An earlier version of this essay appears in educational Horizons, Fall 2007.

Pursuing Educational Targets:
What is the Collateral Damage?

©2007 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

Links Checked 3/14/18

Broadly defined, collateral damage is unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment or personnel occurring as a result of ... actions directed against targeted ... forces or facilities. [1]

Do Schools Produce Collateral Damage?

Do schools prepare their charges for the world of work, or for life, or anything? Is it all to the students' benefit? Almost a prior century [2] of school criticism, based on little more than hyperbole, was answered by Lauren Resnick in 1987.[3] She examined how very different the demands of school were from those of performing on the job. Schools, she found, emphasize isolated mental exercise; by contrast, on-the-job applications are more likely to involve teamwork supported by appropriate tools.

Basically, in school learning tends to be "theoretical" rather than "applications focused." That this bias exists yet today is indicated by controversies such as that between proponents of "Conceptual Mathematics" and "Computational Mathematics" or the still strong resistance to letting students use calculators to do their classwork, or receive realistic motivators, e.g. cash, for their pains. [4]

The following chart summarizes Resnick's findings.

Differences in




Individual, isolated

Cooperative, teamwork

Use of Tools

No tools, "pure mentation"

Tools for thinking, manipulation of media


Manipulation of symbols

Contextualized reasoning

Specificity of Learning

Highly generalized

Situation specific

Reaction to Breakdown


Unadaptive, stymied

Fig. 1 Learning in School and Out (Resnick, 1987)

The sole advantage Resnick seems to indicate is that traditionally-schooled students are more adaptive when the systems they are working in break down. But should every student, even a large minority of them be subjected to such curriculum? That they are seems to indicate an irrational use of resources on the part of those who run or support the schools. How often and how likely is it that our students will have to personally deal with a breakdown in our social and technical systems?

On Resnick's analysis, the public school curriculum is more akin to catastrophe survival training than preparation for any likely crisis the students may encounter. Must every student be prepared to reconstruct our civilization from its ruins?[5] What costs are borne by the student, when he or she is subject to one kind of curriculum rather than another? In the best case, where all curricular "targets" have been hit, we may still wonder what the collateral damage has been.

Leadership Hyperbole and Organizational Needs

Organizational leaders at all levels rationalize their and their subordinates' activities in terms of organizational missions. A mission is what is pursued -- purportedly -- provided assumed resources remain in place; otherwise, organizational activity defaults to marking time, protecting organizational functioning from perceptions of "inefficiency." When the army you have is not up to the mission you've proclaimed, cutbacks in goals pursued, though seldom in goals proclaimed, is the normal process. The "needs" of the organization trump the needs of the individuals -- at least in the lower echelons -- who serve or are served by it.[6]

A critical note is pertinent here: How do we determine what "organizational needs" are? Organizations are not people. People sweat and need oxygen; not so, organizations. It is relatively easy to identify human needs in terms of physiology and developmental theory. (It becomes somewhat harder when psychology is invoked and even more so when ethical or moral theories are involved.) Here, Maslow's hierarchy of needs helps, even though there may be much that is debatable. Human needs such as food, air, water, companionship, and the like are readily identifiable. In addition, they can be prioritized relatively easily.

But on what basis do we determine "organizational needs"? An organization is a reified abstract object. As a legal entity an organization does not even need members. So, such things as CEO's, and workers, and buildings and salaries to house them are not clearly necessary, unless some resource-granting group settles first that the organization is to perform a function or a mission.

Imagine building a school from scratch. But start with an ideal curriculum for that school to pursue. (Easier said, than agreed upon.) That will give you some sense of the resources you will need to make the school work.

(Some years ago I asked a group of experienced teachers to engage in this exercise. After one hour they had not discussed one curricular item, or offered one description of the population they might serve. Instead they had started by naming organizational roles typical of a large high school and were involved in negotiating such things as how many counselors were needed relative to how many math teachers or vice-principals. When I suggested they throw out all preconceptions about how a school should look, they suggested in turn that we go out to lunch.)

