Mini-Smorgasbord Monday: School Choice, Nuance, and Opioids

File:Stick figure - choice.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
By Obsidian Soul (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Choice is no guarantee of quality

“…a remark by a DeVos spokesperson last week — ‘the ultimate accountability for schools is whether or not parents choose to send their children there’ — should be seen as an attack on the idea that school quality matters. It’s fake accountability.”

This is an important point to bear in mind. There are some choice advocates who argue that rich parents already have choice and no one critiques or limits their choices, so why shouldn’t poor parents be able to make their own choices, misinformed or no?

While there’s rhetorical attraction to that proposition, it’s also a circular argument, since the primary reason choice advocates call for choice in the first place is because parents with only poor performing schools located near them should have access and options for higher quality schools.

Other than the hard-line free-marketeers, few choice advocates would argue for unfettered choice without adequate oversight. How about we have more arguments about the oversight itself, rather than choice as some mystical holy grail?

Cantor: When a Bounty of Options Aren’t Enough, How Poor Parents Really Practice School Choice, The 74

Should vouchers be equated with segregation? It’s complicated.

Matt Barnum brings in the nuance. Like many things in ed world, we need to avoid painting vouchers with a broad partisan brush (saying this as much to myself as to you).

And a lot of how vouchers or education savings accounts are perceived has to do with how they are framed.

“Advocates for school choice often point to the support of black and Hispanic voters. An Education Next poll found that nearly 64 percent of African-Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics — compared to 50 percent of white respondents — would back a tax credit program to fund private school tuition.

But support for private school choice programs tends to drop substantially when the word “voucher” is introduced or the use of public dollars is emphasized.”

Critics of vouchers say they’re marred by racism and exacerbate segregation. Are they right?, Chalkbeat

Scholarly nuance on charters vs. districts

“Despite some important differences, the teaching climates of charter and public schools do not match the enthusiastic expectations of proponents or the worst fears of critics.”

Please keep this guy away from rousing charter school debate, Huff Post

Speaking of scholarly nuance on charters vs. districts, check out these two longreads to broaden your nuanced perspective on charters and districts:

The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First, James Forman in Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository (H/T Matt Barnum)

The Structure of Educational Revolutions, Andy Smarick in National Affairs

Charters should be able to hire uncertified teachers

Given that most ed programs haven’t exactly demonstrated a concern about outcomes and actually preparing their teachers for real classrooms, seems to me that it would make sense to allow charter schools in NY to hire uncertified teachers and train them as they see fit. Hold them accountable for the results.

And let’s be honest–the most successful charters have tightly managed structures that pair assessment, curriculum, and professional learning that could probably better prepare teachers — or send them on their way if they don’t perform.

How Teachers Are Taught, Monica Disare in The Atlantic

The difference a father can make

“My parents didn’t think I was less than my brothers because I’m a girl. My father Ziauddin says, ‘Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings.’ ”

Our Q&A with Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and education advocate, The Lily

Teen herd behavior channels the opioid epidemic into schools

“The 16-year-old, a student at a specialized and highly competitive public high school, says drug use runs rampant at her school.

‘I was drinking and smoking (pot) because it was accepted,’ said the teen-age girl, who asked to remain anonymous to prevent bullying at her school.”

During finals and midterm exams, she said, students pop prescription stimulants such as Adderall, Vyvanse and Ritalin to aid their studies.

‘It’s crazy,’ she said. ‘Even the kids who never use drugs want to enhance their brains, so they’re taking these drugs.’

The girl’s mother thinks the school didn’t do enough to help her daughter.

‘I still don’t understand why the school had no control over what kids are doing besides academics,’ she said tearfully.’

‘Teenagers are very hormonal and go through a lot of changes,’ [the student} explained. ‘Those emotions have nowhere to go. It’s the only way that they can get a grip on themselves and their feelings.’ ”

New York City’s opioid crisis seeps into public schools as drug counselors see uptick in student addicts, NY Daily News


Smorgasbord: Last Full Week of School for NYC

By Shuoism (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
This is the last full week of school for NYC student and teachers. Congrats to graduates and to their teachers.

This is also the last week of the NY legislative season. The kerfuffle is over mayoral control of NYC schools. Lost in the kerfuffle is legislative action on segregation.

Success Academy release some of its curriculum publicly

One of my biggest criticisms of Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz has been that she makes a big deal about terming her schools “public” schools, yet keeps her curriculum private.

