©2004 Edward G. Rozycki

edited 9/3/11


An educational innovation enjoys popularity to the extent that it enables its user to avoid controversy. However, if a controversy is based upon valid differences of opinion, the innovation merely stultifies examination of such differences: the conflict festers to erupt later. Public educators have long looked to technology and the sciences to deliver them of the burden of exercising moral judgment; this, not necessarily from cowardice, but from the pressures of their unique position in society. As educators, they are unavoidably moralists. As public servants, they must be as much politicians. These two roles press them both to maintain and to compromise their positions on what it is that should be taught. Little wonder the stress generates an easy enthusiasm for systems novel and complex and an inclination to shrug off deep issues as merely minor technical problems.

In an article, well-received in its time, Patterson and Czajkowski characterized needs assessment as an increasingly popular tool for decision making; legislatures often mandate its use by state and local school officials. Needs assessment is "one avenue to program improvement."[1] This avenue, we will see, may be rather a rocky road and at times offer no thoroughfare.

Patterson and Czajkowski present a general framework for planning needs assessments. Ten steps take us from conception through action to fulfillment:

1. develop plan of action;

2. generate goals;

3. validate goals.;

4. rank goals;

5. prepare performance indicators;

6. identify assessment tools;

7. set criterion levels;

8. collect data;

9. analyze data for discrepancies; and,

10. determine probable reasons for discrepancies.

The apparent clarity and utility of their scheme is belied, however, by the seriousness of the problems they dismiss as minor. Indeed, steps two and five are less sub-procedures and more acts of faith, for it is here that one encounters problems that are endemic to the enterprise: bias in sampling community opinion and arbitrariness of performance criteria.

But there is something deeper here, a paradox of sorts. It is reasonable to expect input from only those community members for whom the school retains credibility as an instrument to achieve their goals. To the extent that the school cannot -- legally, or otherwise -- do what the community wants, or to the extent that the community does not see the school to be relevent to what it wants, so much is a needs assessment based on lists of possible school goals a mere sociometric exercise. Even more perversely -- some might think - the Public School's commitment to certain social goals requires that it actually seek a bias. A needs assessment must of necessity be vague enough to always be interpretable in accord with certain broad social and ethical guidelines; the public schools cannot allow themselves to be an agency through which racism or totalitarianism, for example, is promulgated. But it is a pollyanna who believes that no community needs racism or totalitarianism to maintain its viability.

Patterson and Czajkowski entertain "the suspicion that educational decisions are often based primarily on political and economic considerations." [2] This is understatement. Educational decision is a type of political decision. Politics is the art of reconciling the means by which different persons work to realize their disparate ends. Two things tend to obscure the political nature of educational decision:

a. an attitude -- clearly assumed by Patterson and Czajkowski[3]-- that what ought to be is something that can be "verified";

b. the language of educational leadership that necessarily seeks to cloak possible points of contention with a semi-ritual discourse.

What ought to be is the germ of the conflict. It is misleading -- although politically effective -- to speak of "verifying" what ought to be. Verification is not a means for achieving consensus because it importantly presumes consensus. Lacking some absolute authority or wide general agreement on the matter in question, the means for deciding the issue is politics. Little wonder that community participants come -- as Patterson and Czajkowski describe -- "to lobby for a particular vested interest." [4] And it is the need to maintain a language of consensus on points of agreement that generates "warm fuzzies" as objectives. The specific performance objective always runs the risk of appearing arbitrary because, by itself, it cannot capture the richness of the "warm", "fuzzy", politically acceptable goal statement.

Some specifics are now in order.

Needs Need Not Motivate

Let as consider first some cautions on the concept of need. We'll begin with a point made decades ago by B. Paul Komisar: the term need is ambiguous.[5] Patterson and Czajkowski use it to indicate the difference between a desirable and an actual state of affairs. There is also a psychological usage in which need is used to indicate a lack which -- by postulation, at least -- motivates some behavior. And there are needs which are different from both of these kinds, e.g. a lack of some vitamin which may never manifest itself in behavior but rather as some physiological symptom.

One might attempt to stretch things a bit and hazard that it is the lack of what ought to be that motivates some people to political action, a movement to improve the schools, for instance. This connection between what ought to be and motivation is extremely tenuous. Unlike a psychological need, such "moral needs" presume not only that someone perceives them as such, but also that he is ready to act on them. Most importantly, those needs which may motivate some persons politically may not motivate any educationally relevant behavior. (While all educational decision is political, the converse is not true.)

I risk importuning the reader with platitudes only because they often go unappreciated by those who have real power to commit public monies for would-be educational improvements. A case in point is a Teacher Corps program undertaken in Philadelphia in the 1970's which was premissed upon the ambiguity of the term need that has been set out above. The directors of the program assumed that a needs assessment would generate motivation for learning. It may be worth a few words to examine the underlying argument.

