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Seeing Like a State


Dear Diane,

You've put it neatly—whose expertise is running the show? Except for one flaw. How come, since there are more teachers than policymakers, we give up and not them?

There are lots of reasons, of course, including the fact that teachers (and parents) tend not—as we noted once before—to "see like a State" (ala James Scott's wonderful book). Policymakers seem to do it naturally. But, of course, it's also because they represent people who are more powerful. And also people who, alas, take themselves more seriously.

When I first got into being a kindergarten teacher (as more than an idle past time), my family of origin was a bit disappointed. It was clearly a status step down. While I stuck with it because I got fascinated, part of it stemmed from another family trait—a kind of knee-jerk anti-snobbism. Of course, I had the luck (in retrospect) of being turned down for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1951 because I was a married woman! Perhaps I was also lucky in finding substitute teaching the most challenging thing I'd ever done; and alongside it getting credentialed in Chicago's school system the most humiliating. It produced a kind of feisty "I'll show 'em" response.

But I knew from the start that being an early-childhood public school teacher did not make me very interesting to important people or give my ideas much prestige. Since I wrote articles I was occasionally invited to speak publicly. But not as an expert. I was the "voice from the field", invited to add some spice. Receiving the MacArthur changed it—suddenly I was an expert; the Wizard had given me a brain.

It did help me. I had "an idea" that I thought could impact more widely on public education; so being taken seriously would be useful. I was deeply influenced by Ted Sizer's work on school reform writ large, and thus tried to "think like a State". The idea, as you noted, was the "small school movement". I saw it as an avenue for getting teachers to seriously think through and change their practices, by creating settings designed for such work. I wrote an Op Ed in 1988 for The New York Times ("Small is Beautiful", more or less), and a few years later we got $50 million from the Annenberg Foundation to take our "idea" citywide.

The idea was that all else being equal, it would be easier, faster, and more powerful to change the way schooling took place if we had small schools (under 300 students), self-governing schools (with a few exceptions), in which the constituents were there by choice. It took a decade, but the idea has clearly had an enormous impact: on everything but what we originally had in mind.

In part because it was translated by people who were better than we were at "thinking like a State". Their translation read as follows: small (under 600), with more power in the hands of principals in return for less autonomous classrooms and schools, and in which schools had more choice over whom to accept. They saw it as a way to better monitor top-down mandated change, not to foster a bubbling up of change. (e.g.: I read this week that small schools in Portland can't decide if they want their kids to be able to take electives in their sister small schools.)

If you want to be an innovator? Go private or charter, the policymakers advise. (And even most of the charters soon were looking more and more like top-down corporate enterprises designed by policymakers.)

NCLB didn't invent this, and getting rid of it won't stop it. What is needed is a serious discussion of what's best done by whom? And for what purpose? I think I've a natural paranoia for centralized decisionmaking that's usually pretty healthy. My default is always, "so why not let those most involved in having to live with decisions make them?" But I also know that if my forebears hadn't taken on racism, leaving it to the locals wouldn't have brought us as far as we've gotten. The same for global warming. And a lot in between.

Where power is unequally held, unequal outcomes are not surprising—intentionally or not. Local or federal. Still, we can't help but try.

We're left with thinking aloud about what the federal government can do to level the field (resources, for one thing), what is best left to the state, and what to the local community, school, family, individual teacher, and student?


P.S. Do you ever read Mike Rose's blog? It's great. His column this week is on a topic that has kept me in the schoolhouse for 43 years.


Thank you for the profound words, Deb. They leave me at a loss. What's a young teacher to do? Keep on working within a system that barely functions, knowing doing serves an enabling role to the system and those who run it? Or try to change things, knowing that a good idea, once put to practice, is subject to the "seeing like a State" fallacy, and could easily serve to frustrate the efforts of those who work within the system?


