Originally published in educational Horizons Winter 1997. 61-63.
The day-to-day processes in American schools are particularly vulnerable to political interference. Curriculum comes and goes as public opinion changes on topics of interest. The computers bought in a burst of school board enthusiasm one year sit unused the next because no budget has been provided to keep them apace of changes in technology.
While most people will agree that there is much overlap between skill and luck, a full understanding of how inextricably bound the two are has yet to be attained. In principle the distinction seems clear. In skill situations there is a causal link between behavior and outcome. Thus, success in skill is controllable. Luck, on the other hand, is a fortuitous happening. Success in luck or chance activities is apparently uncontrollable. (Is) this distinction generally recognized (?). (I)t is not. While people may pay lip service to the concept of chance, they behave as though chance events are subject to control. ----- Ellen J. Langer, "The Illusion of Control" 1
However, to the extent that schools perform what are seen as needed technical functions, to that extent they can hope to resist political pressure. The promise of educational technology has been the promise of educational decision-making based solely on consideration of pedagogical efficiency: the development of a true Factory of Learning. But are schools in their essential character very much like factories?
To be certified, teachers have to take professional education courses. Goodlad writes that many teachers feel, however, that their training in pedagogy leaves much to be desired. They complain that the coursework emphasis on content area studies doesn't prepare them to function in actual schools.2 The teacher's problem is this: how do you cause learning in students, given the realities of the schooling situation? It is hard to deny that teachers in some circurnstances cause students to learn. On the other hand, that causation is difficult to control and when it doesn't occur, explanations abound to rationalize the failure.
Can Schools Be Efficient?
". . . [T]he only measure of the efficiency of a cooperative system is its capacity to survive." ------- Chester I. Barnard, The Functions of the Executive3Under the Factory image of the school, teachers are expected to be technicians. A teacher's goal as a technician is to maximize student achievement as efficiently as possible. Educational technology is looked to to enhance technical efficiency. School instructional policies embodied in a curriculum are thought to provide a program to direct daily teaching. Every experienced teacher knows activities that bring students to learn and that some are more efficient than others. What is involved in this notion of efficiency?
Henry D. Levin suggests the following criteria of efficiency for use with a technical conception of teaching 4
Knowledge of the Technical Production Process
This is what methods courses try to get at. Many teachers are superb technicians and get results with many different kinds of children. The problem is that it is difficult to say explicitly just what it is they do. This mystery is why many feel teaching is more an art than a science.5 Unfortunately, pedagogical knowledge is still greatly a part of the informal culture of teaching. Many of the causal factors in pedagogy await discovery. Chance often plays a great part. It is difficult to generalize from one successful classroom the circumstances that led to the particular success observed. Also, the application of research results is often constrained by political and moral concerns. This fact tends to make not only lay persons but even educators believe that good pedagogy is a mysterious matter, and to exaggerate charisma.6 In the popular media, good teachers are evangelists, magicians, or entertainers.
Substantial Manager Control over the Input Mix
If we take this to mean that the teacher or principal controls who will be taught, the reality in schools is that such control is minimal. Public schools must take whoever applies. What the teacher can do, if resources permit it, is to control student grouping within the classroom. This seems to be an important factor in school success,7 but it is far from the ability to reject students who promise little.
A Basically Competitive Environment.
A competitive environment requires that incentives exist for experimenting to find efficient means of production. Outcomes should not be indifferent to technique, which is the point of proposals to provide educational vouchers so parents can select schools they believe are more effective. There are two problems here. Schools, private schools as well, avoid such competition. Secondly, and more basic, it is not clear what would count as more efficient technique. Is a technique more efficient if it brings a few students to higher achievement, or if it brings more students up to a lower common standard? At whose cost should someone else's achievement be gained? These are at base moral, not technical, questions.