Now I can’t level that criticism any longer. She has released some of SA’s curriculum, with more to come. Right now there’s only K – 4.

It’s also important to note that this material is not openly licensed.

Success Academy Education Institute (requires registration)

Success Academy Charter Network Opens Up Literacy Curriculum, Ed Week

Robert Pondiscio suggests that the strength of SA’s curriculum is that it’s based around rich knowledge and texts.

Though from my (admittedly cursory) glance at a unit, SA literacy looks pretty darn similar to the “balanced literacy” approach that has been utilized for years across NYC.

So what’s the difference? There are firm guidelines for how a classroom must look and the practices that accompany the curriculum. And the units do seem to be firmly oriented around text sets that can build knowledge.

To my mind, the key differentiator in SA’s favor here is coherency and consistency.

Success Academy puts its “School Blueprints” online: How many will follow the lead of our highest achieving charter network?, Ed Next

Questions to ask about charter schools

In his new seat at Chalkbeat, Matt Barnum compiles a useful list of questions that need to be asked about charter school for further research.

Beyond the test score horse race: 5 big questions researchers are asking about charter schools, Chalkbeat

The differences between De Blasio’s and Farina’s leadership

“With Bloomberg, it was like running a hamburger joint, but it was my own hamburger joint,” Hoogenboom said. “And with de Blasio, I’m running a McDonald’s and I have to serve the Big Mac.”

From power to paperwork: New York City principals adjust to a reined-in role under Carmen Fariña, Chalkbeat NY

Doesn’t matter, really, who’s on Devos’s staff

“They could bring John Dewey back from the dead, slap a MAGA hat on him, give him one of the myriad open roles, and he’d still get rolled.”

Does It Matter Who DeVos Hires? Tucker V Finn, Allen On Choice Privilege, New Paharans, Campus Politics, Pizza Essay, Bear Punching, More!, Eduwonk

Most college students can’t make a cohesive argument because they lack knowledge

“Some of the biggest gains occur at smaller colleges where students are less accomplished at arrival but soak up a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum.”

Exclusive Test Data: Many Colleges Fail to Improve Critical-Thinking Skills, WSJ via TopSheet

Well, yeah, chaos isn’t good for any kid

“The theory here is that chaotic schools — a loud hallway, a messy class — simply reproduce the stress that children may bring from home. Rules should be the same across the school, so students know what to expect. And students should be met with understanding and patience.”

How To Apply The Brain Science Of Resilience To The Classroom, NPR Ed

CMOs, on average, are more effective than independent and for-profit charters

My guess is this is because a CMO provides greater knowledge sharing and network effects.

“Students attending a school run by a charter management organization seem to benefit the most. CMOs lead to small but statistically significant annual gains in math and reading, relative to both traditional public schools and other types of charters.”

Who’s helping and who’s hurting? New national study looks at how charter networks measure up, from KIPP to K12, Chalkbeat

Mike Antonucci: Keep your employees happy

“I’ve had charter school people call me lots of times over the years and ask for my advice on how they keep the union out of their schools. My advice has always been the same and it’s not what they want to hear. You don’t keep the union out, your employees keep the union out because they’re happy. Happy people don’t say *we really need a union here.* They form unions because they’re unhappy and they need protection and the unions provide that.”

He also has some good advice for NEA and AFT union heads worth heeding.

Labor Pains

Rolling back accountability is NYSUT’s gameplan

NYSUT, unsurprisingly, heralded the NY Board of Regent’s recent move to limit testing from 3 days to 2.

As a next step, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta stated, “NYSUT will be strongly advocating that the new benchmarks be age appropriate, fair, and accurate in order to ensure that students and public schools are not unfairly labeled.”

So. . . All kids should get an achievement award! Woohoo!

Reduction in testing days a positive step, NYSUT

NCTQs Kate Walsh on recent moves to jettison teacher tests and credentialing requirements

“While there is good research describing the benefits of matching teacher and student race, let’s remember that those benefits are based on studies involving black and white teachers of otherwise comparable ability. Any benefits from matching race are erased when we no longer make our first priority the effectiveness of a teacher or our best estimates about who will be effective. While it’s uncomfortable to push back for fear of appearing insensitive to real problems of educational inequity, we must insist on prioritizing what’s best for students—having the most skilled teacher”

via Edu Wonk

I’ve written about Hochman’s writing method before. New book out

Here’s an article for American Educator based on the book:

Link to the book:

Healthier lunches don’t decrease obesity–but they increase test scores!

