This document is rewritten from Chapter 3 of Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki
Understanding Schools New York: Harper Rowe 1990

Solving School Problems:
a conflict resolution approach

2002 Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki

Related Materials:
Catalog of Problem Analyses
Rationales for Intervention

edited 11/27/18

To study the strategy of conflict is to take the view that most conflict situations are essentially bargaining situations. Viewing conflict behavior as a bargaining process is useful in keeping us from becoming exclusively preoccupied either with the conflict or with the common interest."---Thomas C. Shelling (1)






The Situation

Concrete Problems

Abstract Problems

The People

Varieties of Stakeholder


Looking for Common Criteria

Who Says So?

Different Sources of Authority

Concerns and Interests

Sorting Out Interests

Some Incompatible Interests

Denying Concerns and Interests

Proposals for Change: "Solutions" and Position


The Outcomes






What are educational problems? Why are there schooling controversies? What conflicts underlie them? How can we deal with them? The aim of this chapter is to develop critical perspectives needed to handle schooling problems effectively. Rather than just surveying school problems and controversies, we will use the set of basic questions given in Chart 1 to help us understand and deal with educational conflict.


Q1. What is the situation?

Q2. Whom does it concern?

Q3. How do they perceive it?

Q4. Why does it concern them?

Q5. What changes do they propose?

Q6. Can and will anything be done?

Q7. Who gains and who loses from the change?

Chart 1

These Analysis Questions will help us to understand why school problems are particularly troublesome and surprisingly persistent.


Problems are human judgments about situations. Problems do not exist independently of some human beings finding some situation problematic. For someone to say, "I have a problem," is for them to say, "Here is something that concerns me and I want you to be concerned, too." It is an attempt to impose expectations on us in a way that is difficult to reject. It is often seen as unsympathetic to respond, "That is not my problem." But, given a scarcity of time and resources, it may be a wise thing to do.

A school is often seen as a moral community whose members cannot easily profess lack of concern for anything which might be thought to impact upon children. The question, "How are drugs and alcohol abuse a school problem?" sounds heartless and unworthy of a "real" educator. But the catch is this: schools are imagined also to be productive organizations, "factories" as it were which are expected to yield substantial results. By accepting concerns on moral grounds, educators are trapped into possibly unfulfillable expectations for results.


Everyone seems to agreee that the schools have problems. Indeed, many believe that the severity of school problems has increased over the last forty years. According to a survey reported in an 1988 issue of TIME magazine, the 1940's schools were faced with the following "problems" that look quite minor compared to those forty years later. Compare the lists in Chart 2.

In the 1940's
In the 1980's
Chewing Gum
Making Noise
Running in Halls
Getting out of place in line
Improper Clothing

Drug Abuse
Alcohol Abuse
Rape, Robbery Assault, Burglary
Arson, Bombings

Source: Time Magazine, 2-1-88

Chart 2

The contrast between the two lists is startling. How can we account for the difference in both the number and severity of school problems over forty years?

Four explanations come readily to mind:

a. Degeneracy: Kids are worse than they've ever been.

b. Selection: There was a 50% dropout rate during the 40's compared to a 10% dropout rate in 1986. Perhaps "troublemakers" are being kept in school.

b. Exposure: Problems which were covered up in the forties are made public today.

c. Expansion of Responsibility : Schools have been asked to deal with situations they formerly gave over to other agencies. This is what makes them "school problems." 2

Of these four explanations, only the last avoids jumping to conclusions. To talk of "degeneracy," or "troublemakers," or "problems," even, is to rush to judgment. Besides, there is no evidence that young people are more "degenerate" nowadays than they have ever been. We have to avoid getting caught up too soon in judgmental language and transforming a real, but specific concern into a slogan.

In the next section we will develop a method for applying the analysis questions given above. One purpose of these analysis questions is to reduce the sloganistic quality of problem statements. This helps us get at the concerns people have about situations without forcing us to share their concerns until we decide it is wise to do so.


When people see that a situation conflicts with their interests, they often declare, "There is a problem here". This impersonal, "objective" manner of statement obscures their own involvement in the situation. But lacking their specific interests, and their perception that a certain conflict faced them, they would not talk of a "problem." "Problem" is a sloganistic term. People talk of problems in order to enlist our sympathies and particularly our resources. Wisdom requires we examine their claims before committing ourselves.

The intelligent use of limited resources requires us to carefully assess expectations before undertaking action. Recall the questions we will use to examine possible problems. These are given again in Chart 1:


Q1. What is the situation?

Q2. Whom does it concern?

Q3. How do they perceive it?

Q4. Why does it concern them?

Q5. What changes do they propose?

Q6. Can and will anything be done?

Q7. Who gains and who loses from the change?

Chart 1 (repeated)

Let's consider teenage alcohol abuse. In many countries around the world, teenagers have access to alcoholic beverages in ways that are forbidden in this country. But why is the use of alcohol by American teenagers a "school problem,", when it was not considered to be such in the 1940's? What are the underlying concerns that prompt some to consider it a school problem? What is the situation here and whom does it concern?

The Situation

Let's begin with a basically "distant", impersonal attitude: there are no problems, per se.. There are only situations; and, some people find those situations problematic. Let's look at our first analysis question. Each analysis question is simple enough, but to use it effectively we have to follow certain directions. These will be presented in each section and explained with examples.

