Unintended Consequences


In 1850, as part of a collection of legislation intended to once again defer civil war, the Fugitive Slave Act (FSA) was passed. It had always been technically true that escape by a slave to a ‘free state’ did not mean they were legally free, but in practice, reaching Ohio or New York dramatically reduced the chance they'd ever be forced back into bondage.

The FSA mandated some pretty serious fines for anyone in law enforcement who didn’t demonstrate sufficient commitment to capturing and returning this peculiar contraband. It even required private citizens to respond when called upon to act as a sort of ‘posse’ in these efforts. The goal was to force northerners to be a bit more cooperative when southern ‘property’ was at large.

If asked, most northerners would have condemned the system of slavery, and there were of course some rather vocal abolitionists. But most folks were simply leading their daily lives, uninvolved one way or the other. Much like today, there was a substantial gap between popular opinion and overt action. People have things to do – it’s not personal.

Hey, Swamp People is on!

Runaway SlavesThe FSA had a result quite different than intended. When forced to partake one way or the other, most Northerners chose to assist runaways, directly or indirectly. Whether this was Christian charity or a collective middle finger to the South was irrelevant to the couple sleeping in their barn and accepting that leftover ham. The FSA ended up galvanizing into action the formerly uninvolved – but not in the way intended.

This is what we in the history business call “unintended consequences.” Examples are plentiful.

Several years ago, my district implemented a policy against giving extra credit for ‘stuff’ - no points for tissues, colored pencils, novels used in class, etc. They argued it was wrong to reward some students with points inaccessible to those with fewer resources.

Fair enough.

The new policy led to several unanticipated consequences. Many of us simply quit reading as many novels or doing as many artsy-fartsy projects. There are other ways to acquire resources, but few have the patience or wherewithal to perpetually write grants and fill out RQs for stuff they might not get anyway.

Besides, hours of tedious paperwork and bureaucratic hoop-jumping without assured benefit to students? That’s what VAM and TLE are for. 

School SuppliesMost teachers were already maxed out on what they could buy themselves, so some instituted modest but uniform ‘supply lists’ required of all students. Those unable to comply were dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

These were the same kids who didn’t have to worry before about coming up with colored pencils or poster board because we always had a stash in the back which had been donated for extra credit. That was, in fact, why we’d done it that way.

This is what my friends in ELA would call ‘ironic’ – and not in a fun way.

‘Extra credit,’ properly dispersed, rarely makes a dramatic difference in a kid’s total grade. It may nudge, but the overall impact is negligible in an ocean of numerization which is largely subjective to begin with. The effort to eliminate it, however well-intentioned, had negative impact on those it claimed to protect.

ProhibitionThe introduction of the horse to Plains Amerindians. Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920’s, or of drugs today. Pretty much anything involving the internet. There are exceptions, but it often seems the greater the good we’re trying to mandate, the more ‘unintended consequences’ prove quite the spoilers.

One last example…

In the early 1970’s, employers began running into trouble with the ‘aptitude tests’ they used to assess applicants’ qualifications – or at least their potential – for available positions. As the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related legislation grew in scope and impact, these tests became suspect – minorities didn’t always score as high as whites.

The disparity had nothing to do with IQ or potential and everything to do with socio-economic realities only one short century after the Civil War. The head of racism had perhaps been crushed, but its fangs remained firmly clamped into our collective heel.

Aptitude TestBusiness owners had no desire to end up on the wrong end of socio-legal revolution. Their solution was simple – no more aptitude tests. Instead, applicants now needed a college degree – in some cases, pretty much ANY college degree. Let the universities deal with any disparities – and hey, look at our over-qualified workforce!

Demand for post-secondary degrees swelled, and the cost of college rose commensurately. Many minorities who would have done just fine on the various aptitude tests – or could have, given some basic training – were effectively washed out of the job pool by a financial and academic bar they weren’t prepared to clear.

Many good jobs in the 1970’s didn’t really require that level of education in order to be successful. For many, a college degree was complete overkill. Nevertheless, those from families who’d shared the benefits of preferential status for generations could often make the necessary adjustments fiscally and academically, while those still fighting for their place at the table often could not.

Frightened employers trying to cover their pale behinds sought refuge in ‘higher standards’. They couldn’t be held accountable for racial or economic fallout as long as they clung to requirements both lofty and universal. That it centered around 'education' made it even easier to blame the victim.

So… bonus.

You see where I’m going with this now, don’t you?

SNF1970When we try to mass-mandate solutions in ways that ignore or deny the underlying sources of the problems, there will be unintended consequences. In the 1970’s the primary issue was race, and its impact on access to education or employment. That hasn't gone away, but we've expanded the problem by insisting that every new life must be immediately assimilated into our 'college and career' ideals. We intone 'all children can learn' as we practice 'all your identity are belong to us'. 

We want so badly for ‘higher standards’ and ‘college ready’ to become unilateral solutions to complex problems, and to provide us with moral and legal cover as we marginalize and blame those not born into pre-existing privilege. We choose not just the height of the expectation, but its very nature. We rarely stop to ask if our concept of ‘mastery’ reflects anyone’s worldview but our own.

In practice, ‘high expectations’ has become a new poll tax or grandfather clause – fair and reasonable on the surface, but inequitable and perhaps even malicious just below the gilding. It’s a job description tailored to the person on the inside they’ve already decided to hire, labeling all others ‘unqualified’. 

PF StudentsIt doesn't have to be purposeful to be destructive (hence 'unintended'), but I'm not always certain it's not. Our conflation of 'high standards', 'success', and 'compliance with my old white guy paradigm' is simply too persistent to dismiss intent altogether. Real learning and its 'measurement' must vary with circumstances and goals. It must accommodate real students and teachers working through their messy, non-standardized worlds.

That this is cloyingly unsatisfying makes it no less true. Until we grasp that, we’ll just keep trying to pound the wonderful variety of pegs entrusted to us into the same damn little round holes. Not only will we keep failing to make them all fit, but we’ll break far too many along the way.

Their destruction will be an unintentional consequence of our most noble rhetoric. The grades will go on their report cards, but the failure? That’s ours.

All Your Base Are Belong To Us

RELATED POST: #EdReform is NOT that Difficult 

RELATED POST: If I Were A Conspiracy Guy


Once again, you nailed it! I have worked at the lower socio-economic schools most of my teaching career and I fear I have seen the results of intricate, unique, octagonal pegs in near splintered condition due to our "one-size-fits-all" education system. How long must educators see the problem, but not be consulted as part of the solution??

One year at North, my friends and I dubbed it 'The Year of Unintended Consequences.' It seems like that happens when people have solutions and are in search of the problems. Love the historical connections!


Add new comment