“In this paper, we test whether offering healthier lunches affects student achievement as measured by test scores. Our sample includes all California (CA) public schools over a five-year period. We estimate difference-in-difference style regressions using variation that takes advantage of frequent lunch vendor contract turnover. Students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher on CA state achievement tests, with larger test score increases for students who are eligible for reduced price or free school lunches. We do not find any evidence that healthier school lunches lead to a decrease in obesity rates.”

School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance, NBER

NYC Governance

If you’re interested in matters of governance (and if you’re into education, you should be), check out this interesting Prezi on the “Science of Collaborative Governance” by Ag Resource Strategies, LLC.


There was one slide in particular that made me think about NYC and the shifts that have occurred under leadership from Klein/Bloomberg to Fariña/De Blasio.

There are three typical “governance styles” outlined in the presentation: Hierarchy, Market, and Network.

The NYC DOE under Klein/Bloomberg established a hierarchy under Bloomberg’s assumption of mayoral control, but Klein then explicitly drew from market styles by devolving more power to principals and dismantling the geographical “fiefdoms” of districts.

Under Fariña/De Blasio, there’s been an interesting mixture of some of these styles. Fariña speaks the language of the network governance style (“trust,” “collaboration,” “partnerships,” etc), and many of her initiatives follow along those lines, but her administration has also established adherence to a hierarchical style of governance, with superintendents regaining precedence and a restructuring of external support organizations to again be based primarily on geography.

For a gigantic system such as New York City’s, managing it’s complexity is difficult no matter what style or admixture of styles is used, but there certainly seems to be room for more exploration of network styles within a hierarchical framework.

Charter vs. District Systems

By NASA’s Aqua/MODIS satellite ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Neerav Kingsland looks at the recent findings on professional development via the TNTP Mirage report and the Rand Corporation study, and comes to the conclusion that “Professional development only seems to lead to student achievement increases in charter schools!”

I noted in a recent post that in the TNTP study, teacher effectiveness and growth was notably more observable in a CMO, and I hypothesized that this could be attributable to some charter networks having more tightly managed systems of assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

But to suggest that this is an innate quality of charter schools is questionable. There is absolutely no reason for a district school not to be in possession of such qualities, and indeed, many do.

Kingsland argues for NOLA-style systems, in which the government merely regulates, rather than operates, schools, with the idea being that the private sector can conduct operations more efficiently and effectively. But there’s a potential, and possibly critical, issue with such a system: a lack of coherency.

Within a well-managed district, on the other hand, there is potential for greater coherency. A state or central office can provide specific direction on operational shifts via policy that all district schools would be expected to adhere to.

Kingsland asks, “is it more likely that we can achieve major gains in districts or scale highly effective charters?,” I think he’s created a false dichotomy. I think the more interesting question is, “How can we achieve major gains by leveraging federal, state, and district policy to implement effective and coherent systems, content, and practices across all schools?”

A NOLA-style system might be able to make swift initial gains, due to well-managed networks putting into place strong systems of assessment, feedback, and practice. But it’s certainly feasible that a well-managed district system can make even bigger gains over the longer haul.

I disagree, therefore, with Kingsland’s position that charter schools are inherently superior in enhancing teacher effectiveness and promoting student achievement. In fact, I charge that a NOLA-style system may ultimately run up against its innate incoherency, at which point, large-scale gains would stagnate.

I could be totally wrong on this, of course, and admit that this is conjecture and based on my own values. It may be that a NOLA-style system may end up leading to greater coherency in operations due to competition, and thus, best practices evolve through demonstrated gains in one organization and subsequent adoption by those who are attempting to compete.

I may also be overstating the ability of district schools to establish coherency, given constraints in operating within often volatile political contexts.

The problem is, of course, that while NOLA has demonstrated significant academic gains on tests since moving into a private sector operated system, it’s still purely conjecture as to whether the same benefit would transfer to any other district simply due to a  structural change. It’s also still conjecture that those gains can be solely attributed to a structural shift to private sector operation, rather than the simple mechanism of distributing students across geographical boundaries.

But let’s assume for the moment that Kingsland is correct that a private sector operated school system is the optimal system. I would still argue, even in such a case, that this doesn’t mean that such a system will necessarily scale effectively into different social and political contexts.

In the face of great complexity and uncertainty, we can hedge our bets by planning for robustness, rather than optimality.

The question therefore becomes: what is the most robust? A school system operated by the public, or a school system operated by the private sector?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between.

