Dissecting School Benefits: a typology of conflicting goals
On what basis should school personnel be evaluated?

© 1992 Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki

edited 9/5/19

In 1988 Americans paid about $185 billion dollars to operate the nation's elementary and secondary schools -- a figure greater than the Gross National Product of Mexico. Higher education cost an additional $124 billion -- fourteen times the national budget of Ireland. (Digest of Educational Statistics 1988, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C)

To compare, in 2006 Americans paid some $526.6 billion for K-12 public education, alone. (US Census Bureau News Release, Tuesday, April 1, 2008) Thatís exceeds oil rich Saudi Arabiaís entire Gross Domestic Product by 41%, and is nearly double the GDP of newly prosperous Ireland. (World Development Indicators Database, World Bank, 1 July 2007).

School reformers point to these enormous expenditures and complain that we are not getting our money's worth. They may be right. But we will never know for sure if we continue our habit of vague, contradictory and hopelessly optimistic expectations regarding what schooling can accomplish. Some of this cockeyed optimism is understandable. When it comes to children, our hopes for a better tomorrow encourage a particularly nutty breed of optimism. Even life's most grizzled veterans find their hopes triumphing over their experience.

But schooling has become far too important and to expensive to be totally given over to wishful thinking. At least some realism is required. To that end we would like to lay out three distinctions that clarify what schools can and cannot do.

Absolute and Positional Benefits

Our first distinction is that the benefits of schooling tend to be either absolute or positional. The difference is straightforward. Absolute benefits retain their value no matter how many people acquire them. Positional benefits, on the other hand, lose value as more people get them. (Fred Hirsch carefully develops the absolute/positional benefit distinction in Social Limits to Growth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. Thomas Green uses similar considerations to detail educational benefits in Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System.Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1980. Philosophers would likely mark the distinction, "absolute-positional" as "intrinsic-extrinsic.")

Figure 1 illustrates this distinction using a few general examples not directly dependent on schooling.

Figure 1

Remember, the value of a positional benefit is related to its scarcity. If diamonds as big as boulders were strewn everywhere they would be nearly worthless. The absolute benefit of self-esteem, on the other hand, remains valuable even if it becomes super-abundant. That is what makes self-esteem an absolute, rather than a positional, benefit.

Here is a sample of the way we can use this distinction to sort out school-related benefits.

Figure 2

Notice, for example, that "Joy in Reading" is placed at the "absolute benefit" end of the continuum. That is because such joy retains its value regardless of how many people share it. In contrast, an "A" in Reading is a positional benefit. If everyone were to get one, the grade would have little value.

Fundamental as the difference between absolute and positional benefits is, it often escapes attention. For instance, nearly everyone seems to be trying to figure out ways to get young people to stay in school. The reasoning seems to be that if they do, a lot of things will be better.

President George Herbert Bush's first State of the Union message provides a recent example. The President announced the goal of increasing the U. S. high school graduation rate to "at least 90%." At first blush, this seems a laudable objective even though about 86% of young adults ages 25-29 already have a diploma or its equivalent. ( The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America, Youth and America's Future: The William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family and Citizenship, January 1988, p. 2.) But those who set such goals fail to consider that the diploma is a positional benefit and when any positional benefit increases in abundance it loses value. A high school diploma is already twice as common as it was in 1940, so it is hardly surprising that it has lost all but defensive utility as a tool for securing a stable, good paying jobs. Raising the graduation rate to 90% would only make this situation worse. Prospective employers will simply find some other way to preliminarily screen job applicants -- probably by insisting on associate degrees, or even four years of college.

Academically capable kids who can afford higher education would cope with this depreciation in the value of a diploma like they do now -- by increasing their post-high-school credentialing. But what about the the youngsters who have to compete for jobs in an intensively competitive economy without such credentials? It seems they will be stuck with an even more worthless piece of paper that won't open any doors. To make matters worse, decent jobs which do not require advance training are rapidly disappearing. (About 1.7 million manufacturing jobs disappeared between 1979 and 1985. More today.)

Of course, the President and other proponents of increasing the graduation rate might be assuming that an increase in the percentage of young people awarded diplomas will be paralleled by an increase in certain skills or in absolute benefits such as a passion for productive functioning or a devotion to knowledge. But assumption is the mother of most foul-ups. Why should we assume anything of the sort when it is quite clear that possession of a high school diploma does NOT presently guarantee much of anything in the way of skills or attitudes?

