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Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry:
How much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?

Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

edited 12/20/20

-- if ...(student)... achievement gaps were closed, the yearly gross domestic product of the United States would be trillions of dollars higher, or $3 billion to $5 billion more per day. (See addendum) [1]

The Education Industry, EI

If we consider the sloganizing and sentimentality that fills the media to be means of supporting educational markets in the pluralistic democracy that is the United States of America, we gain new perspective on the apparent irrationalities one encounters in examining how schooling practice is conceptualized and implemented.[2]

K-12 schools, public and private, are but one component of a broad, $750 billion/year education industry -- hereinafter, EI.[3] Staff or professional organizations are another. So are school supplies manufacturers and certain governmental organizations. From the perspective of school reform, universities, think-tanks and research organizations are important constituents of EI, which serves the general populace as well as other parts of the economy. Besides these more or less external markets, EI services a vast number of internal niche markets as well.

A Modest Proposal

As it has been for almost a century [4], school reform is a persistent enterprise with not insignificant economic payoffs. Novel programs, "school reforms," return profits to the "reformers" in the short term. Long terms results are another matter.[5] Most recently, educational entrepreneurs [6] have managed to flood the media with idea that overhauling public school classrooms will increase the GDP (gross domestic product) by upgrading the cognitive skills of the lowest performing students. Such claims serve to generate markets for more specific reform proposals. But they distract attention from the overall systemic characteristics which bind schools into a broader framework that often has little to do with enhancing student skills, knowledge or attitudes. [7 ]

Although some economists argue strongly that cognitive and economic development are linked, they recognize that public school classrooms are not the only, or even the most important influences that affect this relationship. For example, Hanushek and Woessmann [8] write,

Overall economic institutions ... can be viewed as preconditions to economic development. And, without them, education and skills may not have the desired impact on economic outcomes.

For example, the so-called "overeducated" often find themselves misfit in their economy, so that even high levels of their particular cognitive skills fail to provide "human capital," i.e. skills that translate into economic payoffs.

Strangely enough, it is classroom teachers who, in much of the public media, bear the brunt of the blame for the disconnect between school and work. Student success is taken to be the teachers' moral responsibility. But even within the school there are practices and structures outside the classroom that stultify student cognitive development or render it useless. However, if Hanushek and Woessmann are right and the problems with economic development are consequences of economic structures, it is moot whether school improvement is necessary to an improved GDP.

Three Aspects of the Education Industry

According to Randall Collins [9] , schools throughout history and around the world in many cultures have emphasized addressing three major markets and have provided curriculum to support them.These markets generate the demand that schools produce persons with economic skills, who are accustomed to certain social control mechanisms and are cognizant of certain (preferred) status values: in other words, knowing one's job; knowing how to take direction; and, knowing one's place. To put it into the language of school values: schools are to promote industriousness, obedience (self-control) and respect for social values. Thus, EI is about much more than developing cognitive skills.


(Context) person
Economic "Skills"
Social Control
"Preferred "Values
1. Office, Worker read and follow directions get to work on time accept criticism from boss
2. Team, leader conduct negotiations maintain civility "win" for own side
3. College advertising, employee create attractive copy submit to group goal "embellish reality"
4. War, soldier conserve materiel take orders loyalty
5. Retail salesperson convince buyer declare all receipts persistence
6. college professor get good student ratings chuckle at president's jokes reject disputatiousness
7. K-12 teacher (fulfill duties) follow procedures reject disputatiousness
8. CPA accurate accounting meet deadlines honesty
9. Cab driver maximize fares refrain from assault amiability
10. General businessperson project planning meet goals enhance work climate

chart 1

Chart 1 shows the many kinds of learnings one might acquire categorized into Collin's categories. Clearly, many of those learnings need not be produced, nor are they normally acquired, in a school. More importantly, any attempt to "reform" schools to try to produce them might likely not be cost efficient.

