On the Centralization of Governance


In his thought provoking response to my post Beyond Ideology, Will notes that though there is a trend in current ed reform measures towards centralization of power, at the same time we are presented with a paradox inherent in regulation. Regulatory power is both necessary to protect democratic freedoms and property of the commons, yet can simultaneously become detrimental to democracy by freezing out local communities (in this post, I am going to concentrate on the first part of that equation).

In light of this paradox, Will ends his piece asking “how then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities?” I feel that forwarding solutions to this problem is essential to promoting our vision of schools as ecosystems. This is parallel to the “tragedy of the commons.” How do we regulate something that belongs to all in a manner that protects long-term benefits while yet protecting local individual and community freedoms and rights?

I don’t know any clear answers to these questions or problems. But I have the sense that there is no one, monolithic right way to govern or regulate something, and that best governance practices may differ dependent on contexts and the nature of what is being regulated. Some things may be best governed through federal policy. Some things may be best governed by local community control. Some things may be best governed by being left up to the whims of market forces. I think this openness to fluidity is applicable to governance of public schools as well. Some aspects of public schools may be best left to the autonomy of  a local school or district to choose. Some aspects are perhaps better directed as a centralized process.

In politics, there are those who are fairly universal in their prescription that issues are best determined by federal policy, or on the other side, by state policy. Not to oversimplify this, but I think immediately of the Articles of Confederation. They were too weak. A stronger, more centralized government was required in order for our economy and nation to flourish. But the debate that eventually engendered the subsequent Constitution seems to live on today. Jay P. Greene’s arguments against the Common Core Standards (my response here), for example, appear stolidly due to a rejection of the intrusion of the federal government upon what he perceives as the state’s rights.

I believe that a centralization of standards such as the Common Core is in fact necessary to the continuation of our democracy. If we cannot agree upon standards of common skills and knowledge that we would expect our students to achieve, I’m afraid achieving the solidarity of vision and capability necessary to maintain a democracy will be unfeasible (for more on this, read E.D. Hirsch, Jr.; he explicates this much more eloquently than I can). What we would be left with is the chaotic mess of individual teachers and students struggling in the isolation of their classrooms with disconnected and disparate ideas, inevitably leading to inequity, as I argued in my post on GothamSchools on the need for a coherent core curriculum. My main point in that post, and I will repeat it again — because I believe it strongly — is that “without a systematic approach to the core content we teach, then we are systematically failing our students.”

So in this case, I see centralization as necessary to provide the systematic guidance and direction for schools in determining what sequence of topics to follow as they make curricular decisions. That doesn’t mean that I think we all have to agree on everything. It just means that we have to agree to the foundational topics necessary to gain academic understanding of a given content area. For example, in the most recent AFT American Educatoran article on the difficulty of teaching such a core topic as evolution in biology notes that if teachers do not have the confidence and knowledge to teach essential scientific facts, and “if students come to think that science is simply a matter of one’s opinion, and that those opinions come from our values and faith, then it will be impossible for science to provide trusted, unbiased information to citizens and policymakers.” [Bold added]

My point in bringing all this up is to challenge the idea that centralization of power or decision-making is necessarily a bad thing. The deeper question, then, is the one that Will brought up in his post: “how then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities?” I’d like to dig deeper into some potential avenues of thought about involving and engaging local communities in democracy and governance in my next post on this topic.

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2 thoughts on “On the Centralization of Governance

  1. This is a perfect description of the problem. In NYC, it has been playing out (since the early 1900s) through this pendulum swing from 'local' to 'central' back to 'local' control of the school system. It seems to happen over a 60 (or so?) year period. No set up seems to work for the communities that have always struggled -and each looks attractive when the pendulum has swung in the complete opposite direction (the grass is always greener I guess). I, for one, would love a whole ton of community control right about now. If it actually comes? Maybe not so much.
    Anyway, awesome piece!

    I was interested to recently learn, btw, that the solution to the commons tragedy (that help should come from above) was proven wrong (by Elinor Ostrom). turns out that commoners tend to work these things out when left to solve the issues themselves. Just though I'd put that out there.

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  2. NYCDOEnuts, thanks for your positive feedback, and thanks for providing some deeper historical perspective on this. You're right, like so many things in the education world, things seem to swing back and forth over time on this politically and philosophically. One time I was in my former principal's office, and I was showing her some of E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge stuff, and she was like, “Oh yeah, we used to talk about some of that,” and goes through her bookshelf, where she's got binders and portfolios from eons, and pulls out some curriculum guide from 20-30 years ago (which made me even more frustrated that we weren't implementing anything similar). And when I read Dewey, it's awesome but also kind of disturbing how the things he talks about are so incredibly relevant today.

    I want more community involvement and empowerment, but I'm not sure what mechanism would best provide that in such a way that addresses the concerns for paradox that Will raises. I'm interested in learning more about Elinor Ostrom's ideas, I just read a piece on her that was interesting on Education Next the other day. Do you recommend any of her work?

    As I was saying in my piece, I think we have to be careful about saying that it's always top down or always bottom up in terms of regulation. Sometimes leaving things up to individuals to resolve may be best, but then there are cases where it is not. For example, in terms of the tragedy of the commons, when we talk about regulating wilderness areas or fishing the open sea, these are not things I don't think best left up to individuals, because this translates into leaving it open to being ravished by business interests. I believe we need federal protection of wilderness areas, and we need global regulation of fishing in order to ensure that environmental services are not devastated.

    Thanks for your feedback and thoughts and I'd love to hear more!

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