Perhaps it would be better to introduce more rigorous standards and reduce the high school graduation rate. Greater scarcity would increase the diploma's value and youngsters who cannot pay for four years of college could use the fact of graduation to get a decent job. Reducing the graduation rate would produce additional benefits. For instance, youngsters who want to learn would less likely be prevented from doing so by the classroom disruptions of those who do not. Moreover, taxpayers would save thousands of dollars each time a reluctant scholar was eliminated from the roles or existing resources could be concentrated on the needs of those who remain.

Of course toughening graduation requirements might increase welfare roles or encourage still more crowded prisons. But one suspects that, at best, the present arrangement only postpones these expenditures.

Distinguishing between absolute and positional benefits encourages other insights. For instance, teachers often pour their hearts into a lesson and then find that the only thing their students want to know is," Is this on the test?" What is going on here is that the teacher is offering the students the absolute benefit of knowledge when all they want is the positional benefit of a good grade.

Divisible and Indivisible Benefits

Educational benefits can also be classified as divisible or indivisible. Divisible benefits are those which some can enjoy without sharing them with others. A candy bar, a lovely house, a new Jaguar, a high school diploma or a teaching certificate are all divisible benefits. Indivisible benefits, on the other hand, must be enjoyed by all if they are to be enjoyed by any because exclusion is simply not practical. If, for example,the earth's ozone layer can be preserved, this ultimately benefits every human. It would be practically impossible to prevent even the humblest from enjoying the benefits that accrue from its conservation.

Figure 2 illustrates this divisible-indivisible distinction. Notice how changing the distinction rearranges the examples from Figure 1.

Figure 2

Note that equality and equity are classed as indivisible benefits. This is because if some citizens are more equal than others, then we have inequality. Clean air and clean water are also on the indivisible side of things because of planetary interdependence. National competitiveness is placed nearly mid-way between divisible and indivisible. This is because improved national competitiveness promotes greater prosperity for many, but not all Americans. Note that benefits, such as consumer goods, gold, real estate, a high school diploma or personal knowledge, are listed as divisible. So to are an "A" in reading and enjoyment of reading. Clearly, one person can enjoy them both while others are without either benefit

Predictably, the rhetoric which supports public schooling tends to emphasize its indivisible benefits while minimizing or ignoring the divisible. But we have seen that schooling provides a mixture of both. Given this, should we weight an administrative evaluation in favor of one or the other of these types of benefits? If not, should we treat them as co-valent, or just pretend that school time and resources are unlimited and that we need not choose?

Divisible school benefits also rightly generate special concerns about fairness or equity. Many Americans expect that what schools do for one, they will do for everyone. These expectations for a just division of school benefits places a major burden on school administrators: that of trying to provide equitable treatment and insuring that divisible benefits are distributed fairly. Sadly, this is often beyond the resources they command. Should it figure in their evaluation anyway?

It might seem that the pursuit of indivisible benefits through schooling would be far less problematic. But because resources are limited, Americans disagree about which indivisible benefits educators should put first. Some favor giving priority to national defense, for example, while others favor priorities relating to the environment. Is this consideration relevant to administrative evaluation?

The divisible-indivisible distinction focuses our attention on who will benefit from school reform. Take, for example, the famous report of the Presidential Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk. In the words of the Commission, the chief benefit of the scholastic excellence this reform report promotes is, "... improving America's ability to compete in world markets." They claim this to be an indivisible benefit by asserting that all Americans would gain from improving our economic competitiveness relative to other nations. But would they?

Certainly, a lot of us will gain if the Nation becomes more competitive. Indeed, we might even safely say that most of us have a stake in our national capacity for meeting foreign competition. But so long as the wealth of the U.S. is distributed as unevenly as it is, see Figure 3, some Americans have a great deal more to gain from improved international competitiveness than others.

Figure 3

We see from Figure 3 that the top 20% of the population of the U.S. owns or controls three quarters of all the wealth in the nation. In contrast the bottom 20% have less than 0.2% to divide between them. (Lester Thurow, Generating Inequality. (New York: Basic Books, 1975) Given this distribution, it is not difficult to appreciate that improving American competitiveness is a divisible benefit. Moreover, we can be pretty certain who will get the lion's share.

We must also remember that academic talent and determination to excel are distributed unevenly across the population. Because of this, excellence in schooling is going to be more costly for some than it is for others. For example, mentally retarded youngsters will enjoy little immediate gain and could end up paying quite a few of the costs. Various minority groups could also end up in a similar situation.

