An earlier version of this essay appears in the Fall 2005 issue of educational Horizons.

Public School Reform: Mired in Metaphor

2005 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

edited 9/3/11

The Schooling Rule: Education is a certified teacher teaching a standardized curricular topic to a registered student in an accredited institution.
-- Meyer & Rowan (1977) [1]

School outcomes: which ones should reform aim at?

Meyer & Rowan, in characterizing Education, omit any mention of learning: and, with good reason. Learning, particularly learning specific subject matter, is a secondary -- if even that important -- goal of schooling. Teaching, though it may aim at learning, is not primarily judged by learning success [2], despite the solemn public invocation of metaphors such as achievement, assessment, and the like, that appears to guide it.

In the American public school tradition, teaching is primarily a performance art constrained by an individual teacher's desire to impart information, skills and attitudes, and by the realities of the classroom's group dynamics as well as by many other factors outside the school. The misconception among many educators, of course, is that developing one's pedagogical skill is to pursue science.[3] Teacher preparation is rife with references to treatments, learner characteristics, outcomes and the like. What, in fact, there is of science that informs pedagogy, is more likely than not to be washed out of practice in the pursuit of the fads and political goals of those who directly control our schools.[4]

Educators generally have much more technical skill than they ever put to use; indeed, more than they are generally ever permitted to put to use. A moment's reflection provides pertinent examples:

a. a panel of experts carefully examining a child's candidacy for special education may be overridden by the parents' simple refusal -- no questions asked - to accept the panel's placement decision;

b. judgments of, say, plagiarism or other academic wrongdoing can be effectively nullified by the threat of parental lawsuit;

c. newly acquired knowledge about learner characteristics and the curricular innovations that such knowledge supports often languish unrecognized by a public only peripherally interested in the learning process.[5]

d. the number and complexity of courses required for teacher certification, say, in mathematics or science, go far beyond what any K-12 teacher may be expected to teach in an actual school.

What is the point of schooling, if it isn't learning? A school's apparently most important product -- ask any parent who pays college tuition -- is status. Why else do Ivy League schools command tuitions far out of proportion to the excellence of their curricula? Early education gets you to high school; high school gets you to college. College gets you to grad school; grad school gets you to ... success! The higher you climb the ladder, the better a person you are; the more income you merit. That is why, teachers' concerns aside, cramming, plagiarism, cheating and Cliff's Notes are no big issue!

Only in some areas -- the really important ones -- does knowledge matter. In order to maintain one's certification in, say, CPR, one must show competence every two years on a retest. CPR is important. Medical knowledge is important and similarly retested for. So it is that every seventh grader, to divine what the teacher really thinks is important, knows to ask, "Will this be on the test?"

Whatever a general Bachelor's degree means, whatever information, skills and attitudes one might take it to indicate, is never, ever retested for. Those of us who enjoy the social benefits of a degree in higher education, for example, a substantially higher lifelong income than those not possessing a Bachelor's degree, can rest on our laurels assured that -- outside of specific technical or scientific occupations -- we will not have to demonstrate any information, skills or attitudes supposedly acquired in the process of getting our Bachelor's degree.

Little wonder, then, that for almost as long as there have been public schools, there have been public school reformers. Deal and Wiske comment,

If teaching or managing schools were certain, clear, and straightforward tasks, then educators could find a haven in a professional culture or technology. But education is an indeterminate enterprise. Its purposes and technologies are unclear. Its goals are diverse, diffuse and disputed among various stakeholders.[6]

Since whatever change is involved in a proposed reform is putatively a change for the better, if people cannot agree on what is "for the better," then the proposed change will not be seen as a "reform." In our very pluralistic democracy what this means is: to the extent consensus is lacking on the direction of school change, then, to that same extent will there be no lasting school reform. The "curricular pendulum" of teacher lore is a recognition of this fact.

Conflicting Theories, Competing Goals

So, what's new? It's certainly not news that scientific knowledge is ranked below other considerations when it comes to practice in the political reality of everyday life. It took decades for the ill effects of tobacco to be generally acknowledged. The debate about global warming will probably take decades more. How is the situation in education so very different than this?

What makes the situation in education somewhat novel is that prospective educators, in the course of their professional education, are inculcated with contradictory theories employing incompatible metaphors. But they are usually not made aware of these contradictions and incompatibilities. Their "theoretical toolbox," so to speak, is full of mismatched tools.[7]

The incompatible theories fall into three general categories:

a. theories of teacher accountability;

b. theories of causation; and

c. theories of equity.

Theories of teacher accountability usually are buried in exhortations to educators to "take control of their classroom outcomes," or to "be accountable for the learning of all children." Such theories are embedded in such legislation as No Child Left Behind. But, as a concept, accountability can range from the quite unjust practice of taking reprisal against hostages -- people who by virtue of their circumstances are made to suffer for things beyond their control -- to the reasonable and just practice of rewarding or punishing a person for what she has power over. We recognize this distinction in practice to the extent that we understand that merely deciding to hold a person accountable does not necessarily give her additional power to deal with a situation.

One kind of theory of causation is what is called "direct linear causation", an ancient "push-pull" concept that holds cause to be immediate and roughly proportional to effect. Such a theory is embedded in advice to teachers, for example, that the better they prepare for their classes, the more their students will learn -- as though the only thing student learning depended on was the teacher's preparation.