Q1:What is the situation?

Describe the situation in practical terms.
Avoid or replace slogans
Reduce or replace judgmental language.

To describe the situation in "practical terms" means to describe it in such a way that we can determine if that situation has changed independently of the mood or judgment of the complainant. It is very important to separate the "problem" from the person3 so we can make out to what extent the "problem" is a very personal concern. If all a person needs is cheering up, or a placebo of some sort, we needn't get ourselves too worked up about "the problem." Also, we will try to "tone down" as much as possible whatever judgmental language we have to use: there may be another side to the story.

There are two broad kinds of problems we normally encounter in schooling: concrete and abstract. Concrete problems are easiest to understand. Let's begin with examples of these.

Concrete Problems

Imagine a teacher, Harry Smith, who complains, "Section 805 really drives me up the wall!" Let's rewrite this as a report and consider it to be the basic form of the problem:

Harry Smith says that section 805 drives him up the wall.

This is hardly specific, so lets tone it down to:

Something about section 805 concerns Harry Smith.

We forego the emotional engagement of Harry's original statement in order to dig up additional information. To get a useful characterization of the situation we may have to question Harry further: "What bothers you about 805?" Harry replies, "They never get their work done." We can recast the Problem as:

The Problem: The amount of work completed by some students in 805 concerns Harry Smith.

We have to be careful not to take too literally Harry's lumping together everybody in 805 under the term "they". Also, the "never" is suspicious. We don't know if Harry is complaining that 95% of his students complete 99% of their work or if 0% complete 0%. We should err on the side of caution: our time and resources are seldom in such abundance that we can commit them uncritically.

Chart 3 gives some more examples of concrete problems that have been changed into the situation, person form. In every case we must have (or imagine) a specific person claiming to have a problem.

Situation, Person
Mary Jones says her principal hates her. Her relationship with the
principal concerns Mary Jones.
John Doe says he needs more supplies. The amount of supplies concerns John Doe.
Sam Smith says his students are jumpy. Certain student behavior concerns Sam Smith.

Chart 3

These are only first approximations. After further questioning we may end up with something like the examples of chart 4

Situation, Person
Mary Jones says her principal hates her. Her principal's not saying hello concerns Mary Jones.
John Doe says he needs more supplies. That he has only six reams of paper concerns John Doe.
Sam Smith says his students are jumpy. Some students' calling out concerns Sam Smith.

Chart 4

We may decide to push even further. How far should we continue? Until we have defined a situation well enough to compare it with a possible improvement without having to depend on the person involved to tell us if we have succeeded. The purpose of clarifying a problem situation is to see if a change proposal will have an effect. If we cannot identify what the problematic situation is, we cannot hope to change it for the better. But to have to rely upon the original complainant to find out if we have succeeded threatens no end of involvement. (That is why researchers, whenever possible, try to describe situations in terms of measurable or countable items. This is not always possible, but it is a useful approach.)

Abstract Problems

Problems are abstract when it is not clear who is concerned or whether they're all concerned to the same degree or for the same reason. Abstract problem statements are slogans. The list of school problems of the '40's and '80's given in chart 3.2 are abstract problems: we find it difficult to deny they are problems, but it is far from clear who is concerned and to what the depth or breadth of that concern is.

The difficulty with abstract problems is that they can be "dealt with" in the abstract without having to deal with the concrete realities that underlie them. Organizational responses to problems are very often abstract responses, for example, policy changes, reprioritizations, committee resolutions, reorganization of departments, etc. The plight of Percy Panhandler sleeping on the streets, televised to millions of voters, might move a city council to fund a shelter program for the homeless. But Percy might still be out on the street.

Since abstract problem statements are slogans, it is particularly easy to deal with them by creating a corresponding abstract solution. What really matters, however, is whether abstract "solutions" attack the very concrete problems that specific individuals are burdened with.

We have to deal with abstract problems in a manner that does not avoid the question of who is concerned. At the same time we want to tone down the statement of the problem, de-emotionalizing it into a statement of a situation that can be evaluated easily. So we can recast the problem of alcohol abuse we encountered earlier as someone's concern that x % of schoolchildren drink y ounces of alcohol daily.

In the same way, the pregnancy problem could be cast neutrally as someone's concern that x % of students get pregnant each year. What could the values of x and y be? We will overlook specific quantities for the moment. Certainly, the kinds of numbers we have for x and y will have a great bearing upon whether anyone will be concerned about the situation. Kids can get a small amount of alcohol in them by using mouthwash. Is that a concern? What numbers do we need to generate concern and in whom? Why are they concerned? Those are the questions we will look at below.

We can chart abstract problems in chart 5 much the same way we did the concrete problems:

Situation, Person
There is an alcohol problem. That x % of schoolchildren drink y oz. of alcohol daily concerns some people.
There is a pregnancy problem. That x% of students get pregnant each year concerns some people.
There is a drug problem. That x% of students use drugs concerns some people.

Chart 5

We use the phrase "some people" as a variable to remind us that we have yet to determine the breadth and depth of the consensus for each value of x (or y) we specify. This is a very practical consideration. One way to cool down a controversy over an abstract problem is to use the Analysis Questions of this chapter to press for specific information.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of abstract problems. They form the bulk of the substance of public discussion. Because it is unclear just exactly who is concerned and to what extent, abstract problems are well suited for ceremonial, public expressions of community concern. However, in their abstract form, problems cannot be solved.