Structural vs. Operational Education Reform

New Orleans, LA, January 17, 2008 — The repaired school & branch library building. FEMA funding is helping to rebuild schools damaged and destroyed by flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Manuel Broussard/FEMA.

Neerav Kingsland has a thought-provoking piece entitled “The Complexity of the New Orleans Reform Effort Might Actually Make It Easier to Scale” up on his blog.

He argues that the large effect size shown by a recent study on the New Orleans reform can be attributed to the fact that the reforms were largely structural in nature, rather than programmatic, and that structures are easier to scale and replicate.

My guess is that because New Orleans took on a structural reform, and not a specific programmatic reform, the effort might actually be easier to scale. 

Often times, interventions that show the largest effects, such as labor intensive pre-k programs, require a lot of specialized expertise, high fidelity to implementation, and significant resources.

The confluence of organizational talent, strategy, and implementation is very hard to replicate.

But the New Orleans reforms were not particularly operational in nature. There was no multifacteded curriculum that had to be adopted, no teacher coaching model that required years of training, no wrap-around model that necessitated the coordination of numerous agencies.

This made made me remember a passage from Richard Kahlenberg’s book on Al Shanker, Tough Liberal*, specifically Shanker’s reaction to the Bundy proposal for Ford Foundation funded pilot community control district in Ocean-Hill Brownsville. Shanker’s position could be framed as a suitable counterclaim to Kingsland’s position:

Fundamentally, Shanker argued, the focus on governance changes were a distraction. ‘The tragedy of the Bundy proposals,’ Shanker said, ‘is that they take us away from the question of why children won’t read, why they can’t write, where is the money going to come from and what can we do for these children,’ focusing instead on whether board headquarters should ‘be a little closer or a little further away.’

“Whereas Shanker had supported the Ocean Hill-Brownsville pilot as part of a deal to get more money for [More Effective Schools], the Bundy proposal was education on the cheap–a way to be for change while also balancing the budget.”

This isn’t a direct counter to Kingsland’s take, but an interesting counterpoint in the sense of stressing the importance of funding, resources, and interventions over that of governance.

In my view, both facets are important. We need the hard work on the ground and the necessary funding for cultivating and implementing effective programs, but we also need coherent and consistent systems that connect to and organize that work.

Kingsland also makes an interesting claim about governance and structure as a critical strategy in coping with complexity:

“. . . the fact is that the New Orleans model is predicated more on layering in a structure and strategy over a complex system than it is on executing an operational heavy, resource intensive intervention.

In the long run, this is exactly why I think the New Orleans model has the potential to scale.”

This is a claim I find compelling, given the acknowledgement of education as a complex system. I’m just not sure I’m on board with the notion of turning an entire school system into a CMO. While this research is promising, I’m not so sanguine about the replicability of the New Orleans experiment, given the extreme variability of conditions and contexts.

What do you think about transforming an entire public education system into a privately managed system?

*I just happen to be reading it at this moment. Excellent and essential reading.

Why is a National Curriculum So Outrageous?

By United States Department of Education (ED) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A thought today about the “backlash” against the Common Core. I was thinking about how those of us who generally support it are always gently reminding folks that no, it’s not a “national” curriculum, nor any curriculum whatsoever.

Another common refrain while engaged in such backpedaling, especially in conservative quarters, is to lament the involvement of the federal government in the standards, when they incentivized state engagement through Race to the Top funding. Why did those meddling Feds have to get involved in state education business whatsoever?

But there’s a strange void in this discussion in our nation–very few would openly suggest that it would be better if our federal government got more involved in the arena of public education. And no one would possibly suggest anything so unfeasible and impolitic as developing a national curriculum.

Yet when it comes to public health, is anyone really questioning the importance of federal involvement, oversight, and infrastructure in the protection of our nation’s citizens against outbreaks of disease?

When the CDC speaks and acts on issues, Americans take it seriously. Meanwhile, our secretary of education travels across the country in a bus like an itinerant musician, trying to drum up support for federal initiatives.

The very little power that our federal government wields in the realm of education is to channel funding down to states; that Obama’s administration utilized that limited funding stream to incentivize its priorities seems not so much intrusive, but rather innovative. What other mechanism do they have, other than bully pulpit speeches?

Why is the development of a national curriculum so unfeasible as to be unspeakable in our country? Would it really be such a horror to have guidance and direction from our federal government on topics of study that an appointed commission of educators could develop for use in our public institutions? The USDOE, then, would stand for the content of its curricula, and curricula could be publicly reexamined and determined on a recurring basis.