The really hard work is to examine possible trade-offs when resources get tight or when enthusiasm waxes great. Should a music teacher be dropped to save a math position? Should recess be abolished to provide more test-taking practice? Should hours of homework be given to support the learning process? Should boys and girls be put in separate classrooms? These changes in the curriculum are often promoted with much enthusiasm but seldom, if at all, with any evaluation of costs and benefits. In schooling, targets pursued are seldom evaluated for collateral damage.

Avoidance of collateral damage is invoked, though not named as such, in any argument against, for example, having children read literature, be it of the highest traditional stature, e.g. Huck Finn, that appears to deprecate a minority group. Similarly, collateral damage is the issue when parents complain that "conceptual math" impedes their children's learning computational skills. Why the obscurity? Because, despite the best of intentions, normal organizational functioning can generate collateral damage. And organizational governors do not invite close examination into it -- it might give rise to criticism.

At Least, Do No Harm

The Hippocratic Oath is believed to guide, somewhat, the practice of physicians and other medical personnel. But in fact, physicians often report that doing what to their knowledge is scientifically best for the patient leaves them open to lawsuit for failure to provide treatment. Patients expect to be cured, no matter what. When it doesn't happen, they often sue the doctor. If the doctor, fearing side effects of a not-yet-established treatment, has deviated from what a lawyer can convince a lay jury is "standard" practice, the doctor runs substantial monetary, even penal, risk. The collateral damage from overtreatment, even when not serving the health of the patient, is less risky to the physician, than any scientifically based caution on the part of the physician.[7]

Educators have no Hippocratic oath. In education, baptizing one's efforts to change schools with the word, "reform," seems believed to ward off collateral damage. Like governmental and corporate leaders, educators have recourse to a vast vocabulary of charms, spells and incantations -- mistaken for technical, "scientific" terms -- to obscure the gap between what they can do and what is expected of them.[8]

Twenty years ago, Gary Clabaugh and I coauthored a paper called, "The costs and benefits of educational reform."[9] We submitted it to several journals only to have it rejected without comment. When we actually wrote to the editors of one of the more prestigious journals and asked for specific reasons why it was rejected, the reply was that the editorial board felt that it was mean-spirited to ask of any educational reform what its costs and benefits were. Even today many in education find it uncomfortable to contemplate the damages that program proposals, especially, well-intentioned "reforms," might wreak on our children.[10]


[1] USAF INTELLIGENCE TARGETING GUIDE AIR FORCE PAMPHLET 14- 210 Intelligence1 FEBRUARY 1998 Available at . I removed the words, "military" and "forces", respectively, at the ellipses in order to adapt the metaphor.

[2] The editors of the Ladies Home Journal in May, 1911, complained, "on every hand the signs are evident of a widely growing distrust of the effectiveness of the present educational system in this country" -- cited in Raymond E. Callahan Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962) p. 48.

[3] Lauren B. Resnick, "Learning in School and Out," Educational Researcher, December 1987.

[4] See for example, in the Seattle Times, "New-math curriculum stirs passions among Bellevue parents, teachers." 

Also, see Joseph Berger, On Education. "Some Wonder if Cash for Good Test Scores Is the Wrong Kind of Lesson" New York Times 08/08/2007

[5] Recapitulation as a focus for curriculum has a long and debated history. See Kieran Egan "Conceptions of Development in Education" Philosophy of Education 1998 . Accessible at

[6] See Edward G. Rozycki, "Mission vs. Function. Limits to Schooling Aspiration." educational Horizons Summer 1994, pp. 163 - 165 . Available online at

[7] See Gerd Gigerenzer, (New York: Penguin, 2007) Gut Feelings. The intelligence of the unconscious. Chapter 9. "Less is more in health care."

[8] See Lee Clarke Mission Improbable. Using fantasy documents to tame disaster (Chicago: UChicago Press, 1999). Also, Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki, "Slogans in Education" available at

[9] This article was finally published 
in educational Horizons Fall/Winter 1989. A later version, "Politics, Consensus and Educational Reform" is available at

[10] Teacher themselves are hardly invulnerable to collateral damage. See "Late Night Thoughts on the Death of Christa McAuliffe" at