A version of this essay, entitled, "Possibility, Need and Educational Reform" appears in educational Horizons, Summer 2004.

The Need for and Possibilities of Educational Reform

©2004 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.


edited 9/3/11

Impossibilium nulla obligatio est
--There is no obligation to do impossible things.

Three common principles of need: option, probability, possibility

If all you need is a ride to work, even if cost is no object, you don't need a chauffeur-driven limousine, unless absolutely no other option is available. As a rule, available options constrain what we can reasonably claim to need. So, normally, we don't need a red fountain pen to merely write a note, or an HDTV to catch the nightly news. Similarly, you don't need to eat fried chicken to get protein in your diet; nor, ice cream, to get calcium.

None of us Earthlings needs an antidote for poisons only encountered on the moons of Jupiter. This is a second principle for judging need: low probabilities undermine our claims of need. So it is that most Americans do not need mustache wax, or a Hittite-Sumerian translating dictionary or a Father's Day present for their great-great-great-great-grandfather.

If you tell me you need to know the whole number that comes between seven and eight, I can tell you that there is no such number. Consequently, you can't need to know what you thought you did. Impossibilities preclude any claim to need.[2] So it is that you can't need a special cape to help you fly like Superman; or a vitamin to help you predict the future, or a potion to revivify the dead. (Even were we to encounter people who believed they could fly, or prognosticate, or reanimate, we would not say that that they needed such things, but only that they believed they did so.)

Reform Rhetoric: objective vs. advocated needs

Educational reformers of all stripes rely heavily on unexamined notions of possibility and need to promote their programs. Even the more reflective reform theorists tend to invoke slogans about "a student's potential," begging obvious questions of possibility. Part of the problem with the notion of potential, of course, is that there is often little agreement, even among experts, as to what a student is capable of at any point in his or her life. Or they might talk about a student's "being at risk," which presumes consensus on what goals are desirable and finesses questions about need. [3].

Also, advocates for particular educational reforms do a kind of rhetorical sleight-of-hand to promote their proposals: they conflate a useful distinction between objective needs and advocated needs. Objective needs are matters of logic or physics whether or not anyone cares about them. Gasoline is an objective need for most automobiles to function, whether or not we care that cars function. Explosive devices and instruments of harm are needed to promote terrorism. This is true despite our not wanting to see terrorism promoted.

Advocated needs are those objective needs tied to advocated goals. The point of treating advocated needs as if they were "merely" objective is that it helps hide the fact that we are advocating the goals. For example, "Service to the community" comes across as highly desirable in most discussions about possible student activities: perhaps I can hitch my particular wagon, "Service learning," to that particular star. Declaring things as "needs" where associated goals are controversial often helps avoid deeper questions of option, probability and possibility.

Educational Reform: the supporting dogmas

There are a number of beliefs which, though lacking scientific or, even, deep philosophical support, are invoked to undergird the effort to keep schoolpeople working away at tasks that, wiser, more insightful persons might just consider beyond the range of our practical knowledge.

Across the country teachers, though seldom well trained in scientific method, bereft of acquaintance with causal theory, and lacking controlled conditions to conduct longitudinal experiments, are invited to speculate as to the "causes" of the problem behavior of their students, under the proviso that any such causes be found (i.e. believed, hoped) to be within the ability of the teacher to control. This "functional behavioral analysis," judged as generally successful via evaluations as haphazard as its training procedures, is one program that serves to bolster the hopes of educational reformers in the face of otherwise unpromising experience.

Another major phantasm driving public education reform in America is the idea that schools will improve when and to the extent that teachers learn how to address the individual needs of each child. Which needs? These are not specified.[4]

How does a teacher know that a child's needs have not been met? When the child is disruptive and/or does not progress academically. The teacher is enjoined to do something, anything -- not illegal, immoral and, presumably, fattening -- until the child behaves in class and progresses academically. Is it any wonder that teachers, especially, special education teachers, drop out of the profession at such a high rate?[5]

Perhaps the most bizarre Article of Educator Faith is the idea that we as educators should be constrained in our practice, not by research, or even moral tradition, but by what random intimidators in our society can force down the throats of all-too-often pusillanimous public school officials. Not far from where I live a senior class high school student was recorded on videocam for fifteen minutes selling drugs in the school building -- one of that kind of fortress that is ringed outdoors with signs to the effect that the school is a No-Drug Zone and that offenders will serve jail time. When the principal made a first move by informing the student's mother he would be excluded from graduation ceremonies, she made an immediate appeal to the school district CEO, a bright star in the constellation of nationally recognized educational reformers. The principal was told that because the mother had had a hard life, the boy would be permitted to walk in graduation. Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus!

What do educators need to do?

Public educators in all ranks are told that, because of their professional training and position, certain duties befall them. They need to do certain things, otherwise, educational reformers will step in to help them do it.

Educators, everyone tells us, need to stop griping about insufficient resources and -- in a tradition less and less recognized anymore by many in the non-reading television generations -- take their fish and loaf of bread and feed multitudes. (Forget the water into wine business: controlled substances are out of the question!) Are the swine possessed by demons? Drive them not into the sea, but, rather, into an inclusive classroom.

The reality: student needs, whatever ones may be real, are too many, too complex, and not generally agreed upon as a focus for educational effort. Therefore teachers either do not possess the means, or possess means of low probability of effect, or lack the practical options needed to address so-called student needs. The upshot: school reform programs tend to destroy the possibility of, and thus, the need for, school personnel to act as professional educators.

Related Articles:

What is the School's Moral Responsibility for a Student's Success?
Public School Reform: Mired in Metaphor
Politics, Consensus & Educational Reform

[1] BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY, 6th Ed. (13th Reprint 1998), p. 756

[2] See Edward G. Rozycki "Needs Assessment: a fraud?" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Needs.html See also, "Justice Through Testing" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Justice.html

[3] See Edward G. Rozycki "Identifying the 'at-risk' Student" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/AtRisk.html

[4] Suppose we used just Abraham Maslow's theory to specify needs. Would teachers be able to address anything in the first, second or even third levels of his hierarchy?

[5] See Richard M. Ingersoll "Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis." American Educational Research Journal, 37, no. 3 (2001): 499-534.