In addition, one should note that many items are points of contention, especially the preferred values. Where consensus is lacking, sloganeering and obfuscation will be engaged in to keep organizational activity flowing.[10] If we attempt to "reform" schools by broadly introducing low-consensus items, we can expect student achievement to be problematic. [11]

Moral Responsibility and School Reform Models

To what extent is the school (K-12) and its staff responsible for the economic success of its students? Let's begin with a general moral principle: if you can't prevent something from happening, or cause it to happen, you are not morally (and often not legally) responsible for whether it happens.[12]

 Very young kids love to press buttons. So do adults. When something happens not too long after a button is pressed, people are inclined to see it as cause-and-effect. Roughly put, "cause" indicates control through correlation. The would-be intervener looks for a correlation that can be controlled, that provides the ability to produce, stultify or prevent something. But with control, comes moral responsibility.

Are a person's school experiences responsible, causally effective, for that person's life outcomes? Many schools have mission statements claiming such an effect on their students, e.g. "developing students who are life-long learners," or "preparing the student for the workplace of the 21st Century." Is this more than hyperbole?

All school reform is based on the relatively simple model: an intervener (the reform agent) produces change(s) in certain school variables to cause a change in certain student outcome variables -- in the case discussed here, a student's occupational fitness. We can diagram this as figure 1.  (The + valence marker between the two variables (factors) indicates a presumably productive  relationship,  that is, a positive correlation (allowing for a timing difference, increasing when increasing, decreasing when decreasing, or resting when resting) assumed by the designation, "reform.")

Fig. 1

The causal arrow, can be read ambiguously to produce a colloquial rendering, e.g. "A intervention controls (impacts, affects) a school characteristic which controls (impacts, affects) student occupational fitness."[13]

Unfortunately, fig. 1 is too clean, too simple. It  presumes causal relationships, often confusing correlation with causation.  Such confusion underlies the very common tendency to see conspiracies in regularities. Also, it often serves the wishful thinking of much of what is considered to be "best practice." "[13b]

The model in figure 1 serves primarily promotional purposes by disregarding alternative influences affecting school change other than the intervention being promoted. Its point is to sell a product: a reform. Also disregarded are alternative effects, -- "spin-offs" -- hidden costs and benefits --, other than the promised change in school characteristics.

(The - valence marker indicates a countering relationship between the two variables (factors), that is, a negative correlation {allowing for a timing difference, decreasing when increasing, increasing when decreasing, and, possibly, resting when resting}

Complex Causation and Moral Responsibility

The basic practical rules for causation and moral responsibility are these:

The Alternative Cause Rule: for every effect,
there are disregarded (overlooked) alternative causes.

Figure 2 gives some examples of alternative causes, with possible correlations indicated.

figure 2.

Alternative causes not only may reduce intervener responsibility; but, they draw attention away from the proposed intervention and may reduce its cogency. That is why entrepreneurial educational interventionists find it most convenient to avoid consideration of alternatives to their proposals.

The Alternative Effect (Spin-off) Rule: for every cause,
there are disregarded (overlooked) alternative effects.

Spin-offs may create undesired intervener responsibilities by creating collateral costs or benefits. [14] Again, entrepreneurial strategy dictates that discussion of such be forestalled.

figure 3

Seldom do school board members, state departments of education, or legislators, for example, acknowledge responsibility for the characteristics of a school that they can directly, if inadvertently, influence. Yet such things as governance, teacher skill levels required for hiring, school size and funding are, for public schools, not within the control of teachers, principals, superintendents, or supervisors. Such school characteristics are not controlled by school staff. Though they may impact student occupational fitness, they are not the moral responsibility of school staff.

The narrow-focus simple model given in figute 1 helps obscure the fact that educational systems of every type are embedded in, a component of, EI. The simplistic thinking that we encounter in almost every aspect of the analysis of school productivity is a crucial support for creating and maintaining markets for that industry.

A Fuller (but Simplified) Model


Figure 4

What figure 4 shows is that a (change in a) school characteristic may be the effect of both a (reform) intervention and parental influence. The intervention may increase the school characteristic which increases taxes as it increases occupational fitness. Parental influence may support or, if strong enough, supplant the proposed intervention. But occupational fitness remains vulnerable to the effects of recession, since this is a variable independent of the intervention and parent influence.

Who is responsible for such spin-offs, especially if they are unintended or unforeseen? This becomes particularly cogent when the spin-offs are undesirable. In the law, lack of intention or foresight is often a mitigating factor when damage occurs. In any case, the basic rule holds: only controllers are morally responsible.

