The Law and Unintended Consequences

The Law and Unintended Consequences

With few exceptions, laws are conceived much more liberally than they are implemented. Laws are conceived in an atmosphere where everything is possible; all teachers are highly qualified and all schools employ a plethora of Reading Intervention Specialists. Laws are implemented, on the other hand, in an environment where resources are limited and demand exceeds capacity.  It is like an architect designing a building not knowing where it is to be built.  The soil at the site may be too sandy, too wet, or too rocky. In the case of schools implementing laws, the issues that lead to unintended consequences are related to limited on-site resources including time, training, space, and money. Actually, that is not true, the difficulty is not limited resources, but the refusal to admit to the existence of limited resources; a kind of meta-problem. How does one address a lack of resources if there is no admission that there is a lack of resources? We would like to believe that every curriculum and remedial intervention has a scientific research-base; that every teacher is highly qualified and sufficiently trained to deliver instruction as intended; and that every school has the time, space, and money to provide appropriately individualized instruction to every child. In the real world there are few public schools that are as we would like them to be; most deny that they suffer any lack of resources.

Unfortunately, it is hard to get a job done as intended without the right tools.  In the absence of necessary resources, creative and intellectual energies are diverted from getting the job done, as it was originally conceived, to developing excuses and manipulating appearances to avoid penalties. For instance, is the purpose of standardized testing intended to promote learning or to teach children how to take standardized tests? Is the concept of least restrictive environment (LRE) intended to keep all children in their local school or motivate their local school to provide sufficient programming to meet the needs of all children? Now that 15% of special education budgets can be used for early intervening services provided in general education settings, it is only common sense that such funds be used 1) for new general education programs intended to prevent the need for special education services and 2) only after successful prevention has resulted in a decrease in the demand for special education. However, as Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.” This is especially so when decision-making is biased by self-interest and influenced by denial. It is human nature to avoid exposing weaknesses; for instance, how many of our children hide the fact that they have difficulty reading? Unless schools (and children who cannot read) are brave enough to admit their weaknesses, they will never fully overcome them.

Is there a way in which a principal or parent can judge whether a particular educational experience conforms to the law as conceived or whether it is simply intended to satisfy the powers that be?  A formula that I have found helpful in evaluating the potential of a particular education experience is I x 3 = E: Informed (I) times three (x 3) equals an effective education (= E).

  1.  An informed program of instruction is ideally one that has a scientific research-base, has been field tested, and has a track record of success.
  2. An informed instructor is one who has sufficient training, experience, and knowledge to deliver the chosen program of instruction as intended by the author and publisher; with fidelity to design.
  3. An informed environment responds to those elements necessary to ensure a reasonable rate of progress, such as intensity and duration of instruction, grouping, group size, location, the need to integrate and infuse reinforcement, and so on.

When penalties are involved, much of the energy necessary to complete the task as intended is diverted to avoiding the negative consequences related to not completing the task.  In other words, at least some of the focus is on avoiding the whip rather than doing the work. It is this all too human response that results in unintended consequences that run counter to the law as originally conceived.

Parents need to work with, not against, schools to maximize the use of limited resources.  Schools need to trust parents enough to engage the collaborative brainstorming necessary to develop creative solutions.

Parents and educators have the same mission, to prepare children to be happy and productive adults, and the same enemies, those being insufficient resources to get the job done. The battle can only be won through a true alliance based on trust as well as mutual interests.  Putting aside internecine squabbling is essential if the parties responsible for implementing laws as they are conceived are able to avoid unintended consequences.

Source: Dickman, G.E., (2007). The Law and Unintended Consequences.Perspectives on Language and Literacy,  33, 1 at p. 5


[1] Reading Intervention Specialist refers to an individual with documented expertise in the relationships among language, reading, and writing with the ability to apply that knowledge in the identification, prevention, and treatment of reading difficulties, whether they be mild, moderate, or severe.  Due to differences in state requirements, Reading Intervention Specialists may or may not be certified or licensed.  The professional background of a Reading Intervention Specialist may be in educational psychology, learning disabilities, speech and language, reading and language, or special education.