If there really were an outbreak of Ebola that struck more than a handful of American people, then fingers would unerringly point to our federal government. Why? Because the danger of our entire nation would be at stake, even if the fault originally might be attributable to local institutions. Yet we have thousands upon thousands of our nation’s children attending schools where they are denied access to knowledge and skills that would provide them with greater opportunity. Is that really a “local” or “state” matter? Because it seems to me much more critical than Ebola to the future well-being of the United States.

Good to Great EcoSchools: Confronting the Brutal Facts

O to grace how great a debtor, daily I'm const...
O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be! (Photo credit: “The Wanderer’s Eye Photography”)

I’d like to return to an insightful book on management, Good to Great by Jim Collins, which I referred to in a previous post. There’s enough rich concepts in this book to mine further, so I will return to the book in future posts.

One of the interesting findings presented in the book is that good-to-great organizations confront “the brutal facts of their current reality.” They allow for such confrontation by creating “a culture wherein people have a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard.”

How many classrooms, schools, or school districts, have such cultures? All too often, students, teachers and principals discover themselves smoothing things over for the sake of appearances, pasting shallow gossip, jargon, and PDs over symptoms, rather than speaking to the deep-seated tensions that prevent them from best serving one another and their school community.

I deliberate in my own mind quite a bit about governance and decision-making processes, as I believe that anyone who thinks about the insoluble problems of public education must inevitably do, but especially in relation to the concept of decision-making in the face of complexity, with an eye towards both equity and effectiveness.

So when I came across an organizational system called Holacracy through a post from Ev Williams, creator of Blogger and Medium, I grew excited, and I found Holacracy fascinating. However, as I am not a principal of a school, I don’t quite have the leverage to fully implement such a system.

But there was one concept that Holacracy forwards that I found could be something I could implement with my own teams: the idea that “sensing and processing tensions” should be conducted transparently and for the purpose of continuous improvement.

I developed a protocol from this idea called “Processing Tensions,” which I welcome you to try out and adapt as you wish.

If something like a protocol rubs you the wrong way as too formal or constrained, I’ve still found the very idea of viewing “tensions” as something positive and constructive, rather than negative, to be empowering. Reframing this concept has helped me to steer through some obstacles in my work with other professionals. Sometimes having those “challenging” conversations with other adults can be a productive and positive experience in the eventual outcome, despite the fear and anxiety I might feel in the lead up to them.

So let me wrap this up by connecting the idea of processing tensions to “confronting the brutal facts of reality” as an organization. The reality is that if we want truth to be heard, and for the gap between what is and what could be to be bridged, then we cannot simply rely on the benevolence of our formal leaders. We must develop transparent mechanisms or practices for those tensions to be addressed and sublimated, and a culture of psychological safety in which those conversations can occur.

How can you work to develop such practices in your school or organization?

Operationalizing Democracy

In my last post reflecting on Will’s query of “how then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities?” I focused on the first part of that question, the concept of an overarching regulatory system. I noted that centralization of regulatory power is not necessarily a bad thing (though it certainly can be), and I also made the point that an attitude of openness to utilizing a diversity of regulatory methods is important, because there is most likely not one universal best way to govern all things at all levels.

In this post, I’d like to focus on the second, most important part of that question: the engagement and empowerment of local communities and individuals. Engaging local communities and individuals in decision-making processes is critical to ensuring that democracy is upheld.

But wait. Why do we even want to uphold democracy? Is democracy the best process for making decisions?

I’m not being facetious. We’re so browbeaten with the word ‘democracy’ that it’s become akin to the catch-all word ‘love‘; through overuse and diversification of usage, such embracing words become stand-ins for “something we agree is good that we can’t quite define.”

The simple version, I suppose, is that we cherish democracy as an ideal because we are aware that a concentration of power can lead to tyranny. The concept of a balance of power is integral to the founding of our nation, after all. But there’s more to it. As Cosma Shalizi and Henry Farrell argued in Cognitive Democracy, democracy can be seen as a superior mechanism (over markets and hierarchies) for tackling complex social problems, problems such as the achievement gap in public education, poverty, and mitigation of climate change.*

However, in order to best tackle such problems, Farrell and Shalizi caution that two features must be present: 1) facilitated communication between a diversity of viewpoints; and 2) relative equality in decision-making processes between affected actors.

