Originally published in educational Horizons, edited 1/1/17

Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

edited 9/2/11

For tens of thousands of years human beings relied on oracles, prophets, medicine men and resignation to try to manage unknown risks. Then, in the transformative 200-year period from the mid 17thuntil the mid 19th Century, a series of brilliant insights resulted in the creation of groundbreaking tools for rational risk taking.[1]

Discoveries such as the theory of probability, the Law of Large Numbers, the structure of the normal distribution, standard deviation and Bayes’s theorem, transformed our understanding of risk. For the first time in human history, possibilities, probabilities and dangers could be logically analyzed and managed.[2]

In modern times most serious endeavors, things like medical research, engineering, investment management, economics, space flight, planning for war, even building a World Series winning baseball team, use these tools.[3] But more than half a century after the new paradigm of rational risk management was invented, school policy is still largely a matter of guessing, wishful thinking, wistful longing and irrational promises. 

Consider the contemporary discourse about youngsters said to be “placed at risk” of school failure and what can be done about it.[4] Then ask, does this conversation resemble the contemporary analytic decision-making that characterizes, say, the insurance industry? Not at all. For the most part it is feel good humbug.

Realistically, a forest of evidence discloses that a multitude of factors, in school but mostly out, place youngsters “at risk” of school failure. Importantly, most of these causes are way beyond any educator’s grasp. Hence, the evidence overwhelmingly favors limiting our expectations and promises for schooling. Despite this, however, the regnant educational discourse is limitless in its promises. Consider the No Child Left Behind Act or, its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act. What promises could be more boundless (or irresponsible) than these? 

Let’s put this silliness aside for a moment and ask, what risks of failure are inevitable in schooling? Or, put another way, what really is necessary for school success? The requisite conditions occur in four clusters. 

  • First, there are necessary personal conditions. Developmental disabilities, emotional and/or physical illness, malnutrition, unmet psychosocial needs, inadequate self-esteem, parental abuse and/or neglect, debilitating anxiety, depression, substance abuse and indifference or hostility toward schooling, and so forth, all can take a fatal toll on education. And, crucially, none of these are under educator control. 
  • Second, there are necessary social conditions. Things like poverty, discrimination, juvenile gang activity, broken homes, and abusive, neglectful or inept parenting, all can place a child at risk of school failure. These too are beyond any educator’s control. 
  • Then there are necessary school conditions. Things like school mismanagement, a badly crafted curriculum, overcrowding, dilapidated classrooms, inadequate or unsuitable instructional materials, rampant bullying or disruptive behavior, all can hamper or defeat learning. Once again, teachers have little say here. School administrators do, but even they are limited by money constraints and the frequent absence of public support. 
  • Finally, certain in-classroom instructional conditions must pertain. Lessons must be well planned and expertly implemented. Classroom management must be effective. And, within practical limits, individual differences have to be accommodated. Only in this area, do teachers have a good deal of control. 

Crucially, if just one necessary condition in any of these four clusters of necessary conditions is unmet, a child is at risk of failure. That is the intimidating situation that educators face daily. Yet, even in the face of this humbling and inhospitable reality, irrational true believers adamantly insist that, given the right attitude, skill and perseverance, teachers can prevail. Foolish school administrators, dreamy professors of education, worried parents and unwise politicians all participate in this irrational celebration of the impossible. 

Given rational risk management’s nearly universal acceptance in other serious endeavors, we should ask, what is going on here? Why are these plainly daffy flights of fancy so persistent in education? 

First of all, the fantasy serves those who embrace it. These castles in the sky imbue the otherwise opaque and unpromising world of pedagogical true believers with clarity and hope — albeit false. And they make mealy mouthed politicians look good. Unhappily, they serve no one else and school kids least of all. 

We all have compensating personal fantasies of one sort or another. But if we are normal we keep a lid on them. True believers in pedagogical omnipotence exercise no such self-control. They utterly give themselves over to their fantasies. And, in promising pedagogical pie in she sky, professional politicians manifest no honesty whatsoever.