The primary goal of the Temple University Teacher Corps program was to increase the basic skills of the students in the serviced junior high school[6]. A needs assessment questionnaire was distributed to students and parents who were asked to indicate how important they thought it was for students in school "to learn about" certain topics. No attempt at goal validation -- an important part of Patterson's and Czajkowski's scheme -- was made.[7] What exactly "learning about a topic" meant was left unclear, nor were questions about who was to be responsible for these "learning-about"-- outcomes posed to those questioned. This is because the designers of the program approached it with the view that low academic achievement is caused primarily by lack of curricular relevance to the "real-life" concerns of the pupils. "The student must feel that he is learning something that is worthwhile to him, both in his day-to-day life and in his future life."[8]

The questionnaire -- written only in English -- was considered to have identified pressing and immediate student and community problems and concerns. One hundred twenty-five students and fifty adults responded. The school had sixteen hundred students, over half of which fell within the Title I classification for low income: they were twenty-five per cent Puerto Rican, twenty per cent Black and the rest White.

"Finding a job" came out first of the fifty topics on the questionnaire; "crime: stopping it and its effects", second. Consideration does not seem to have been taken of response-bias due to the social-desirability of certain items: "concern for old people" ranked eleventh above nineteenth "your legal rights". Ranked thirty-third was "sex education", which eleven per cent of female parents classified as "not important at all."

How was learning about something supposed to relate to skills development? The Teacher Corps authors conceived of basic skills as "constituents" of the "issues and concerns."[9] Thus is the stage set for some conceptual sleight-of-hand. The slogan fairly shouted itself out: Relevance motivates!

The practical classroom question is "What is it that will motivate a student through the less than fascinating experience of skill acquisition?" The Teacher Corps answered, "Inasmuch as the students become aware that the topics they are learning about relate to the needs identified on the questionnaire, so are they motivated to acquire basic skills." Needs-derived structured community experiences in a variety of adult roles, the authors assured us, "will enhance student concept development and basic skills achievement."[10] The what-ought-to-be-needs of the questionnaire, identified by at most 125 students, had become the psychological motivators in the classroom for 1600!

The confusion here, while obvious, is worth schematizing; I fear its like is not at all restricted to one school district in the past. To begin, need was defined -- in the manner of Patterson and Czajkowski -- by consensus as a difference between what is and what ought to be. Finding a job, for example, is not being learned about at school and, it ought to be. (Presumably, it can be.) Let as call a need of this general consensual type a need1.

But what the teacher in the classroom needs, is for the student to be motivated to come to class on time, to stop fooling around with members of the opposite sex while there, to forget the traumas of the schoolyard and the delights of the firetower long enough to work on the individualized packets or whatever that need1 has generated. What is needed is a need2 which generates behavior of the appropriate type. But only the identification of need1 with need2 -- in the face of much psychology -- will do the trick. The Teacher Corps theorists put it this way: "Students will improve basic skills performance... as a result of relating them to student and, community problems and concerns." [11]

The assumption that a need1 is a need2 is not entirely to be credited to wishful thinking. There is a real dilemma here. Suppose we could in fact identify a need2. One rather suspects that it would not be accepted by parents and teachers, or even the students themselves, as a need1, a lack of something that ought to be. The Teacher Corps needs assessment found "sex education" ranked thirty-third but still higher than "fixing machines" at thirty-fourth and "typing" at fortieth; "drawing and, painting" -- to my experience generally liked by the average junior-high-schooler -- ranked forty-sixth![12]

Social and political motivators --needs1? -- are not necessarily individual learning motivators in much the same way an average of performances is not an individual performance. This average relates more tenuously yet, if at all, to the motives for that individual performance. Consequently, a needs1 assessment is not relevant to the identification of needs2. In the real world of education/politics, however, the needs1 assessment may be the tool for achieving political consensus. But to wager anything more on it is folly.

Which Needs Are Assessed?

For our purposes, we need not identify more than three types of need. Needs1 are the discrepancies between what is and what ought to be. Needs2 are (postulated) psychological motivators. Some examples of needs2 might be needs for love, sex, achievement or reduction of anxiety. A third group I will designate needs3 , fundamental needs. A need is fundamental if its fulfillment is not merely a means to some other end, the lack of which would therefore be considered more fundamental. A fundamental need does not admit easily of the question, "For what?"

"He needs a dime."

"For what?"

The question comes easily and. innocently enough. The need of a dime is not fundamental. But consider

"He needs air!"

"For what?", asked the villain, watching the unfortunate wretch wriggle and gasp.

It might seem that what is a fundamental need is a matter of contention: "A complete human being cannot live without Art!" I wish to exclude from this class, however, any possibly disputable item so that in talking about a need3 we may presume a consensus. The class may in fact have very few members. That there are some fundamental needs is presupposed by any attempt to rationally settle differences.