Arguably, our own democracy fails to incorporate those features at an operational level, both historically and concurrently. Oftentimes, our democracy seems to function as determined by those narrow-minded interests that possess the deepest and most vested of pockets. The incidences in our nation’s history in which fuller acceptance of human and civil rights has occurred have only transpired due to an active and strong organization of aggressive interests, such as by unions and legal organizations.

I’m not a full-fledged cheerleader for technology, but I do believe that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift (cue world weary skeptics critiquing the use of this phrase) due to technology and social media. I don’t want to oversimplify complex processes, but we can witness this shift in the lessening power of those organizations embedded in bureaucratic, monolithic models such as the newspaper, music, and movie industries, and the rising power of smaller, agile, adaptive organizations. I say this cautiously, knowing that we are still on the cusp of any evolutionary, mature adaptation to the new paradigm. I think we would be hard pressed to think of models of any independent news organizations, for example, that have truly found a way to leverage new financing models and achieve financial stability (while we’re on that topic, please help support one of the best independent education news sites out there, GothamSchools). But without a doubt, things have changed, whether we like it or not. There’s no going back.

I see one great positive trend in all of this current disruption, and that is the growing empowerment of civil society through technology and social media. It is a reality in the business world, for example, that there is a much greater transparency and visibility, and thus a greater accountability to the public. This move towards greater transparency holds great potential for changing the responsiveness of those who govern, and a call for greater openness and sharing of data critical to accountable public service is also being made in education. Unfortunately, as Will and I continually point out on this blog, the data that is being collected and shared tends to be skewed in favor of a narrow-minded focus on shallow test scores and student value-added, to the detriment of student well-being and an enriching curriculum. And as Cedar Riener cautioned on Twitter in response to Felix Salmon’s article, the “problem is that convenient, cheap data does not always adhere to best goals. Common data narrows goals.”

I believe the empowerment of civil society through technology and social media provides us with an opportunity to make democratic decision-making a reality, thus providing a solution to the conundrum  Will posed in his question. I don’t know what such a mechanism might look like in actual operation, but here are some features that I believe are essential to its functioning:

  • Technology/social media and universal and speedy broadband access must be seen as a requisite to a functioning democracy, not as a bell and whistle
  • Prior to any decision-making process, there must be an information gathering phase in which a diversity of perspectives must be deliberately harnessed, listened to, and responded to. The data from this process, of course, must be publicly available and transparent
  • Everyday, local problems should be relegated to autonomous decision-making processes by local communities and individuals
  • Decision-making may still be subject to the standards of an editorial hierarchy, but those standards and hierarchies must be clear and transparent (vis-a-vis open source governance models)

*. [Let me just note here that I don’t necessarily subscribe to clear distinctions between democracy and hierarchy and markets; I see things as more intertwined, but for the purpose of this post, I’m running with it. And it should also be noted that Cosma Shalizi and Henry Farrell are talking about these things in relation to “macro institutions,” whatever that may mean.]

Why Democracy Solves Social Problems Better Than Markets or Hierarchies

The other day I discovered a fascinating essay entitled Cognitive Democracy on the Three-Toed Sloth, thanks to a link on Twitter from The Browser*. Co-written by Henry Farrell and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi (love that name!), it’s a thought provoking examination of the “macro-institutions” of markets, hierarchies, and democracies. As I read through it over Memorial Day weekend, it struck some nerves in me that resonated with related thoughts I’ve pursued here on Schools as Ecosystems and elsewere as I’ve begun branching out in my philosophy regarding education reform.

One thing I’ve struggled with as I mature in my ed reform perspectives hinges on a basic question: what sort of governance structures and decision-making processes are most conducive to the creation of positive and supportive school environments?

I am much enamoured with the need for transparency and “open source” development processes, especially in curriculum development, as I’ve articulated on GothamSchools. I have also written on Education Gadfly about the need for more dialogue and collaboration across all levels of those involved in public education. Central to these ideas is not only the necessity for dialogue, but more fundamentally for a diversity of perspectives to be included within that dialogue, which Will and I have argued for on this blog.

Henry and Cosma hit on some of these points. Ultimately, they argue for the supremacy of democracy over markets and hierarchies as a macro-institution for tackling complex social problems. It’s truly an interesting argument, and well worth spending the length of time it will take you to comb through it. In fact, once you’ve read it, I’d recommend heading over to Crooked Timber, where it is cross-posted, in order to check out some of the thoughtful commentary and dialogue that is ongoing there. Henry Farrell takes the time to consider and respond to the feedback.