How should we evaluate an administrator who refuses to support aspects of the drive for educational excellence on these grounds? Is that the sort of thing we would want to give or deny points for?

Symbolic and Substantial Benefits

One thing becomes quite clear from our discussion of divisible and indivisible benefits: every American does not and will not benefit equally from schooling. (Nor does everyone pay the same costs.) There is, however, an additional consideration. It is that some benefits are much more substantial than others.

Substantial benefits are those also recognized as benefits by people who are not members of a specific group or committed to the values of that group. Dollars are an example. One need not be an American to recognize their value. They can be exchanged for goods or services the world over. Symbolic benefits are very different. They only have value within a particular group or among people committed to the values of that group. A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization would hardly value a Israeli medal for valor. Similarly, while students at Roosevelt Middle School might well value the "R" pin that school officials bestow for academic excellence, that same pin would be little more than an oddity at nearby Keith Middle School.

Like divisible and indivisible benefits, substantial and symbolic benefits can be arranged on a continuum. Figure 4 illustrates this by rearranging the examples previously used in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 4

Note that an "A" on an elementary school report card has little exchange value outside of a restricted community. Similarly, a hug has little exchange value outside a family or close circle of friends. Most medals or trophies are similarly circumscribed in value. (Olympic medals are a conspicuous exception.) Diplomas, licenses and certificates are more substantial.

A prime measure of the substantiality of any benefit is whether it can be used in an exchange among groups. This means that substantiality depends upon broad consensus, particularly upon consensus about values. (Substantial benefits are also most likely to be seen within groups as instrumental, means, rather than ends. Symbolic benefits, on the other hand, are valued within groups as intrinsic, valuable in and of themselves.)

In pointing out how substantiality depends upon very broad consensus we do not suggest that symbolic benefits should be taken lightly. Despite their limited recognition, people within specific communities often value them highly. For instance, members of juvenile gangs will often risk prison or death to win the respect of other gang members -- a symbolic benefit. Similarly, some youngsters will work diligently in school for years for parental approval -- another symbolic benefit.

Recognizing this substantial-symbolic distinction focuses our attention on important pedagogical considerations which are often neglected. It explains, for example, why some kids will work hard for grades while others just don't give a damn. The fact is that in some communities, such as those Michael J. Weiss in The Clustering of America, (New York: Harper & Row, 1988)) styles "Young Suburbia" or "Furs and Station Wagons," there is broad agreement, even among school children, that "A's" and high academic achievement test scores are desirable. In other words, they have symbolic value. But in "Public Assistance" or "Blue Collar Nursery" parents and their children often value other things.

Of course it would make a great deal of difference to some children, generally the ones doing most poorly now, if schools offered immediate substantial benefits for academic achievement. We noted earlier, for instance, that U.S. currency is widely recognized as a benefit by people who are not members of a specific group or committed to the values of that group. So if, instead of an "A" or "B," we offered cold cash, far more kids would be interested. Should an administrator who recommended trying this course of action be evaluated more positively?

Perhaps they should, but we doubt that they would. Many Americans, particularly middle Americans, react negatively to any suggestion that we should pay children for school achievement. This is predictable since strongly committed community members often maintain that symbolic benefits are of higher value than substantial ones. Perhaps they sense that substantial benefits undermine community by empowering options. (Possessors can, for example, affiliate with another community and still have the substantial goods recognized by that community in their possession.) Symbolic goods like grades, recognized only within a community, tend to bind one to that community and help preserve its traditions.

Of all the benefits which schooling generates, jobs for teachers, administrators, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and so forth, are among the most substantial. Schooling may or may not help Johnny to read, but it generates millions of jobs in trying. In fact, nearly 3 million Americans are employed as pre-school, elementary and secondary school teachers alone. (About 85% of them work in public schools.) That is over 3% of all the employment in the United States. (Because corporate training is often done on a part-time basis by employees with other responsibilities, no reliable employment figures are available. Clearly, it involves millions of persons.) And if we add in principals, counselors, school bus drivers, cafeteria cooks, and all other professional and non-professional school employment, we find that basic education generates about 8 % of all U.S. employment. (Arthur Applegate, et al, "Learning to Be Literate in America," The National Assessment of Educational Progress, The Nation's Report Card: Educational Testing Service, Princeton, New Jersey, 1987. )

Figure 5 illustrates the percent of total U.S. employees working in basic education. Higher education is not even included.