Needs1 assessment is a political instrument. The very fact of its being called "needs assessment" rather than something like "goal selection" shows this. The struggle to promote goals is masked with a persuasive appeal to "needs". One may eschew another's goals; it is hard, publicly, to deny his "needs."

Out of the political context, we normally treat needs as relative to individuals; to speak of group needs is already to presume a minimal political goal: group survival. Personal needs are mistakable. You may think you need what you do not, or vice versa. Such a judgement presumes the existence of some authority through whom one is saved from self-delusion. That no one stands able to assume such authority with respect to "group needs", makes obvious their extended, quasi-metaphorical, political nature. The persuasiveness of the terminology "needs assessment" derives from the fact that it trades off on a confusion between needs1 and needs3. The term is public relations jargon; the assessment deals neither with psychological nor fundamental needs.

A Question of Authority

Something that is desired may not be desirable. We do not hesitate to remove the desired matches from the child's hand; do we have the courage, better, the right to deny an adult, a community what it desires? We do and we must. But such is not done easily. And it is precisely to avoid public confrontation on just this issue that needs assessment with its esoteric, public-relation's-oriented name and its procedures and complexities and rituals serves a purpose. To the extent that needs assessment deals with needs1, it does not address itself to needs2 and needs3. This is to say, in plain unvarnished English, that "needs assessment" has little, at best, to do with needs of any motivational import . (Too long an immersion in these theoretical currents tends to dilute one's good common sense: for us plain folks, needs1 is purely stipulatively defined and a bit overwrought at that.)

Few educators are unaware of a child's needs, i.e. needs2 and needs3. But it is because we lack either the courage or the power or both that we do our needs assessments rather than tell the community, the parents, bluntly, "See to it that your children come to school with the necessary habits and attitudes, in the proper state of health and with an adequate belief in their own competence, undisturbed and disabused of any illusions that learning is always pure joy, and we will take them with full responsibility for what they learn in school."

The bitter irony is this: parents are no more in a position to see to these prerequisites than we are. In avoiding confrontation by using needs assessment we may just avoid apprising each other of what might be done to help the child to adjust to the rigors of the school environment and to help the school adjust to the facts of student variability.

The problems involved in conducting a needs assessment reflect in microcosm the problems in the relationship of the school to society at large. The term "needs assessment" is a political euphemism the persuasive effect of which derives from its apparent solicitude. The presentation of problems as though they were their own solutions is as disingenuously euphemistic. This persuasive manouver is commonly used in many areas of Education: a description of a desired outcome is treated as though it were the name of a procedure. Some hoary examples come easily to mind. How do we get children to learn? Motivation. How do we improve teaching? Dedication. How do we assess learning objectives? Quantification and mensuration. How do we improve curriculum? Verification of what ought to be and specification of performance criteria.

We cannot expect to do better than limp along with needs assessment. It involves inherently problematic, because political, procedures[l3] For some purposes, of course, this is not a weakness, but a strength. It is the razzle-dazzle that distracts from the runner with the ball. The problem for each of us individually though is not only that we're not all on the same team, but that we are often adversaries: we are parents and interested public as well as educators. As educators, however, we do not constitute a closed priesthood.

But needs assessment with its gratuitous complexities and special language appears to work to do little more than to maintain an appearance of professionalism with which to ward of the criticisms of a less than informed and understanding public. The tragedy is that possibly soluble problems forego solution because we, the educators, with our needs assessment and other paraphernalia of social science manquè have succumbed to the counsel of despair.

See also,
The Need for and Possibilities of Educational Reform



1. Jerry 1. Patterson and. Theodore 3. Czajkowski, "District Needs Assessment: One Avenue to Program Improvement", Phi Delta Kappan 58, 4, pp. 327 - 329 (December 1976)

2. Ibid. 328

3. Ibid. 329

4. Ibid. 328

5. B. Paul Komisar, "Need' and the Needs-Curriculum", in B. Othaniel Smith and Robert H. Ennis Language and Concepts in Education (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1961) pp. 24 - 42.

6. Temple University Teacher Corps, "Jones Junior High School Teacher Corps Project 1976-78", mimeographed, Roderick A. Hilsinger, Director

7. Information not contained in the publication mentioned in footnote six I got from conversations with project staff.

8. Ibid. 1.

9. Ibid. 4.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid. 11.

12. It is interesting to see what the first ten are: Finding a job, Crime:stopping it and its effects, Learning to read better, Taking responsibility, Getting along with family and other people, Health care, Cost of living and budgeting money, Money management, Math and the metric system, Surviving in school (rules and regulations)

13. Patterson and. Czajkowski concede the political impossibility of resolving the problems of setting performance levels and test score expectation. Op. cit. 328.