A Multiplicity of Influences and Spinoffs

One way to address such concerns systematically would be to consider characteristics of students, schools, occupations -- along with other "external" factors --  and  ask "Who controls what?" Chart 2 provides lists of characteristics (variables) which could be used to profile each environment of influence the student passes through on the road to occupational success.






Family Status
Peer Status

Teacher Skill
Certificates Issued
School "Climate"
Teacher Knowledge
Entrance Requirements

Income (salary, wage)
Health Benefits
On-the-job Learning

Chart 2

For example, a student might begin with any of the following (and more) characteristics: attitudes, tastes, skills, dispositions, knowledge or memories. He or she might possess certificates, diplomas, degrees or memberships. In addition, there might be social characteristics that describe him or her: family status, peer status, friendships, or in general, "connections." From these characteristics (treated as variables) we might construct a profile that might be unique to each individual student. But we can normally expect some interaction between pupil and school characteristics. Thus, our causal diagram expands:

fig. 5

What this means is that the intervention may be counteracted by the pupil's own characteristics so that not all the variables mentioned above can be influenced by the school, even if those variables might have had an important effect on the student's adult occupational life. But even if, ideally, schooling treatments could modify a variable, e.g. math skills, other influences might be stronger, e.g. forgetting over summer vacation. Consequently, the school may not be morally responsible for them or even more distant environmental or hereditary characteristics, e.g. family status, peer status or connections.

To the extent that the school cannot control a characteristic important to the learners post-K-12 life, to that same extent is its moral responsibility for that life diminished. Even for the school-controllable variables, other external influences may diminish their effect, thus undercutting the rationales for much of governmental school-to-work policy that comes with funds which support the economic interests of EI.

A fuller picture might look like this:

fig. 6

"External" Factors

Similarly, external influences can be profiled in terms of the variables given in chart 3 below. But so far as the school's responsibility is concerned, even within the school only some, if any, of the characteristics (variables) may come under the control of individuals who work there, e.g. teachers, principals, superintendents, supervisors.

Private employers, corporations, Federal and State government departments and, to some extent unions and professional organizations, are the most direct controllers of many of the occupation profile variables.

By the time a person is an adult, the K-12 school has no control over most of these variables. Even among the few school and learner variables that can be controlled by educators on site, there are many interactions. But, they tend not to be consistent over large populations, or across economic, ethnic or geographical divisions. There is no scientific consensus on why this is so.

This is why, for example, standardizing the curriculum, or upgrading teacher licensing requirements is no guarantee of increased student achievement.

The Job Market: generally ignored

The Job Market is a major influence on student occupational outcomes. Some of the characteristics of a job market we can use to develop a profile are given in Chart 3. Notice that none of them can normally be influenced by K-12 education. This breaks the causal chain from school to work.





Job Market



Family Status
Peer Status

Teacher Skill
Certificates Issued
School "Climate"
Teacher Knowledge
Entrance Requirements

Income (salary, wage)
Health Benefits
On-the-job Learning

Government Policies
local tax structure
community health
external markets

Job Offers

Skill Requirements

Social Requirements


Certification Requirements


Chart 3

It is the Job Market in an economic system which defines the purposes for which schooling outcomes count as "Human Capital." Consider a person who is highly literate and has a Ph.D. in history. From the point of view of a retail store manager, this person has greater human capital by virtue of his or her basic skills in reading, writing or arithmetic than he or she has as a Doctor of Philosophy in History. What this means is that more or better K-12 education may, or not, affect the development of a person's human capital, i.e. have no economic effect.

Let us complicate the causal chain showing external factors and job market influence:

fig. 7

Let us replace the ellipses representing the different factors with the lists they represent, retaining and enhancing possible causal arrows. We will also represent a factor up until now not mentioned: competition among many persons in multiple job markets.





Given this model, the perplexing question might be asked why it is that educators, school teachers, in particular, are supposed to have major responsibility for student occupational outcomes. Also, why are so many educators, themselves, all too eager to accept blame for failures beyond their control. Why let themselves be scapegoated? Why, indeed?  (See  The Mea Culpa Culture in Public Education..)