Isn't it important for teachers to "see like a state" as well? Perhaps it is folly to sit around and wait for "policymakers" to start listening to teachers, or to visit schools themselves (not that teachers are perfect either). But teachers who want change can/must be active in creating policy--by attending union meetings, for example, thinking about what sort of contract reforms will be best for the reforms they have in mind, mobilizing within the union, contacting local and state representatives, and in Obama's phrase (borrowed from movement politics), "be the change you want to see in the world."

I agree JP, that working in a dysfunctional system is disheartening. But another fallacy is TINA: "There Is No Alternative." No, there are alternatives, as Deborah among many others have shown, and trying to learn as much as possible about other possibilities (failures and successes) is one step people who want change can take, while actively pushing for policy changes! (I know, it sounds hopelessly romantic when so much needs to be changed, but there are alternatives).

Deb, at the end of your column you ask which decisions should be made at which "level" of government. I wonder why the answer to that question is not "as local as possible"--except, perhaps, for resources. When decisions are made locally, they are more likely to be responsive and inclusive of the community, if it is done with some community control and deliberation. You bring up the example of racism, as Diane did in her 22nd of March, 2007 column, as an example of where localism can go wrong. But I wonder if this is more of an exception to the rule--an example of regions (the entire South) violating the Constitution, which, of course, led to federal desegregation enforcement policies. Local decisions are usually more democratic (responsive and inclusive), but the US Constitution is the federal "safeguard" for when things go awry. This principle can also be seen in questions of whether evolution is taught in schools. Yes, some local communities may wish to teach their children Creationism, but this can't happen in public schools if it is found to violate the US Constitution. The fact that some localities may choose to learn about Creationism (and not evolution) does not justify stripping local communities of the possibility of deliberating on, and forging, educational systems and curricula that make sense for their community. I happen to believe that the "cookie cutter" approach of building massive schools, with little community involvement (far fewer school boards, for example), is one thing that is wrong with schools today. If local parents and community members are more involved with schools--including making key decisions about how schools run, won't this lead to greater attention to the areas that need it? Some of us might be "thinking like a state" too much--that is, trying to control school systems from afar, by proposing national curriculum standards, for example, while ignoring the more serious problem--that parents and communities are less involved with their school communities than perhaps they have ever been.

In one sense, States all think alike, so the ends might as well justify the means. But the United States of America has also produced a unique method of bridging differences. Our roots were Locke and Hobbes. In addition to the maddening concept of federalism, we have checks and balances; the concept of the loyal opposition; and an understanding that power corrupts. Americans celebrate our individualism, practicality, technology, love of numbers, and the Market. We we also have the traditions of barn-raisings, cooperation, and community. We just don’t give them much respect.

I don’t compare education’s accountability hawks to totalitarian social planners, but I see them in the tradition of American social engineering . My #1 mentor was in that tradition. They saw a Depression as an opportunity to drive a stake into the heart of federalism, institute land reform, rationalize banking, and implement central planning, as well as attack Jim Crow. Instead we got the imperfect New Deal blending the “good ol’ boy system” with the social safety net. We got water projects, CCC, WPA, electricity, and tens of thousands of outhouses downwind of sharecroppers’ shotgun houses. We got a tradition where social services were both a helping hand, and a jobs program.

But we didn’t get that bad of a deal in comparison to the central planning overseas. The New Deal worked for the same reason why public health is always more cost effective than hi tech medicine. Give kids nutrition, health, and hope, and people just naturally seek higher ideals.

By the 1990s the contradictions of the New Deal were becoming more difficult to resolve, and it created a perfect opportunity for Clintonian triangulation. New Democrats sought Market solutions. Digital breakthroughs promised an ability to wring out inefficiencies in providing services. Business and civil rights organizations joined in an effort to again try to drive a stake though the heart of federalism in education. And the Lee Atwater/Dick Morris scorched earth politics held promise. They just needed a demon to attack, and teachers and unions provided the perfect target. As I see it, Leftwing true believers in NCLB were so convinced in the righteousness of their cause that they adopted an ends justifies the means approach. They borrowed the worst of soundbite politics and the most simplistic of policies, and as they enthusiastically played the blame and shame game. They never explained, however, how you can help schools by attacking teachers.