The People

Our second question is:

Q2: Whom does it concern?

Identify the "Stakeholders".
Distinguish between who in fact is concerned and who ought to be concerned.

Stakeholders are people who are concerned with the situation. It's important to distinguish between those who are in fact concerned and those who know of the situation but are not concerned about it, yet, we feel, should be concerned about it. The point of characterizing something as a "problem" is to involve others as stakeholders. Our counter-strategy in characterizing something as a "situation" is to avoid being brought in as stake-holders until we can see that our interests are really involved.

Varieties of Stakeholder

The stakeholders were citizen advocate groups. ... Though this loose coalition ... uniformly supported the idea of new state imposed priorities, their united front dissolved quickly in the face of a need to be specific. -- Susskind and Cruikshank4

This quote from Susskind and Cruikshank reiterates the point made earlier that specifics create dissension. Stakeholders may share a common concern but only up to the point that their specific interests are not made obvious. Who are the stakeholders in a problem and how can we identify their interests?

For concrete problems, at least one stakeholder is obvious: the person making the complaint. What the complainant often does is to deny that there are any stakeholders in the situation whose contrary interest might be threatened by settling his complaint. That is why problems involving several people often become controversies.

Abstract problems require a bit more work. We have to translate the phrase "some people" into specific stakeholders. People are stakeholders in a situation because that situation threat-ens, maintains or promotes something they value. They may be directly or indirectly concerned about the situation. In our everyday life we spend a good deal of energy getting people to share the burden of our problems by convincing them that they are more directly concerned than they might want to admit. Here we will reverse the process and try to keep clear how directly a stakeholder may be involved with a situation.

Who are the stakeholders for

That x % of schoolchildren drink y% of alcohol daily concerns some people.

Surely, it depends on the numbers. For purposes of exploration, let's suppose them to be big. Suppose

50 % of schoolchildren drink 8 ounces of alcohol daily.

This would concern a variety of people, but for possibly different reasons. For example, a list of stakeholders might look like this:

parents of drunken children

parents of sober children

teachers of drunken children

teachers of sober children

drunken children

sober children

distributors of alcoholic beverages

manufacturers of alcoholic beverages

manufacturers of sports equipment

There is no reason to suppose that the different stakeholders would have common concerns. Even more important: they may have different ideas on how to attack the problem.

Parents of drunken children may be worried about their children, whereas parents of sober children may be concerned to keep their own children away from those drinking. Drunken children may worry about getting into trouble and sober children worry about their drunken friends. Distributors and manufacturers of alcoholic beverages may worry about public reaction that will affect their business. If drunk kids play few sports, then manufacturers of sports equipment may be concerned to promote sobriety as a first step to athletic participation.

From this example it becomes clear that as we analyze problems, it is important to identify stakeholders without assuming they must see eye--to--eye with one another. This is a hard habit to cast off because in our normal everyday role as advocates for our concerns, we tend to "see" common interests as a preliminary to argu-ing for them. Assuming common interest in schooling is particularly tempting for educators. But those of us with this particular concern would be wise to remember that everyone does not share it.


Understanding the other side's thinking is not simply a useful activity that will help you solve your problem. Their thinking is the problem. ... Ultimately,...conflict lies not in objective reality, but in people's heads. Truth is simply one more argument -- perhaps a good one, perhaps not -- for dealing with the difference. The difference itself exists because it exists in their thinking. ... it is ultimately the reality as each side sees it that constitutes the problem in a negotiation and opens the way to a solution. -- Fisher and Ury 5

In mulling over this quote from Fisher and Ury, it is important not to misunderstand what they are saying. They are not saying that truth is relative or merely a matter of personal opinion. What they are saying is that if people disagree, then for one person to present his or her case to the other as "the Truth" is not necessarily going to bring about agreement. The disagreement will extend, most likely, to what the disputing parties will claim to be the truth. We will see below that agreements on the truth depend basically upon agreements about authority.

What people think they are talking about is critical to coming to an agreement about how to settle a problem. Our third question is concerned with the way the various stakeholders perceive the situation.

Q3: How do they perceive it? Determine to what extent focus is shared: Are common criteria being used?Are common authorities appealed to ?

For a given situation, each stake holder will have his or her own perception of it. We should not be surprised if for each stakeholder, a given situation is per-ceived differently. If persons dealing with a problem do not understand the same thing then solution is unlikely.

For concrete problems, we can easily identify the perceptions of at least one stakeholder, the complainant. Most people cast the situation they are complaining about in terms of their own perceptions, so the original statement of problem contains that perception. See Chart 6

Stakeholder Perception
That her principal didn't say hello concerns Mary Jones. Mary Jones: My principal hates me.
Having only six cartons of paper concerns John Doe John Doe: I need more supplies.
Some students' calling out a lot concerns Sam Smith. Sam Smith: My students are jumpy.

Chart 6

Why did we bother to analyze the original if all we do is get back to it? Because we recognize now that the situation embedded in the perceptions of the complainants may involve other stakeholders. These other stakeholders, e.g. the principal, other people in John Doe's department, Sam's students, may have different perceptions of the situation.