The metaphorical muddles that often masquerade as educational theory in the United States provide the clues which gave impulse to this investigation. [15]. They also provide an answer to our question when we consider that educators, unlike people in other occupations which call themselves professions, lack the substantial power of, say, medical doctors to control, for example, who gets into the profession and what their remuneration shall be for their services.

It's what every kid learns in the school yard in elementary school: if you are not among those who control the situation, for whatever reason, then you have to take what you can get, if you want to be accepted. Being scapegoated for the failures of more powerful others is what educators endure to be allowed in the game; for, they, too, have a serious stake in the economic outcomes of the Education Industry.

Occupational Encasement

A century of repeated attempts to "reform" American public schools [16], supported by little more than hyperbole, have produced the ironic result that it is likely the "reformers" themselves who are responsible for the faults they find with the education industry, in general, and with the public schools, in particular.

Multiple factors coalesce to produce an American public school system in which reform demands recur regularly and whose personnel, alone among the many influences producing what is perceived as less than acceptable results, are singled out for scapegoating. These factors are:

a. The attempt to produce a single, unitary system of schooling that is to provide every child with what is characterized as "a thorough and efficient education."

b. The lack of a Constitutional source of funding for schools adequate to support a.

c. The moral and cultural pluralism constituted by the population of the United States of America; consequently,

d. the lack of implementable consensus [17] among the voting taxpayers of the United States as to which economic skills, which social control habits and which "preferred" values should be taught in the schools. Thus we get

e. the conflation of Collin's three school curricular threads to the single, least controversial one: skills development -- a simplification that ignores relevent causal factors and biases in favor of economic interests; and, finally,

f. the "professionalization" of school personnel under an ideological banner of "non-partisanship." Though never trained for it, educators are supposed to be "advocates for children" while avoiding being advocates for almost anything else.

What has resulted is an institutionalization of power structures that have frozen school personnel into a scapegoat role obscured by a facade of academic tradition or sentimental veneration for "the teacher."

Kenwyn Smith [18] calls such power structures, "monocratic" and warns that a number of social pathologies follow from them. Where organizations are monocratic certain ways of perceiving subordinate or superior groups develop. These fixed ways of perceiving others, which Smith calls "encasements", generate very difficult problems for each of the groups in an organization.

Chart 4 summarizes and compares the particulars of monocratic power relationships.[19]

Monocratic Relationships Among Role Groups

Adapted from Kenwyn K. Smith Groups in Conflict 1982




Encasements (Constraints on Perception)

No insight into consequences of own behavior

Caught up in need to relate to both other groups

Caught up in unity and protection devices; –don't care.”


See other groups as less competent. Pessimistic.

 Systemic Thinkers. Optimistic.

See others as manipulative and self-serving.

Delegate responsibility but not resources.

Use moral and ethical frameworks.

Reactive Posture

Use of Information

Withhold information to create dependency.

Information sharers and brokers.

Withhold information to preserve unity.

Handles External Conflict by

Being punitive, assertive; withholding resources.

Becoming disoriented, indecisive, impotent.

Increase cohesion. Commit to group unity.

Handles Internal Conflict by

Ignoring it. Charismatics rule. Dissidents tolerated.

Seek common understandings. Believe in techniques.

Suppression of minority viewpoints.

Chart 4.

Educators by and large fall into the category of implementers. If, instead of Smith's designations "powerholders," "implementers" and "lowers" we substitute, correspondingly, "reformers", "school personnel" and "school users" we get a remarkably accurate characterization of the roles played by performers in the continuing drama of American school reform.