So, what should we do in order to protect the principles of liberal arts and public education for all? We could ask, What Would Karl Rove Do?

Rove told New Yorker that he is a Madisonian. He was going to completely destroy the Democratic Party but that was OK because another Karl Rove would destroy the Republicans in a generation or two. He saw NCLB as one of three issues that would destroy Democrats. NCLB would get the loyal Democratic constituencies - liberals, educators, unions, people of color - all fighting each other.

I have no doubt that Rove could give us a winning strategy. We could balance our softer ideals with a “law and order” campaign for the schools. Reclaim our classrooms, reclaim our halls, reclaim our schools from the pointy headed intellectuals that allow hooligans to run wild.

But what would be the unintended consequences of that? Just as NCLB let some awful genies out of the box, the mantra of punishment would not be easy to control.

Or we could ask, what would Obama do?

We can’t have a top down accountability system for parents, but we can speak the truth. Too many parents of all classes and races have done a lousy job. Schools have “defined deviance down,” giving too many excuses for deplorable behavior. We have designed workrules and policies for the convenience of adults, not the welfare of kids. We need to wring the “jobs programs” mentality out of the education sector, while protecting the integrity of collective bargaining.

Some would deride such an approach a “mere words,” and ask for guarantees. But there are no guarantees in life. Would the members of the Ed Trust and Citizens Committee on Civil Rights have condemned the civil rights movement because it could not give data-driven assurances of success?

I would love for liberal supporters of accountability to join the Broader Bolder Challenge. They should be reminded of one of the most profound beliefs of the New Deal. Rather than have our wayward brothers and sisters being outside the education tent peeing in, we need them back inside peeing out.

The problem is that Rove, McCain, Obama, or whoever runs the state inevitably comes to "see like a state" because it is the only way to grasp something as vast as the school system. The advantage is that you can undertake really large tasks. The disadvantage is that those really large tasks eventually falter based on the fact that human services like schools can only imperfectly be bureaucratized.

The inevitable response is to break the large task into smaller tasks, thus the small school government movement, and so forth. But this in turn leads to inequality, and other problems associated with letting the small units do their own thing--and this too is something that is not desirable in a modern society.

I guess my point is that the schools and teachers (like JP) are always living and working a paradox. This paradox is something that James Scott, and other critics of "big is wonderful," sometimes miss and as a result become overly critical of massive government programs which sometimes solve problems (like the Tennessee Valley Authority--an example Scott started to develop), but are always bureaucratic.

Tony, your points make great sense to me. We do live a paradox. I'm a teacher, and I see both the necessity and the risks of "thinking big."

Perhaps we need to work within the paradox. Perhaps we can create a national curriculum that leaves ample room for local and school curricula. Perhaps we can teach our students fundamentals in all subjects without sacrificing the joy and beauty of learning.

I believe that these things can be done--but we need more dialogue between teachers and those policymakers who rarely step inside an actual classroom. As you point out, "do your own thing" is not a solution, nor is a big and callous bureaucracy. We need a structure that allows the "big" and "small" to inform each other.

This is true in many different ways. There's so much talk about recruiting more "highly qualified" teachers, but if you have a Ph.D., people ask you, "why are you teaching kids?" I suppose they think that someone with an advanced degree should be making more money or teaching at the college level. But that's an assumption and nothing more. A person with a Ph.D. could teach third grade with joy. Higher education gives us perspective on the elementary subjects, and vice versa--and the kids always give us new perspectives and surprises.

What is this "master's degree" that makes teachers just qualified enough, but not too qualified? Often it's a bunch of vague education courses with low standards and lots of "hands-on" group activities. Some teachers have the awful feeling of becoming less qualified and more cynical as they sit through those classes. We need to make these programs vastly richer and more rigorous. Education school could be a wonderful place if it made more room for subject matter and challenged its students to the top of their abilities.

This comes back to your point, Tony. Advanced degrees should not be alien to elementary education any more than policymaking should be alien to teachers. Many of our problems come from misunderstanding or resisting the very perspectives that can help us.


