We’ve got it all backwards

By Thomas F Kelly, Ph D

Educational problems including low student achievement, student discipline and dropouts are not caused by social, economic, psychological, or other problems external to the school.

Currently we stress these external causes of student failure including economic (poverty, we need more money), social (dysfunctional family, racism, sexism), psychological (self-image, resilience, emotionally disturbed, learning disabilities, etc.), and other than educational causes. All these variables exist primarily outside the school and beyond its control. While they can be extremely important for other reasons, the causes of educational failure are in the schools (ineffective programs and negative interpersonal relationships) and the solutions must be found and/or created in the schools as well. Educational problems require educational solutions.  While real, solving such external problems will do nothing to solve educational problems if the system is dysfunctional.  The system needs to change.

Noneducational causes are incorrectly blamed for educational failure.  Seeing them as causes that need solutions serves not only as false solutions that will never work, but also a distraction from the solutions that will work.  We are researching and dealing with these external issues in our efforts to improve schools.  These are totally beyond the school’s ability to control.  The means to improve the schools must be found and/or created in the school themselves.  Educational problems have educational causes.  These causes are completely inside the school. Until we identify and effectively address these real educational causes, we will continue to see the same unsatisfactory results we have.

Our university teacher education programs are also focusing on the same external variables in efforts to find ways to improve education outcomes.   They are training the new teachers to maintain the status quo.  Research also must instead refocus on internal school variables, their effectiveness and weaknesses to assess and improve student results. 

There are two critical variables that we need to improve to get all our desired educational outcomes.

  1. Effective programs         2 Positive relationships

There is a cause – effect equation that illustrates the relationship between effective programs and positive relationships that cause high achievement and good behavior.

EP + PR = HA + GB

(Causes) = (Effects)

Effective Programs + Positive Relationships = High Achievement + Good Behavior

Ultimately it is not the students who are failing but the ineffective programs and dysfunctional relationships in the schools.  While presently some programs may work to some effect, we must find ways to get them all to work to the full extent possible all the time.  It is not the teachers who are failing but the programs that they are using.  They are working with ineffective programs.  The test for program effectiveness is the extent to which it engages students in learning.  A highly effective program engages students in learning virtually all the time.  We must refocus the targets for improvement on the reading program, mathematics program, science program, etc.

It should be noted that students engaged in learning are not engaged in discipline problems.  Students not engaged in learning (frustrated and bored) are.  Ultimately effective programs will improve not only achievement but also relationships.

CONCLUSION

We are treating symptoms, not the disease.  While social, economic and psychological causes are ubiquitously viewed as causing educational problems, ironically the reverse is the truth.  Educational failure causes social, economic, psychological and interpersonal problems.  To the extent our educational programs are highly effective, that will lead to resolution of most of the social, economic and psychological problems we are experiencing.  These are to a great extent an effect of the failure of our educational system, not a cause of its failure.   We have it all backwards in terms of cause and effect.

For more on this, including in school solutions, see Dr Kelly’s book.

We Can do More and Better with Less: Education Reform Can Work, 2019 Edition

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