Parents, teachers and general public often complain about schools having "discipline" problems.6 But when we look more closely at what each group understands by "discipline" we often come up with quite a range of conceptions. In the American School Boards Journal for June 1988 we find the following warning:

It is ... important to define vague terms in discussing discipline. The difficulty with defining a general set of rules for a school system is that every person has a different idea of what constitutes appropriate be-havior. Individual values and levels of tolerance come into play. ... differences of opinion extend to what constitutes serious misbehavior. ... the vagueness of ... terms makes them subject to abuse or to culturally biased interpretations.7

"Discipline" tends to be used in a sloganistic manner. Everyone agrees that it is a problem. Few agree about how to solve it since it means different things to different people.

Slogans "defocus" perceptions. They obscure differences in the crite-ria in terms of which people understand crucial terms like "discipline." In addition, we will see below that slogans obscure the even more profound dissensus that exists when people do not recognize the same authorities to settle their disputes over the criteria. Think how teenagers and their parents might disagree on what "good music" is. Realize how profound this disagreement is if it turns out, as it usually does, that they do not even agree who should be the judge of what good music is.

School disputes may be no more easily settled. You may understand one thing by "discipline"; I, another. Why should we agree to accept one or the other's understanding as the common one? To come to a practical agreement we have to focus our perceptions of a problematic situation.

Looking for Common Criteria

Perceptions are commonly shared among people under two conditions:

a) the different parties use the same criteria, i.e. they agree why something is what it is;

b) the different parties invoke the same authorities to settle the differences they may find in the criteria.

So, for different individuals, their perceptions may turn out to be focussed according to individually different criteria and authorities.

Let us imagine a community, call it Anytown, where a broad consensus exists that "discipline" is a problem that exists in Anytown High School. But when we inventory the various stakeholders we find the following. Different groups think "good behavior" has been achieved, that is, the "discipline problem" has been solved, under the following conditions:

the parents want classrooms to be happy places and their children to get good grades;

the teachers want to be able to get their students through the specified curriculum;

the principal wants the students not to do anything that would shock Mr. Jones, a prominent schoolboard member;

Mr. Jones wants the students to behave in ways he likes to believe he and his friends behaved when they were in school, e.g. they were "regular guys";

the mayor (who dislikes Mr. Jones) wants the students to avoid acting the way he remembers Mr. Jones and his hooligan friends did when they went to school together.

In a sense, although they are using the same word, "discipline" they are "speaking different languages." The nature of the communication among people depends on the nature of the consensus on criteria that they share. Certainly, the criteria for identifying a solution to the "discipline problem" vary among the stakeholders. Even more of a problem may develop if they were to come together to try to forge a common set of criteria to deal with it. The "authority" each group of stakeholders might invoke runs the gamut from parental "rights" to professional and career commitments on the part of the teachers and the principal, to Mr. Jones' and the mayor's disparate personal senses of right and wrong. Yet, the possibility of dealing with "the discipline problem" depends upon the possibility of reconcil-ing them.

Who says so?

If people cannot agree on criteria and whether they are being met, they will have to agree on an authority to settle the following questions, i.e.

a. What should the criteria be? and,

b. Have those criteria been met?

These are crucial questions faced everyday by people in schools. Lacking agreement on them, disputes cannot be settled by negotiation.

Except for what we call "cults", an authority is not generally a person as an individual. Rather it is a person in a role, who has followed a specific procedure. Dr. John Smith, M.D. does not pronounce on your physical condition by virtue of his being John Smith. It is his pronouncement as a medical doctor having performed a diagnosis that leads many people to acknowledge his authority on the matter.

Most people concede the authority to individuals to decide what they see, hear and feel. After all, those are their perceptions. But teachers, priests and psychiatrists may deny them that authority with respect to what they claim to know, even about their own motivations. On issues of life, death and morals -- and education --, there is controversy.

To illustrate, we should consider that the very existence of something like Special Education presupposes the ability to re-classify as impediments needing treatment what were at one time thought to be moral failings. Dyslexic students were formerly dismissed as "lazy." Learning disabilities were just "stupidity." It is not surprising, then, to discover that in both in theory and practice Special Education is controversial.8

Different Sources of Authority

There are many different kinds of authority recognized in our pluralistic society. And it is rare to find a broad consensus on any of them. Some kinds of authority often given to justify particular criteria are found in Chart 7.

Examples of Possible Authority
personal judgment/ experience

other's judgment/ experience






news media

government publications

Tarot cards

Chart 7

The Examples of Possible Authority in were chosen so that it would be unlikely that the reader would acknowledge them all to be sources of authority. Of course, many people do not agree which items in the above chart are authoritative. Even where there is agreement, there may be different rankings, so that for some, religious beliefs rank above scientific theories, or vice versa. The very intense controversy about teaching evolution vs. Creationism in the schools centers on a dispute over authority.

Consensus on authority determines the nature of the community that exists between people. Pluralisms tend to recognize a few authorities broadly but shallowly. The conflict of law vs. morality is characteristic of this kind of consensus. Moral communities recognize their authorities both broadly and deeply. But in a pluralistic society they are generally in the same position as technical communities: consensus is deep but not broad. Figure 1 shows these possibilities.