In what ways do small schools or more localized control lead to inequality? And is this inevitable in your view?

One reason resources might be federalized, or at least reformed from current structures based on property tax, for example, is to make more level the playing field (perhaps schools should receive per-pupil funding across the board?). Other resources that might be shared more widely, by the federal or state gov'ts, to address inequalities, might be data about school performance, examples of curriculum standards used in other locations, libraries, technology, and other material resources.

But if we take the decision-making power away from local communities (and let's face it, mandated curriculum standards are a set of priorities, not actual quality resources) this does nothing to address inequalities, but only encourages parents and taxpayers to stay un-involved with their school communities.

This is not a "do your own thing" idea. This is a "let's get people involved to make shared goals" democratic process--a form of accountability, the opposite of "do your own thing." If the local community chooses to do the exact same thing as neighboring communities, that's okay. If they choose to follow recommended national standards written by a think tank, fine! But let people make the decisions that they have to live with.

This is not a "pie in the sky" idea. It is what has taken place, in the form of town hall meetings, in many New England communities since public schools began. If we are unhappy with the state of schools today, the answer is not to strip communities of the last remnants of democratic deliberation; it is to address the material and personnel issues that make schooling difficult (aside from the societal inequalities that are not left outside the schoolhouse door).

I agree with you, Diana, that teachers should also be encouraged to learn as much as they can, and stay in schools (although it's surprising how many PhD's at the university level have little or no teaching experience! A problem, I think). This knowledge is what is needed to teach not just students--but to share with adults in the school as well. Unfortunately, national standards are another attempt at "deskilling teachers," it seems--so schools also need to have decision-making abilities, to fully benefit from teachers with the kind of expertise you're talking about.

I like the way all three of you articulate the paradoxes, and I'd like to throw in one more. We do need much more than incremental improvements if our poorest kids are going to make it in the global economy. But that prompts State efforts, and State-like efforts sponsored by well-meaning billionaires, to not only think too big but to also be too ambitious in seeking replicable answers. We're like the team that is several touchdowns down late in the second half, so they abandon their game plan for big plays. Our paradox is that reformers need a sense of urgency, but they need to "play within their game" or they will continue to produce unforced errors like those policies that wrecked NCLB.

Given the proliferation of choice, some small schools will always do better, perhaps creating more inequality.

The Depression and WWII also required big efforts. We produced big failures early on, but we eventually pulled it together. And it was a victory achieved both by the State and the innovations of individuals and small groups. Leadership from FDR didn't hurt either.

Obama isn't running for the school board, and I suspect he'll just split the difference on a lot of educational issues. But our first step is to get out of the 90s mindset that Democrats just have to be as mean as the Republicans, and create some goals that are worthy of America. After all, Obama isn't running for test monitor in chief either.

And I agree on doctorates. Mine didn't hurt me because I was applying for an alternative education job working with felons and all they cared about was whether you could do the job. But I could have been just as happy in 3rd grade. I know I owe it to my wife to someday take one of the prestigious job offers, but I can't leave the classroom yet.

I'm enjoying this speculative roaming around the ways in which we might think big and little, luke a teacher or child as well as a State. It coincides with my second reading of Richard Sennett's The Craftsman. I feel like opening any page and quoting. It's about education--of crafsman and citizen, thinker and doer. It needs to be read with leisure, ideally with someone nearby who is also reading it! I read a chapter of it, then contemplate your commentaries and feel excited by "the conversation". Thanks.


All this theoretical talk reminds me of a time that I worked at summer camp, man moons ago. Some unwise group of campers had somehow gotten their hands on a young raccoon, and brought it forward to show and tell. Well, we all know that raccoons are not meant to live in cardboard boxes. Like the good liberals that we were, we named the thing Stephen Biko and gave it its freedom. Well, wouldn't you know--that raccoon wasn't big on freedom after all, and preferred to hang out around main camp where it could let itself into the dining hall at night. In the end we had to drive it two counties away to ensure his freedom.