But let me highlight a few of the passages in the beginning that outlines their perspective that resonated with me:

What are broad macro-institutions such as politics, markets and hierarchies good for? Different theorists have given very different answers to this question. The dominant tradition in political theory tends to evaluate them in terms of justice — whether institutions use procedures, or give results, that can be seen as just according to some reasonable normative criterion. Others, perhaps more cynically, have focused on their potential contribution to stability — whether they produce an acceptable level of social order, which minimizes violence and provides some modicum of predictability. In this essay, we analyze these institutions according to a different criterion. We start with a pragmatist question – whether these institutions are useful in helping us to solve difficult social problems

Some of the problems that we face in politics are simple ones (not in the sense that solutions are easy, but in the sense that they are simple to analyze). However, the most vexing problems are usually ones without any very obvious solutions. How do we change legal rules and social norms in order to mitigate the problems of global warming? How do we regulate financial markets so as to minimize the risk of new crises emerging, and limit the harm of those that happen? How do we best encourage the spread of human rights internationally? 

These problems are pressing — yet they are difficult to think about systematically, let alone solve. They all share two important features. First, they are all social problems. That is, they are problems which involve the interaction of large numbers of human beings, with different interests, desires, needs and perspectives. Second, as a result, they are complex problems, in the sense that scholars of complexity understand the term. To borrow Scott Page’s (2011, p. 25) definition, they involve “diverse entities that interact in a network or contact structure.” They are a result of behavior that is difficult to predict, so that consequences to changing behavior are extremely hard to map out in advance. Finding solutions is difficult, and even when we find one, it is hard to know whether it is good in comparison to other possible solutions, let alone the best. [Bold added]

Here are some direct parallels to the issues with schools that Will and I have been outlining on this blog. We have argued that schools, as Dewey stated, are primarily social institutions, and as such, they are highly complex, dynamic and dense with relationships and interdependencies.

We argue that macro-institutions will best be able to tackle these problems if they have two features. First, they should foster a high degree of direct communication between individuals with diverse viewpoints. This kind of intellectual diversity is crucial to identifying good solutions to complex problems. Second, we argue that they should provide relative equality among affected actors in decision-making processes, so as to prevent socially or politically powerful groups from blocking socially beneficial changes to the detriment of their own particular interests.

On the micro-level of school systems and schools themselves, these two features continue to bear saliency. Our schools and school systems are fundamentally hierarchies, linked up in a chain of command from the principal all the way up to the state governor and the federal government. Yet as many observers and advocates have been pressing on, these hierarchical structures often fail our students most in need, and the working conditions for teachers can be dehumanizing. The solution? For many new education reform advocates, markets seem to be the holy grail. But there are dangers in markets in solving complex social problems, as Henry and Cosma point out here:

On the one hand, free market participation provides individuals with some ability (presuming equal market access, etc.) to break away from abusive relationships. On the other, markets provide greater voice and choice to those with more money; if money talks in politics, it shouts across the agora. Nor are these effects limited to the marketplace. The market facilitates and fosters asymmetries of wealth which in turn may be directly or indirectly translated into asymmetries of political influence (Lindblom). Untrammeled markets are associated with gross income inequalities, which in turn infects politics with a variety of pathologies. This suggests that markets fail in the broader task of exposing individuals’ differing perspectives to each to each other. Furthermore, markets are at best indifferent levelers of unequal power relations.

Their advice?

This leads us to argue that democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Clearly, actual democracies achieve political equality more or less imperfectly. Yet if we are right, the better a democracy is at achieving political equality, the better it will be, ceteris paribus, at solving complex problems. Second, democratic argument, which people use either to ally with or to attack those with other points of view, is better suited to exposing different perspectives to each other, and hence capturing the benefits of diversity, than either markets or hierarchies. Notably, we do not make heroic claims about people’s ability to deliberate in some context that is free from faction and self-interest. Instead, even under realistic accounts of how people argue, democratic argument will have cognitive benefits, and indeed can transform private vices (confirmation bias) into public virtues (the preservation of cognitive diversity)6. Democratic structures – such as political parties – that are often deplored turn out to have important cognitive advantages.