See related articles:
What Can A Teacher Do? Two Myths of Responsibility
Causal Fallacy in Teaching and Learning




[1] Javier C. Hernandez, "Study Cites Dire Economic Impact of Poor Schools" available at
See Addendum 8/5/20: Nick Morrison: The Truth About Education Policy Is That It's Based On A Myth. Forbes Magazine7/29/20

[2]See David Berliner & Bruce J. Biddle The Manufactured Crisis: myths, fraud and the attack on America's public schools. 1996. New York: Addison-Wesley.s

[3] available at

[4] An important history of school reform movements is Henry Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American faith in education, 1865-1990. 1995. McGraw-Hill. Pertinent also are: Raymond E. Callahan Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962); Christopher J. Hurn The limits and possibilities of schooling. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1978); Rebecca Barr and Robert Dreeben How Schools Work (U. of Chicago Press, 1983)

[5] See Mary Ann Zehr "Conflict of Interest Arises as Concern in Standards Push" Education Week November 4, 2009. This discussion has gone on for a long time. See Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki, " Politics, Consensus and Educational Reform" available at

[6] See, for example, Thomas L. Friedman "Swimming Without a Suit" available at

Both Friedman and Hernandez rely on McKinsey & Company (2009) Detailed findings on the economic impact of the achievement gap in America's school. PDF of PowerPoint Presentation. 119 slides. Available at

The crucial item buried in slide 88 of McKinsey's 119 slide presentation is this: the difference between the actual GDP and the hypothesized GDP is "determined by assumptions about the ability to make use of higher skilled people and the quality of economic institutions."

[7] See Jerry Kloby "Private Interests and Public Education Reform" available at

[8] Eric A.Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, "The Role of Cognitive Skills in Economic Development" Journal of Economic Literature 2008, 46.3, 609. McKinsey & Company base their publication on Hanushek's and Woessmann's article. Hanushek and Woessmann are much more forthcoming with their crucial assumptions.

[9] Randall Collins, "Some Comparative Principles of Educational Stratification" Harvard Educational Review 47, no. 1 (1977): 1-27. Being a sociologist, Collins does not readily speak of "markets;" but rather, of "interests" or "themes." I think his "interests" translate easily into markets when one considers that someone's treasure was disbursed to see to it that the attempt was made, at least, to actualize these "interests."

[10] See Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki (1999) "Slogans in Education" available at

[11] See Edward G. Rozycki, "Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education" available at

[12] This expands the precept: "The law cannot hope to deter involuntary movement or stimulate action that cannot physically be performed." The Model Penal Code (Philadelphia: The American Law Institute, 1956) in Herbert Morris (ed.), Freedom and Responsibility (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1961), p. 112.

Sometimes laws are passed which are morally obnoxious, for example, fining parents for the misbehavior of their children in school. The only rational sense such laws make is if we take them to be surreptitious suggestions that a blind eye will be given to the methods parents -- but not officers of the court or their representatives -- might use to coerce desirable behavior from their children.

[13] For expansion on the notion of intervention, see Edward G. Rozycki, 'Rationales for Intervention' available at Moral responsibility attaches more or less proportionally to the persons whose actions are constitutive of the intervention. Voluntary human actions themselves are not variables or the values of variables. See Edward G. Rozycki, "The Functional Analysis of Behavior: theoretical and ethical limits" available at

[13b] See Are 'Best Practices' Good Enough?

[14] Empirical procedure, by itself, cannot identify all possible influencing or influenced variables. Without employing a well-established theory that constrains possibilities, a universal negation, e.g. "there is no variable such that ..." , cannot be established on its own with empirical procedures.

Lacking theoretical presuppositions, no empirical scientist can claim that there is no alternative cause for a particular effect; or, that there is no alternative effect for a particular cause; since the procedures needed to establish such claims are not spacio-temporally bounded, i.e. they lack a "stopping rule." See Gigerenzer on bounded rationality in Chapter 3 in G. Gigerenzer & R. Selten (eds) Bounded Rationality. The adaptive toolbox. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2002). For a quick overview of Gigerenzer's and Selten's heuristics types and comparison with standard computational methods see the "Types of Heuristics" chart available at

[15] See Edward G. Rozycki, "Public School Reform: Mired in Metaphor" available at

[16] 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.

[17] See, Edward G. Rozycki "Achieving Educational Goals: The Basic Model" available at

[18] Kenwyn K. Smith Groups in Conflict 1982

[19] See, Edward G. Rozycki " Leadership as Usurpation:
the Grand Inquisitor Syndrome and Morality in Rank-Based Organizations" available at


An exercise in determining the moral responsibility of the K-12 school personnel for a student's life outcomes.



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