I recall our camp director commenting once that people who really want to be free are pretty few and far between. What does this have to do with accountability systems? My general observation is that accountability is really the only true path to freedom. Local control, or building autonomy, or professional judgement, or wherever the choice-making mechanism is to reside, is only possible, in a civilized society, when there is some attached responsibility.

I keep hearing all kinds of variations on that raccoon's behavior. Let the federal government give us the Title I money--we can decide how it should best be spent. We know how much our kids are capable of achieving--no need to measure. Every community should decide their own curriculum--there are no universals. Maybe evolution didn't happen in Kansas. Its OK if some schools have state of the art technology and science labs and others don't have working rest rooms--just don't tell us what to do. Teachers could all teach if administrators could just make all the kids sit still and listen.

In the end, a good accountability system sets the needed parameters within which there can be freedom of operational choice. Is it in the best interest of the state (which means us, as a democratic society) to allow some kids to be taught that the earth is flat--probably not. Is it in the best interest to allow a four or five year gap based on zip code--again, most likely not (especially given some of the things that we constitutionally believe in).

Now, maybe we can and should argue what the parameters are or ought to be. Personally I like the efficiency of setting national standards and developing national tests (and the states have been tending to look over each other's shoulders anyway--leading to some homogenization of standards)--but that's not an essential. But within the compact of standards (and how they will be measured), there is--if one accepts the responsibility--an enormous amount of freedom available with regard to how one gets there.


The idea of letting schools find their own path has great appeal except for the fact that most schools have (and probably will) try things that don't do anything to improve student learning.

So what then? Do we give them 5 years and yank their funding? Do we insist that they fund tutoring? Sounds a lot like NCLB. And really, how far has that law gotten us?

Erin Johnson


See--this is where I am reminded of the racoon. Do schools really want to be free to find their own path, particularly knowing that with that freedom comes the responsibility to accept the consequences? Certainly the long-term consequences of freedom in the absence of responsibility are things like inflated incarceration rates, loss of jobs to countries with an educated workforce and lower standard of living, decreased mental and physical health, all those things.

NCLB puts in place some interim consequences through the leverage of the "golden rule" (that is, he who has the gold gets to make the rules) applied through Title I. And it seems reasonable that schools demonstrate some progress in the direction that Title I was intended to bring about (increase equity). Having had none (accountability for the funding) for some decades, as well as no reliable means of measuring progress, those crafty Republicans decided that the jig was up. Through some bipartisan sleight of hand, we arrived at NCLB--show some progress or lose the funds. Now, setting aside the reality that no one has actually lost funds (and even the states that have considered turning them down as too much trouble haven't actually done so), there may have been some interim progress. Standards have been set, tests developed, data collected and (most importantly) disseminated to the public. In my own district, where charter schools are an additional factor, there has been at least some scrambling to rearrange the deck chairs. As the parent of a student with a disability, I can attest to some real progress having been made with students that we didn't even test a decade ago (and the first results were in the single digits).

Am I impressed with the overall results? No, I am not. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I suppose that I could look around and find that the NEA has organized the ensure the failure of NCLB in order to return to a freedom with no responsibility model. The sad result would be the continuation of all the conditions (school to jail pipeline, economic stagnation, etc) that have been in place.

But, I am not much of a conspiracy theorist. For the most part, most of us kind of drift in a tide of ego-centrism until we are interrupted by something to arouse our passion. The union movement in the US has certainly served as that interruption for many--to all our benefit. Think Tom Joad and the experiences that led from self/family interest to something more enlightened. But these things don't last. A generation can be raised with union loyalties that serve to carry forward the gains. But without that passion somewhere (and in the case of unions, I would argue that it has to do with an ability to see that seeking good of all is the means to achieving the good of the oppressed), the movement becomes institutionalized and fails to pass on some critical elements. What we have left is the current situation, in which the interests of teachers, as employees, are narrowly pitted against the interests of the children that they are educating.

