamy professors of education, worried parents and unwise politicians all participate in this irrational celebration of the impossible.

Given rational risk management's nearly universal acceptance in other serious endeavors, we should ask, what is going on here? Why are these plainly daffy flights of fancy so persistent in education?

First of all, the fantasy serves those who embrace it. Such castles in the sky imbue the otherwise opaque and unpromising world of pedagogical true believers with clarity and hope, for instance. Unhappily, they serve no one else and school kids least of all.

We all have compensating personal fantasies of one sort or another. But if we are normal we keep a lid on them. True believers in pedagogical omnipotence exercise no such self-control. They utterly instead give themselves over to their fantasies.

This is when the damage begins. Such harm has its deepest origin in the true believers objectification of the other. For them, all others are mere actors in a highly personal fantasy drama. Perceived by the true believer as having no minds or wills of their own, all others exist solely to play a role, whether or not it fits their actual reality. Moreover, our true believers cling to their illusions even when the other obstinately refuses to play along. [5]

Consider the true believing teacher educators who, in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence, promote the fantasy of pedagogical omnipotence. Day after day, these self-deluded dons fit novices with counterfeit super hero capes and urge them to rush to every kid's rescue. If these propagandized novices actual get their own inner city or poor rural classrooms it takes time for them to recognize that what they have been taught is utter folly. In the interim much damage is done. Day after day false optimism and unrealistic choices are repaid with indifference, contempt, hostility and sabotage. Day after day real opportunities for rational decision-making are sacrificed. Day after day teacher and conscientious students suffer.

Meanwhile, back in the ivory tower, another dreamy branch of the education professoriate preach a competing, though equally unfeasible, delusion. In place of wistful optimism, these petite bourgeois Bolsheviks urge revolutionary fantasy on their befuddled charges. Instead of providing aspiring teachers with analytic tools they can use to make their own sense of the world, these faculty club guerrilla fighters "actively engage them in revolutionary transformation." Instead of providing tools for risk management, they prattle on about the despotism of the marketplace, the exploitation of workers by capitalists and the distribution of the conditions of production. And should any student dare suggest that Marx is defunct because communism failed so utterly, they respond with name-calling. This argument is "puerile." "It's too silly even to debate this notion." [6].

Here again, reality gives way to pernicious dreaming. Do these professors see their students, not to mention the youngsters they aspire to teach, as actual human beings? Or are these individuals, once again, mere dramatis personae without personal identities or consciousness who exist solely to serve the true believer's fantasy? As Marx himself observed, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness."[7] In other words, only the revolutionary professoriate sees things clearly. The broad mass's perceptions are mere social delusions.

Many educators censor their own misgivings about these and similar fantasies of educator omnipotence. Troubled by self-doubt, worried that they will be perceived heartless or as excusing their own incompetence, they rarely challenge the reigning false hopefulness. Hence, the true believers are seldom challenged.

As a further complication, a wide variety of con men exploit schooling's all-permeating irrationality. Mendacious school administrators employ phony optimism to shift blame for student failures to teachers. Devious professors of education preach false optimism to maintain program enrollment or make them more popular. Two-faced parents take refuge in fantasies of educator 'omnipotence' to escape personal responsibility for their children's scholastic difficulties. Machiavellian politicians embrace it to escape responsibility for the educational consequences of their poor public administration. Taken together, this blend of folly and deceit makes rational risk management in schooling nearly impossible.

What should be done? There are obvious difficulties in getting people to accept the cold realities a true risk management approach brings to schooling. Regardless, when the necessary personal, social, school and instructional conditions fail to line up, school failure is probable; and in far to many cases there is little or nothing that educators can do about it.

It all comes down to probability in the end and, thus, to rational versus irrational decision-making. Just as a capable military commander reluctantly recognizes the inevitability of acceptable losses and medical professionals sadly recognize that all their patients are not going to get well, so responsible educators and effective government officials both must accept the laws of probability regarding academic failure -- particularly when they apportion limited resources.

The reigning US ideology of limitless educator effectiveness sacrifices far too many children who could learn if vital resources weren't diverted to hopeless causes. Moreover, by weakening and diluting educational efforts, fantasies of educator omnipotence badly damage our ability to prepare students to compete in the new global labor market. Plainly, we can't afford to continue playing make-believe when other nations are setting deadly serious educational priorities.

[1] Peter L. Bernstein. Against the Gods: the remarkable story of risk, John Wiley and Sons, 1996, pp 1-6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Op cit, p. 2.

[4] Note that this language presupposes that youngsters' own choices are irrelevant to their being "at risk." See, also, Edward G. Rozycki, "Identifying the 'At Risk' Student: What is the Concern?"available at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/AtRisk.html

[5] I derived this general idea from Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books, Random House, New York, 2004, pp. 26 - 28.

[6] "Interview with Peter McLaren (Part II)." Professing Education, December, 2003, Vol 2. No. 2.

[7] Quoted by McLaren, Op cit.