School & District Management Opinion

Seeing Like a State

By Deborah Meier — June 12, 2008 3 min read
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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.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.