I do believe that, while the profession is lacking, compared to what it was when the best and the brightest women could only choose between teaching or nursing, there is likely enough raw talent in most buildings to organize substantial improvement in the education of most students--particularly those at the lowest end of the achievement scale. And what is not readily available within the building is likely within reach.

Why is it, Erin, that your obvious intellect and talents, or those of John Thompson, are only experienced by the students in your own classrooms? What is the barrier that stops the teachers in buildings from organizing to improve whatever it is that they find to be impossible--from school discipline to content delivery to access to available computers?

Instead we have an incredible capacity to subvert the best-laid plans: IEPs become "meaningless paperwork" rather than documents to ensure planning for services and the inclusion of parents in the development of meansingful goals. School Improvement planning becomes a document to show "compliance" and filed in a drawer. I swear to you, if my district were actually doing the things it describes in their SIP, there would be improvement. If they actually shared the document meaningfully with parents (as required), there would be someone asking why reality doesn't match the plan.

So, yeah, I'm in a tough-love kind of mood. Let's go ahead and start yanking some funding. Maybe it will cure what ails us.

It is localized control which tends to lead to inequality (not small schools per se). Localized control can of course often be a strength, at least for some. The problem is that in the big picture local control can also lead to disadvantages for many, as indeed was the case in the segregated South before the federal government got involved and took local control away. This is one reason that much of the federal government’s involvement in schools, at least since Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. When every small community creates its own schools, the poor tend to get poor schools, and the rich tend to get rich ones. This is why states go to great lengths to equalize funding, and also why the federal government butts into educational decision-making, i.e. to ensure equality of opportunity. Not such a bad goal, right?

But, as James Scott points out in Seeing Like a State, this leads to the creation of big planning bureaucracies which can no longer “see” the needs of each individual jurisdiction. This has to do more with the nature of bureaucracies, not schools. Bureaucrats by their very nature seek what is calculable and countable—they cannot see the smile of triumph on a child’s face, measure the “good vibes” in a well-run classroom, or the myriad of other markers of success or failures teachers are familiar with. Test scores though are easy to count, and therefore much more attractive to the centralized bureaucracies that also believe they are creating wonderful schools. They then make the mistake of asserting “if you can’t measure it, it does not exist.”

The broader problem is that bureaucracies are in fact the best known means to organize complex tasks, like national (or state-wide) school systems. Admittedly this is only because the alternatives are worse—charismatic rule, feudalism, and slavery all come to mind as systems that have been tried in the past, but inevitably collapse on their own contradictions. Indeed, this is why posters to this discussion keep recommending new systems of school accountability, be they at the federal, state, or local levels. Such systems are by definition bureaucratic, and lead to the problem of “seeing like a state” by demanding quantitative measures of that which cannot be measured with numbers.

I think my central point is that all systems have paradoxes. This does not mean that we should not work through them as the many people on this board are doing. Wrestling intellectually with such problems often leads to better solutions to very real problems. But, when whatever solution emerges is never “perfect” we should not be too surprised. Certainly it is not worth losing our sanity over!


Thanks for clarifying.

You well illustrate why our school system is so ineffective at improving student learning: a focus on meaningless paperwork instead of student learning.

What prevents teachers from organizing? Pretty much what prevents everybody/anybody from improving our schools (feds, states, foundations etc...): our schools have no way of improving.

So even if teachers organized, what should they do? Just replacing the administration will not change the system. Our school systems are codified by state law. Without a quality system in place, it matters little what individual teachers (or even collectively) struggle to do.

Specficially, schools have no systems in place to improve teaching, curricula or the tests.

That is schools assume that once a teacher sets foot into a classroom he/she is "qualified" and there is no need to improve teaching. Schools assume that the adopted curricula will meet every child's needs, is well aligned with the grades and represents the best methodology for teaching children the subject matter. Schools assume that the test is the test and that's it.

Who is monitoring whether this is a good system for our children's learning? (Hint: nobody.)

It what other human endeavor do we make these mistaken assumptions?

Erin Johnson

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