This is when the damage begins. Such harm has its deepest origin in the true believer’s objectification of the other. For them, all others are mere actors in a highly personal fantasy drama. Perceived by the true believer as having no minds or wills of their own, all others exist solely to play a role, whether or not it fits their actual reality. Moreover, these true believers cling to their illusions even when the other obstinately refuses to play along. [5]

Consider the true believing teacher educators who, in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence, promote the fantasy of pedagogical omnipotence. Day after day, these self-deluded dons fit novices with counterfeit super hero capes and urge them to rush to every kid’s rescue. If these propagandized novices actual get their own inner city or poor rural classrooms it takes time for them to recognize that what they have been taught is utter folly. In the interim much damage is done. Day after day false optimism and unrealistic choices are repaid with indifference, contempt, hostility and sabotage. Day after day real opportunities for rational decision-making are sacrificed. Day after day teacher and conscientious students suffer. 

Meanwhile, back in the ivory tower, another dreamy branch of the education professoriate preach a competing, though equally unfeasible, delusion. In place of wistful optimism, these petite bourgeois Bolsheviks urge revolutionary fantasy on their befuddled charges. Instead of providing aspiring teachers with analytic tools they can use to make their own sense of the world, these faculty lounge guerrilla fighters “actively engage them in revolutionary transformation.” Instead of providing tools for risk management, they prattle on about the despotism of the marketplace, the exploitation of workers by capitalists and the distribution of the conditions of production. And should any student dare suggest that Marxism is defunct because communism failed utterly, they respond with name-calling.[6]

Here again, reality gives way to pernicious dreaming. Do these dreamy Bolsheviks see their students, not to mention the youngsters these novices aspire to teach, as actual human beings? Or are they, mere dramatis personae without personal identities or consciousness who exist solely to serve the true believer’s fantasy?

What about the politicians who vastly overpromise what schools can deliver?  I suspect they just are liars who fully realize they can blame educators when their politically motivated promises inevitably fail..

Many educators censor their own misgivings about these and similar fantasies of educator omnipotence. Troubled by self-doubt, worried that they will be perceived heartless or as excusing their own incompetence, they rarely challenge the reigning false hopefulness. Hence, the true believers are seldom challenged. 

As a further complication, a wide variety of con men exploit schooling’s all-permeating irrationality. Mendacious school administrators employ phony optimism to shift blame for student failures to teachers. Self-serving professors of education preach false optimism to maintain program enrollment and make themselves more popular. Two-faced parents take refuge in fantasies of educator ‘omnipotence’ to escape personal responsibility for their children’s scholastic difficulties. Machiavellian politicians embrace it to escape responsibility for the educational consequences of their incompetent and/or corrupt public administration. Taken together, this blend of folly and deceit makes rational risk management in schooling nearly impossible. 

What should be done? There are obvious difficulties in getting people to accept the cold realities a true risk management approach brings to schooling. Regardless, when the necessary personal, social, school and instructional conditions fail to line up, schooling failure is inevitable; and in far to many cases there is little or nothing that educators can do about it. 

In the end It all comes down to rational versus irrational decision-making. Just as a capable military commander reluctantly recognizes the inevitability of losses and medical professionals sadly recognize that all their patients are not going to get well, so responsible educators and honest government officials must accept the laws of probability regarding academic failure. For some kids it simply is inevitable given their situation.

The reigning US ideology of limitless educator effectiveness sacrifices far too many children who could learn if vital resources weren’t diverted to hopeless causes. Plainly, we can’t afford to continue playing make-believe, given the limited resources we are prepared to commit. 

[1] Peter L. Bernstein. Against the Gods: the remarkable story of risk, John Wiley and Sons, 1996, pp 1-6. 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Op cit, p. 2. 

[4] Note that this language presupposes that youngsters’ own choices are irrelevant to their being “at risk.” See, also, Edward G. Rozycki, “Identifying the ‘At Risk’ Student: What is the Concern?

“available at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/AtRisk.html

[5] I derived this general idea from Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books, Random House, New York, 2004, pp. 26 – 28. 

[6] “Interview with Peter McLaren (Part II).” Professing Education, December, 2003, Vol 2. No. 2. 

[7] Quoted by McLaren, Op cit.