In a sense, they are advancing an argument that the way much of public education currently stands in the media is in fact an advantage. We have a significant and growing amount of debate that is generated around education and education reform. As I’ve discussed before with Sara Mead, education reform should be messy. Democracy is a messy process. It would be so much cleaner, so much more efficient, if we had well-lubricated systems calibrated to deliver agreed upon knowledge and learning. But it’s important to keep the perspective on the bigger picture and acknowledge that we all benefit from deliberation and exposure to drastically different points of view.

However, anyone who works in a school or within the broader school system knows that at some point beyond deliberation, decisions must be made and acted upon, and that this process is far from democratic in application. A commentator, Jed Harris, points this out in a well-articulated comment on Crooked Timber:

Your argument doesn’t argue for democracy in any normal use of the word, but for social formations that don’t use power relations or exchange as primary constitutive elements.
Happily there are such formations and you give examples. Sometimes democracy (in the normal sense of the term) facilitates them, sometimes it is a captive of power relations and/or exchange relations and facilitates those much more.

Henry responds to Jed with this comment:

More generally – and this is a substantial weakness of our argument at the moment – we are all about democracy as a process of discovery, but have very little to say about it as a process of decision making. This needs to be beefed up, and will (probably not in this piece itself, but in its offspring).

So the key takeaway for me was that democracy is fundamental as a macro-institutional process of discovery and communication, but in terms of decision making and ground level implementation, other governance structures may be necessary. For example, in open source models of governance, benevolent dictatorships and meritocracies tend to be the typical form of ultimate decision making. One of the important facets of open source, however, is that if disagreements within the community are large enough, the original source code can be forked and developed in whichever way the new community members so choose.

What application do these insights hold for public education? I think this topic bears substantial relevance to the concept of unions, collective bargaining and the importance of bringing diverse perspectives to the table. I think it furthermore points to the utilization of technology to connect teachers directly to policymakers and include their voice and perspectives in the dialogue.

* [I’m the type who generally scavenges anything he can for free, but The Browser is one of the few online services I’m considering investing in a membership in — though I’m holding off until summer, as I already waste too much time trying to keep up with online media as it is.]

Strengthening Teacher Voice

Can I just say — and I am most likely speaking for all teachers at this point in the year — that I am TIRED? It’s that time of the year, after testing stress and pressure has been lifted, but immune systems are shot and influenza, colds, and all manner of viral infection spread like wildfire through schools, at the very same time that kids are responding to the warmer weather and approaching summer and going crazy . . .

So today’s post will be short. I wanted to highlight some great comments by a teacher that were added in belatedly on the group notes page I set up for my presentation on schools as ecosystems at EdCampNYC. Whoever you are out there, I’m listening, and I thank you for your thoughtful input.

As I think about your school as an ecosystem idea I think a lot more attention has to be placed on the systematization of school but in a way that allows it to change with the times and be fluid yet dependable. Often times schools are run based on personalities or in a dictatorial manner and we need to start running it from the bottom up. [Bold added]

So true. This idea of combining flexibility and systematization is a hard nut to crack.
How do we systematize the right things, while allowing for flexibility, and how do we do so in a way that allows for distributed leadership that enables communication and decision-making to travel upwards and across, not just top down?
This particular teacher had insight into that:

I think we need to strengthen teacher voice and in strengthening teacher voice we could strengthen our schools. The idea [Schools as Ecosystems] is MORE than cute it’s actually intriguing and viable. And it has stayed with me. [Bold and insertion added]

Thank you for that. And I strongly agree, strengthening teacher voice is key. For policy level aspects of this, I invite you to check out our page on teacher voice groups. I have worked with an awesome organization working to uplift and empower teacher voice called The VIVA Project. The VIVA Project works to plug teachers directly into the process of policymaking.

Within the school, however, how can we work to strengthen teacher voice, and set up structures and practices that better empower teachers? What kind of governance model will best cultivate trust and respect teacher voice in decision-making processes?

I’m just going to throw some quick ideas on this out there and let them hang, and I’d like to return to them in the future:

  • Collaboration and dialogue are key and must be formally implemented in a school — strong leadership is necessary to set the tone and structure for how and why teachers collaborate
  • The VIVA Project uses an online discussion forum called the idea exchange before initiating action plans and policy reports. Everyone At the Table has developed a structured conversation to engage and respect teacher perspectives around the issue of teacher evaluation and accountability. How can we systematize these kinds of structured democratic collaborations at a school level?

These are great points to bring to focus for looking at schools as ecosystems! Thank you for your input, and I welcome any other teachers to check out my presentation and add their perspectives on our group feedback page on Google Docs!