Figure 1

There is a circumstance in which pluralism can look very much like moral community and is critical to understanding how a pluralistic society is possible. If different authorities agree on criteria or explanations, this has the effect of increasing the depth of consensus. For example, there is a great deal of agreement among different authorities as to what is good and bad social behavior. One group might cite the Bible, another the law, yet another a sense of common humanity. Yet all may agree that unprovoked aggression is wrong. Various moral communities, who disagree profoundly about ends, can maintain themselves in a pluralism precisely because for most of the pedestrian activities of life, they happen to agree on the value of simple judgments. For example, former President Reagan probably assumed such agreement in insisting that public schools emphasize the teaching of values, for at no time did he suggest there might be a conflict over whose values should be taught.

To understand why a problem resists solution or a controversy persists, we look to de-termine the focus of the stakeholders: Are they employing common criteria? Do they recognize the same authorities? Whether a stakeholder ought to recognize someone or something as authoritative is another question. It involves us in the dispute, rather than helping us analyze it.

If we compare consensus and dissensus on criteria and authority, the possibilities of productive interaction for a group of people can be laid out. Practical knowledge requires only consensus on criteria: we need only agree on what is what, and how we control them. We needn't agree on why it works that way.

Criteria are often neutral with respect to authority. That is, they may be recognized by competing authorities. The theories underlying practical knowledge may well be different. This is why being an engineer is possible for people of very different religions. But where the very conception of knowledge rests on the recognition of certain authorities, it is not possible to accept those authorities neutrally. One cannot be a Roman Catholic atheist, or a behaviorist mystic. Figure 2 locates some important items.

Figure 2

Criteria are the what's and how's of human action: this is what an IQ score is and this is how we compute it, we might be taught. And this is why, says your principal, it is important to know a student's IQ. Authorities provide the why's. Consensus on both criteria and authority provides what communities call deep understanding, or (well-founded) knowledge. Knowledge is a term of respect that communities reserve for those beliefs which rest upon shared criteria and authority.

Where the what's and how's, the criteria, are not in dispute, but the why's are, that community will still recognize such items as practical knowledge. A teacher may know how to get students to learn algebra and may agree with psychologists on the criteria for knowing algebra. But the psychologists may disagree with each other and with the teacher as to why the teacher's method is effective. The practical knowledge is not denied; the deep understanding is.

Some examples will illustrate the important relationships between criteria and authority:

Two psychologists wish to determine Johnny Jones' intelligence. One uses an IQ test based on the theory that IQ is a comprehensive, unitary characteristic of the individual. The other uses tests based on a theory of multiple intelligence, i.e. there are different and independent kinds of intelligence. The results turn out to be very different. Here both the criteria and the authority upon which they are based are different. We have confusion.9

Two teachers get into a discussion of Johnny Jones' writing ability. They disagree about its quality and consistency. Each trusts the other's professional judgment. This is the commonly recognized authority. Why the disagreement? It turns out one used Johnny's daily journal -- a free-form composition -- to make his evaluation. The other teacher made her evaluation on the basis of formal composition assignments. The criteria are different. This caused misunderstanding and ambiguity.10

Everybody in town knows Johnny Jones. They've all heard about his difficuties in school. They know too that Johnny's father paved over an old cemetery and was cursed along with his family by Old Lady Smith for the desecration. For many people in Johnny's community, this explanation constitutes knowledge. They agree on the criteria and their com-mon authority is a system of traditions and beliefs.

Johnny's advisor, Miss Parker, sees Johnny's difficulties, too. She believes, however, it is not the curse in and of itself, that is Johnny's problem. Rather it is the expectation by Johnny and members of his community that he will suffer that brings him to do so. Miss Parker cites different authority although she agrees with the community on the criteria identifying the problem. So, she and Johnny's parents can cooperate to some extent on remediating Johnny's problems. They share practical knowledge, even though they disagree on the expla-nations for its effectiveness.11

If we compare the last few charts we can begin to see the relationship between the existence of a moral community, consensus on authority and the idea of knowledge. Elsewhere we will discuss the complex issue of the relationship between consensus, objectivity, and truth.

There are a number of situations where disagreements over criteria and authority cause schooling controversy. The following sets of questions indicate some of them:

What is child abuse? How is it different from discipline? Who is to determine the distinction? On what authority? What moral right has the School or the State to intervene in what may be a matter of parental authority? Why should teachers be forbidden the use of corporal punishment if it might be ef-fective in dealing with problematic behavior?

Should the school provide information about birth control and/or abortion despite the contrary wishes of parents? When should community expectations override respect for the student's individuality?

Which authority ought to take precedence in the school: Science or Religion? Should students be required to learn about evolution if they believe it is falsehood? What if students and their parents believe that certain ethnic groups are inferior and deserving of bad treatment? Do educators have the right to insist that whatever authority they base this belief on is wrong?

Questions about authority lead us to our next section. Who is to decide what is problematic about a situation? What are the concerns of the stakeholders that bring them to see a problem?

Concerns and Interests

Behind opposed positions lie shared and compatible interests, as well as conflicting ones. We tend to assume that because the other side's posi-tions are opposed to ours, their interests must also be opposed. If we have an interest in defending ourselves, then they must want to attack us. ... In many negotiations, however, a close examination of the under-lying interests will reveal the existence of many more interests that are shared or compatible than ones that are opposed.
-- Fisher and Ury

Fisher and Ury focus on the concerns that underlie a problem and suggest that reconciliation might be possible because many times people share many more concerns than they suspect. On the other hand, some concerns may not be reconciliable. Let us look at this more closely.