Figure 5

Of course, many other jobs are dependent on schooling. There is the employment generated by the 1.5 billion dollar a year text book industry, by firms producing instructional materials, by the fabricators of the nation's fleet of more than 400,000 school buses, and so forth, all depend upon the Nation's schools. Add in all these employees, and throw in the employment generated by higher education for good measure, and we find that well over 10% of all U.S. employment is generated by schooling.

Of course no school initiative, no matter how reasonable or even urgent, will survive if it threatens a substantial portion of this employment. Hence schooling is hard to reform because major changes requires moving around big bucks and all the jobs that go with them.

Matching Benefits and Needs

Too often schooling just cannot deliver the benefits some youngsters most desperately need. For instance, many children have far more immediate need for the substantial benefit of dollars than for the symbolic benefit of good grades. But dollars are something that educators are not in a position to give. Similarly, many children urgently require love -- a symbolic benefit best received from parents. Its absence torments and distorts their souls as little else can. Yet educators simply cannot supply this benefit. At best, with heroic effort and at great cost to themselves and the other youngsters in the class, they can only partially make up for its absence. Similarly, when a child disturbs the class routine expressing anger over his abandonment by a drug addicted parent, what kind of benefits can the administrator arrange that will make that child whole?

To what extent can an administrator reasonably be held responsible for what occurs in a school full of such children? And what sort of adjustment would we need to make in evaluative procedures to take this into account?

And if an administrator should even take the time to become involved at a personal level with the students of her school this inevitably cuts into the time that she can spent on other administrative tasks that are far more likely to be evaluated. Can we change this? Should we?

Competing Benefits

Any careful appraisal of the benefits of schooling reveals that they can and do conflict. For instance, we tend to value educational excellence. But we also like the idea of parity or equality. What, then, is to be done about children who are not capable of excellence? Or consider the matter of discipline. Even assuming community consensus regarding what counts as undesirable school behavior, we still face a predicament. If we put effectiveness first, adjusting treatment of the malefactors according to their individual motivations and in fact reduce the quantity of undesirable behavior, we can be criticized as unjust or inconsistent. In other words, that very sensitivity to individual difference which permits effective modification of behavior causes us to fail to produce the competing benefit of fairness, e.g. equal punishment for equal offense. If, on the other hand, we put fairness first, administering like penalties for like infractions, control of the undesired behavior may in fact be minimized. As a consequence discipline becomes ineffective.

Make no mistake. This dilemma is not and will not be resolved by any variety of school reform. The reality of the value pluralism which serves in this country as the matrix for our schooling enterprise means that a "reform" that pleases some will inevitably anger others. After all, the benefits different stakeholders expect from our schools have everything to do with their judgments about how well school reform is proceeding. This is utterly fundamental and will remain so no matter how many times we overlook it.

Those who advocate reforms almost always sidestep such considerations. The changes they advocate are offered as objective, i.e. independent of any matrix of values within which schooling can be practiced. They are not, never have been and never will be.

What Benefits Should Educators Promote?

The public schools do not teach reading, say some; they are weak in mathematics and science, say others; the able are given short shrift; youth are not required to do homework. Most of these criticisms are, at least in part, unjustified. ... [And] the fact that they are made often, with such venomous outrage, shows a vast ignorance of why schools were established in this country. No set of Americans in any generation in the past has ever argued for schools for such a puny purpose as the teaching of any set of specific subjects. The purposes were always more profoundly conceived and more broadly stated. --- Gladys Wiggin Education and Nationalism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962) p. vii

One cannot argue for the pursuit of divisible, positional benefits without raising legitimate worries about the fairness of their distribution. If administrators are to push for diplomas, for example, all students had better have an equal opportunity to get them.

This encourages wise administrators to articulate indivisible and absolute benefits as goals. Perhaps that is ultimately the role for any educator in our pluralistic democracy. They should be advocates for goals which are primarily indivisible and absolute. In this manner they may serve to balance the natural press for divisible and positional benefits which results in a hopelessly lopsided distribution of benefits, undermining both motivation for achievement and continuance of our basic freedoms.

Recognizing our basic commitment as advocates of these broader social benefits requires that we reconceptualize both the scope and role of evaluation throughout our schools. Failing this, administrative evaluation threatens to become no more than a ritual exercise in scapegoating and nothing less than a generator of administrivia.