An incompatible kind of theory is non-linear causal complexity, or systems theory. Such metaphors[8] as readiness, developmental stage or maturity rest on such a theory. Basically, the issue here is whether the learning depends on a condition of the learner that is normally out of the immediate control of the teacher, and whether other factors, often internal, may have a significant effect on learning. We recognize such systemic causation in our practices of grouping by, for example, age, grade, reading level, physical size or gender. Such student grouping is seen to address a "structural issue" beyond the limit within which teachers can be held individually accountable.

A possible incompatibility arises when we consider the interaction between theories of accountability and theories of causation: to the extent that learning is a systems phenomenon, i.e. complexly causal, to that same extent is the teacher minorly, if at all, responsible for its occurrence. Consider a student whose ADD has not been recognized. The teacher of that student may well have prepared a wonderful lesson only to have it fall flat because the student is not focused on it. The recognition that such complexities are part of everyday life makes it obvious that schools, say, that profess to undertake to do such things as "teach students to be lifelong learners" are either patently foolish or megalomaniac.[9]

Theories of Equity: their incompatibilities

Theories of equity identify certain group outcomes as desirable or not. The slogan, "All children can learn," rests on such a theory. "All" is often the critical term. Students who are left out may be considered unjustly discriminated against.

"Equity" abounds with ambiguity. One traditional variant of it, "equal educational opportunity," (EEO), has had two recognized interpretations with very different practical outcomes:

1. equal products, fair share, as opposed to

2. equal process, fair play.[10]

Imagining schooling to be very much like a competitive race, EEO attempts to judge the fairness of an educational system by either the results -- which should be equal (in proportion to the populations involved) -- or the process. Two very different policies result from which model one adopts: equal product supports Affirmative Action policies; equal process, Head Start programs.

Since equity is a metaphor invoked with respect to groups, it, too, runs afoul of causal metaphors -- whether linear or systemic. Educational psychology tends to be predominately individual psychology.[11] Social psychology or group dynamics -- if teachers have even been exposed to them -- plays little part in most of their diagnoses of learning problems. Instead a quasi-statistical metaphor is generally used: the "average" or "normal" student. Rejecting this metaphor is what the recognition of "special needs" students is founded on: your "readiness" may not be the same as my "readiness." Normal in one respect may not be normal in another. What may influence individuals alone may be different from what influences an individual in a group. Equity, as special educators are wont to put it, does not mean equality.

Confusion and the Hopes for Reform

The planning and diagnoses of even fairly sophisticated and experienced educators -- researchers, too -- often founders on the confusions sketched above. Not only are educators seldom taught to think carefully and analytically about the foundations of their practice, the pressures of their workplace and the systems of rewards they are subjected to tend to dissuade them from criticism of the status quo. In practice, they are to "make do," when theoretical confusion abounds, and to affect the appropriately pious attitude towards the fumblings of their superiors.

However, their confusion -- generally obscured with incessant sloganeering -- hides their lack of consensus and creates false hopes for the viability of school reform.[12] But the possibility of any kind of real school reform will depend on the extent to which thought reform on issues of accountability, causation and equity occurs. And the extent to which such thought reform occurs throughout out general populace will determine whether the long-term condition of our present system of public education is more than mediocrity.




1. John W. Meyer & Brian Rowan (1977) Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 83, No. 2. p.78.

2. See Edward G. Rozycki, (1998) "Increasing Teaching Efficiency" at

3. Thus Gage, "The kind of science that has occupied the mainstream of educational research over the last 50 years involves relationships between variables. Let me remind you of what such relationships look like in the realm of teaching. We can have predictive relationships, and we can have causal relationships." -- N. L. Gage (1978) The scientific basis of the art of teaching. New York: Teachers College Press p.13

4. The current brouhaha over Intelligent Design illustrates this. Certainly no proponent of Intelligent Design would accept that Satanism be taught in the schools, although, clearly, a universe designed by an evil intelligence would be an example of Intelligent Design. This shows that the debate is not primarily, if at all, about Science. See Edward G. Rozycki, (2003) "Religion, Intelligent Design and the Public Schools: serving God to Mammon?" at

5. See, for example, "New Research on Brain Development is Important for Parents" The Daily Parent, Summer 1997. The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

6. Terence Deal and Martha Stone Wiske (1983) "Planning, Plotting and Playing in Education's Era of Decline," Chapter 23 in J. Victor Baldridge &Terrence Deal, The Dynamics of Organizational Change in Education. Berkeley, Cal.: McCutchan pp.452.

7. For an example of such a mismatch, see Edward G. Rozycki (1999) The Practice Of Personhood In PSI, Keller's Personalized System Of Instruction. URL:

8. I use the term "metaphor" here, advisedly. What may be considered "concepts" or "constructs" within a particular theory because they are defined with relatively clear criteria, become metaphors when employed outside of those theories or without consideration of the definitional constraints recognized by a theoretically sophisticated user. A metaphor may be considered to be a fuzzy class of fuzzy sets. Use in a technical context "crisps up" one or more of the sets contained in the metaphor.

9. See Edward G. Rozycki, "Evaluating Missions Statements" at

10. For a thorough analysis, see William Ryan, (1982) Equality. New York: Vintage.

11. See Edward G. Rozycki, (1999) Reason And Authority In Education: Is the study of psychology appropriate to teacher preparation? At

12. See Clabaugh & Rozycki, Politics, Consensus and Educational Reform available at

See, also, Clabaugh & Rozycki, The Nature of Consensus at