Sorting Out Interests

The fourth analysis question is : Q4: Why does it concern them?

Uncover the underlying interests: Are they instrumental values? Are they instrinsic values?

The most direct, and tactless, way to uncover interests is to ask any of the following questions when someone expresses a concern:

a) So what?

b) Why does that concern you?

c) Can you explain what that has to do with you?

A general rule of thumb is this: When people believe their concerns to involve intrinsic interests, i.e. ends, they will forego further justification by some statement beginning with, "Because...". They also often get angry or upset if they believe you should recognize such interests as intrinsic. On the other hand, if people understand their concerns as involving instrumental interests, i.e. means, they will be able to justify them with an explanation involving a further goal.

Imagine the following conversation:

"I have a problem. My grades are not in."

"So what?"

"My principal will demand to know why."

"So what?"

"I'll get in trouble and get a bad rating!"

"So what?"

"I could lose my job!"

"So what?"

"What's wrong with you? How am I supposed to live?

Clearly, earning a living is as intrinsic an interest as one will find for most people, so the first speaker loses his patience with the second. But, given special circumstances, he might as well have answered,

"You're right. Why sweat it? I can dip into my savings and take a cruise for a year."

Moral justifications tend to be intrinsic. Very often people will try to duck a question by using a moral justification when their reasons are really extrinsic. For example, a per-son might express worry about illiteracy explaining that his concern rests on the principle that all people have a right to equal educational opportu-nity. We might suspect there are other reasons, particularly if he is the author of a series of reading textbooks.

We have a procedure now, for getting at interests.

To Identify Underlying Interests:

Persist in asking, "So what?" of stated interests.

The final answer is an intrinsic interest.

All the preceding ones are instrumental.

This explains why so much public justification of behavior sounds saintly. For public relations purposes, everybody tries to appeal to widely accepted intrinsic interests. For example, when a tax hike is passed to fund a teachers' contract, the teachers' union president celebrates the city council's having recognized the city's schoolchildren "as a priority."13

In a similar manner, E.D. Hirsch, a fellow at the National Endowment for the Humanities, worries that a lack of "cultural literacy" will undermine our ability to communicate with one another. He proposes wide exposure to broad areas of humanities topics. Of course, he does not explain what consequences we stand to suffer from such "cultural illiteracy", and why, for example, the Japanese -- who by Hirsch's standards are culturally illiterate -- don't suffer them.14 Perhaps Hirsch's occupational relationships throw light on more instrumental motives.

Some incompatible interests

Different stakeholders may have different, even incompatible interests. Let's recall "the discipline problem" that concerned the citizens of Anytown and look at some possibilities in chart 8. We'll assume that all the stakeholders like seeing happy children who get good grades. However, they might be willing to sacrifice the kid's happiness and grades to the interests indicated.

Stakeholder Interests

Specific parents would like their children above others to win recognition.

The teachers want to get a good rating from their principal.

The principal knows that Mr. Jones votes on his contract.

Mr. Jones, board member, hates "sissies."

The mayor wants to bring the school system up-to-date.

Chart 8

For effective problem solving it is important to sort out concerns as intrinsic as opposed to instrumental. The reason is that it is generally easier to reconcile clashes between extrinsic or instrumental values than clashes between intrinsic (final) values.15 It might be possible, for example, for the mayor of Anytown to get the principal to adopt the mayor's criteria if he were to assure the principal that his contract would be renewed even if Mr. Jones objected. If the teachers were assured their ratings would not go down for not finishing the course of studies, they might be more focussed on a happy learning environment.

Denying Concerns and Interests

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes...(Proverbs,21,2)

Have you ever been called lazy just because you didn't feel like doing something? Or because you had something you felt was more important to do? The person who called you lazy was doing something that it is very important to take note of. He or she was denying that your concerns and interests were legitimate.

A common way of dealing with concerns or interests we don't like is to dismiss or ignore them. If a woman worries about her son's first overnight camping trip we can dismiss her anxiety as a concern of ours by calling her "overprotective". On the other hand we might show our approval of her concern by characterizing her as an "involved parent."

We call a person "irrational" to resist conceding legitimacy to the reasons he or she offers for acting. If a student will not work for the in-centives we are prepared to provide, he or she is "lazy." If he or she does not bear our remarks patiently and answers back, we call such challenge "insolence."

Our language provides us with many, many terms for disapproving or approving the interests that underlie a person's perception of a problem. It is important to avoid them if our purpose is analysis. Chart 9 compares terms terms of rejection with terms of recognition of interest.

Rejection of Interest
Recognition of Interest
lazy insufficiently motivated
irrational having reasons different from mine
insolent self-assertive
obsequious very concerned about tact
infantile focussed on the here-and-now
pig-headed insistent
gutless cautious
fanatic single-minded

Chart 9

It is important to realize that terms such as those in the left column of the chart are very judgmental. And you can't expect to understand people's motivations if you indulge yourself in descriptions of them which deny legitimacy to their interests and concerns. It makes a big difference whether a teacher sees himself or herself faced with a class that is "lazy" as opposed to a class that is "insufficiently motivated."

Such delegitimating characterizations are often part of the traditions of a school or institution, e.g. "nerds.", "jocks," "heads,", "Speds." In fact, the Temple image of the school tends to reinforce itself with such characterizations.