Managerial Knowledge of Input and Output Prices
A standard method of gauging costs and benefits is needed so that a teacher can decide among different techniques on the basis of those costs and benefits. Not only does such a standard method not exist, but both law and tradition militate against this practice in the school. For example, "teaching to the middle" is a practice teachers engage in because it shows greatest gain for a given amount of effort, i.e, it is most efficient. But special education laws and moral considerations often direct teachers to expend effort on students whose achievement will cost -- measured in teacher hours -- many times that of a normal student. This speaks to the next criterion of efficiency.
The Goal of Maximizing Output
This goal is not a priority in schools. Both moral and legal restraints prevent its realization?not to mention a lack of consensus on what would count as a measure of input and output. Teaching efficiency, for example, is constrained by considerations of morality and status. Let's look more closely at this point.
Consider two motivational devices of ancient though ill repute: the torture chamber and the brothel. No one doubts that certain kinds of behavior could be motivated by the use of torture or the promise of sex. No doubt standard learning outcomes could be enhanced through these means. Why are they not used? Most people would find them morally objectionable, particularly if children were involved.
Teachers are careful not to single out or group students by race, sex, socioeconomic status (SES), or other characteristics possibly pertinent to school achievement. Although such grouping might increase the efficiency of instruction, other outcomes are feared, such as stereotyping. In fact, there are legal barriers to grouping students on the basis of these characteristics.
Not only means but ends come under moral restriction. Who would teach any of the following in an American public school: cheating at cards, safecracking, mugging, or begging? Why are the following economically highly useful things not taught in the public schools: slaughtering pigs, fixing toilets, or handicapping horse races? Why not the following pastimes: mumblety-peg, tree climbing, half-ball, or solitaire? The reason? Some of them are thought inappropriate to the school, out of place because of their status as crude, low-class, or trivial. To include something in the school curriculum is, willy-nilly, to make a public declaration as to its morality and social status.
Clear Signals of Success or Failure
For the reasons mentioned above, there are no such signals that enjoy wide acceptance. Good grades or bad grades, for example, are only a sign of success or failure if you trust the process that generates them. The fact is that parents, by and large, trust this process. (However, this trust gives no advantage to school people when the public believes that situations beyond the power of the school to deal with can be treated by a mere addition to the curriculum.)
We can begin to understand why parents, for one group, do not think of the school as a factory. This factory image does not seem to jibe with the considerations that actually underlie schooling practice. The common complaint that students are insufficiently interested in their studies identifies an important factor, motivation, as beyond the control of the classroom teacher.
Lecture is the most common teaching technique. When students fail to learn, we seldom look to see if the lecture technique can be replaced by something else. Rather, we look to SES, culture, race, and parenting to account for the failure. Those factors, too, are beyond our control! The quote from Langer at the beginning of this essay indicates that people tend to treat chance events as controllable. But it might work just as well the other way. Events controllable only in ways forbidden by tradition or ethics may be treated as chance events.
Despite the enthusiasm that technology will enhance the efficiency of schools, the realities look quite different. The conditions for the technical control of the pedagogical process are routinely -- for moral and political reasons -- impeded in the school. This doesn't necessarily mean that technological change will not occur. What might happen is that the school in our society may come to be transformed from the moral and political element that it is today to something quite different.
1. Ellen J. Langer, "The Illusion of Control" in Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, ed. Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 231.
2. See Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984), 183-186.
3. Chester I. Barnard, The Functions of the Executive (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939), 44.
4. Henry D. Levin, "Concepts of Economic Efficiency and Educational Production," in Education as an Industry, ed. J. Froomkin, D. Jamison, and R. Radner (Cambridge, Mass.: Balinger, 1976).
5. Cf. H. Dawe, "Teaching: A Performing Art" Phi Delta Kappan 66, no. 3: 548-552.
6. Cf. Edward G. Rozycki, Review of Teaching with Charisma by Lloyd Duck, Educational Studies 13, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 70-73.
7. Cf. Rebecca Barr and Robert Dreeben, How Schools Work (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983), 69-104.