Proposals for change: "Solutions" and Positions

Normally when people declare a situation to be a problem, they have a ready proposal to change it. It is easy to claim that a solution is at hand. But it is rare to have one. Let's develop a critical technique for examining proposals.

The next analysis question is: Q5: What changes, if any, do they propose?

Examine their positions: Is the proposal sloganeering? Is the proposal technically usable?

Just as "problems" can be slogans, "solutions" can, also. The "technical feasibility" rule given next helps distinguish sloganistic, "formal" solutions from potentially workable, "technical" solutions:

technical feasibility

Ask of the solution-proposal, Can it fail?

No identifies slogans.

Yes identifies real possibilities.

Formal (or semantic) solutions are not identified independently of the problem situation. Technical solutions are. Consider the following pairs of problems and solutions in Chart 10The odd-numbered ones will be formal solutions. The even-numbered ones will be technical solutions. Can you see why?

1. Kids are noisy. 1. Quiet them down.
2. Kids are noisy. 2. Get them to work.
3. No homework is done. 3. Motivate students sufficiently.
4. No homework is done. 4. Threaten lunch detentions.
5. Kids don't learn. 5. Hire really competent teachers.
6. Kids don't learn. 6. Feed them Wheaties.
7. Funds are wasted. 7. Increase efficiency.
8. Funds are wasted. 8. Decentralize purchasing.
9. Kids use drugs. 9. Really educate them not to.
10. Kids use drugs. 10. Give them support and counsel.

Chart 10

We can see that the odd-number solution-proposals are safe. They cannot fail. Logically they are denials of the problem. You can't possibly have the problem if the formal solution is achieved. We don't even need to test them out. But the even-numbered solution-proposals could well fail. They must pass the test of experience to determine their effectiveness.

Real, practical attempts at solving a problem are risky. They can fail. "Formal" solutions are dead certain. If you fail you haven't done it right. But they don't really tell you what to do, because they are merely reformulations of the problem situation in the form of a solution. Formal solutions do not specify tasks which would change the situation. They say little more than "Do something which will solve this problem!" Technical solutions specify tasks. "Do this," they indicate, "and it will cause the change you desire!"

An important function of formal solutions in a political environment is to keep technically knowledgeable people under the control of their appointed leaders. By issuing vague directives, "Motivate at-risk youth!", "Get kids to say no to drugs!" school people are burdened with a mission of unquestionable concern. But the very vagueness of the directive both evades commitment to provide resources and denies school people an objective standard for judging their efforts. The anxiety this conflict produces makes for stressed-out but docile school people.

The first reaction many people have when this distinction between formal and technical solutions is pointed out to them is to claim disbelief that anyone would use "formal" solutions as change proposals. But they are by far the most common. Just listen to anyone on a public platform talk about solutions. He or she cannot be technical, or the audience either won't understand or might think the proposal too risky. The following is a true story.:

A psychologist was sent to a state senate hearing as an expert witness for a local school district. He was to assure the funding agency heads that Special Education funds were being appropriately used. He began by discribing the intake process, the tests used and the assignment procedure. Right in the middle of a sentence, a commissioner interrupted him and said, "Look, Professor, cut out this technical jargon and tell us what is being done!" The psychologist thought a minute then said, "Appropriate tests are being used in an efficient placement process to remedy the problem!" The hearing board was satisfied.


Why do reform movements come and go and schools stay substantially the same? A key reason is that the stakeholders are often not the powerholders. The stakeholders, alone, are often unable to overcome the conflict. Identifying the powerholders is an important step in addressing schooling problems.

An important point: Students may be powerholders. If, for example, standard test scores in a school are low, we must seriously consider whether students are taking the tests seriously, or merely, filling in the blanks, as it were, before we look to "hold accountable" the teachers, the curricula, the administration, etc. This consideration is often overlooked, not only by outsiders to the school community, but educators themselves.

The next analysis question is. Q6: Can and will anything be done?

Locate the Power Holders.

Are they stakeholders? Are the power holders willing to change or is conflict preferred? Are they able to change?

It might seem strange to ask if conflict is preferred, especially when all involve profess the most sincere desires to find an amicable solution. But conflict has many benefits, especially for the leadership of conflicting groups.

From time to time it becomes the educational fashion to talk of school reform as a matter of identifying "change agents." But change agents are stakeholders -- if only for the sake of a consultant's fee -- who are also powerholders, i.e. someone able to make the change and willing to do it. If no such people exist, a problem cannot be dealt with.

The Outcomes

Every change proposal implicitly redefines who the potential stakeholders are: who pays the costs and who receives the benefits. This is why change is threatening; not simply because it is change. Our final question addresses this issue:

Q7: Who gains and who loses from the change?

Specify costs and benefits, and who suffers or enjoys them.

To understand the difficulties in bringing about change, we have to realize that every situation provides costs and benefits in varying degrees to various people. To propose a change is to propose a reallocation in costs and benefits. Of course, that something is a cost or a benefit depends upon the perceptions of specific persons. Implementing change successfully requires getting stakeholders to agree that the reallocation of costs and benefits does not generate more conflicts for them than the status quo.


It is important to recognize that solving school problems depends on many different consenses:

The problem itself is a consensus of concern, resting on a consensus of perceptions.

These perceptions themselves require a consensus on criteria and to some extent a consensus on authority.

Selecting a change proposal depends upon a consensus of expectations. If the proposal is a technical, rather than a formal one, consensus on a specified task is at issue.

But a consensus of stakeholders is not sufficient. What is needed is a consensus of powerholders on resources, on willingness and ability to make the change.

But since change means a reallocating of costs and benefits, consensus on change must ultimately be founded on a consensus to bear new costs in order to enjoy new benefits.

In the next chapter we will look at the nature of controversy in education and apply the techniques developed in this chapter to better understand them. Secondly, we will use slogans productively to generate a normal model of school functioning that relates consensus to expectations, tasks and resources.


1. Underlying school problems are conflict situations. Problems in schooling are generally stated as abstract problems. Although this generates a consensus of concern, it also makes it difficult to determine whose concerns are involved. It may be possible to formulate abstract "solutions" for abstract problems, but they may not address the concrete realities that underlie the problems.

2. Problems are treated as situations that concern people. Proceeding from this perspective we can identify as pertinent items that remain hidden when only abstract problems are discussed. These items are: the situation, the stakeholders, their perceptions, their concerns, their proposals for change, the powerholders and the outcomes of the proposed change.

3. The fundamental consensus is consensus on authority. Failing this, practical knowledge is possible if common criteria are accepted. Pluralistic societies tend to share a broad but shallow consensus on authority.

4. Proposals for change are often empty formalisms: verbal solutions that cannot fail because they do not really indicate a course of action. Feasible proposals are always risky. A common but important strategem to recognize is the use of words like "lazy" or "irrational" which delegitimate concerns and interests.


1. "Teenage suicide is a problem." Is this statement a slogan? Explain your answer.

2. Are the expectations indicated by what people call school problems divisible or indivisible? How do you justify your answer?

3. What kind of evidence would it take to decide the merits of the "degeneracy-hypothesis"?

4. Write down a problem you have. Identify the situation which affects you.

Is the situation the problem or the fact that it affects you?

5. Most people would agree that there is a drug problem in our schools. Far fewer would agree that there is a smoking problem of equal or greater severity. Why is this?

6. Who are the stakeholders for the drug problem and the smoking problem? How many of them are in school?

7. The number of smoking related deaths each year is approximate 300,000. Drug related deaths number under 5,000. Should educators be more concerned with the drug problem than the smoking problem?

8. Write down a problem of yours. Use the so-what technique to get at intrinsic values.

9. Find terms which express a recognition of an interest for each of the following terms used to reject interest:

a. immature

b. cold-blooded

c. aggressive

d. sneaky

e. incoherent.

10. List five school problems. For each one write a sloganistic solution proposal and a technical solution proposal.

TO ADDITIONAL ESSAYS on How to Solve Problems


1. Thomas C. Schelling The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1960) p.5.

2. Cf. William W. Wayson "The Politics of Violence in School: Doublespeak and Disruptions in Public Confidence" Phi Delta Kappan. Oct. 1985 pp.127--132.

3. Cf.Roger Fisher and William Ury Getting to YES. Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. (New York: Penguin, 1987), p. 11.

4. Susskind and Cruikshank p.53

5. Fisher and Ury , pp.22--23

6. Cf. "19th Annual Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools." in Phi Delta Kappan (Sept. 1987) p28.

7. William Thomas, "To solve 'the discipline problem', mix clear rules with consistent consequences" The American School Boards Journal. June 1988, p.30.

8. See Frank R. Vellutino "Dyslexia" Scientific American March 1987 Vol.256 no.3 pp. 34--41.

Also, Carol A Christensen, Michael M. Gerber and Robert B. Everhart "Toward a Sociological Perspective on Learning Disabilities" Educational Theory Fall 1986. Vol.36. no.4. pp.317--331.

Also Mary Saily, "Learning Remains Elusive for Handicapped Children" Educational R&D Report Winter 1981-1982. Vol.4. no.4 pp.2--5.

Also Nathan Glazer, "IQ on Trial" Commentary June 1981 pp. 51--59.

Also Diane McGuinness "Facing the 'Learning Disabilities' Crisis" Education Week Feb. 5, 1986. p. 28.

9. Cf. Stephen Jay Gould. The Mismeasure of Man. (New York: Norton, 1981)for a discussion of the variety of competing authorities and criteria used in the assessment of human characteristics.

10. Cf. Jane A. Stallings "Are We Evaluating What We Value?" Action in Teacher Education Vol IX No.3 (Fall 1987) pp. 1--3.

Also, Linda Shalaway, "For High Scores, Test What You Teach" Educational R&D Report. Vol.5, No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: Council for Educational Development and Research, Fall 1982) pp.2-6. However, see "an important point" above.

11. However, for a criticism of expectations effects see Christopher J. Hurn, The Limits and Possibilities of Schooling. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1978) pp.147--155.

12. Fisher and Ury p.43

13. Marvin E. Schuman, "A letter of thanks to the PFT rank and file" The PFT Reporter (Phila: Phila. Federation of Teachers) June 1988.p. 2

14. See "Cultural Literacy and the Schools: 2 views" Careers in Teaching, May 13, 1987, p. 20.

15. William Glaberson, "Coping in the age of 'Nimby'" New York Times Jun. 19, 1988 Sec.1, p.1.
Also, see Susskind and Cruikshank, pp. 165 - 175.