I don’t often agree with Jay Greene because he is a proponent of school choice, especially vouchers. I disagree, as I see no benefit to giving public money to religious schools and tossing aside one of our important traditions, i.e., separation of church and state. Greene is chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which is funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which commits its considerable resources to privatization of public education.

 

But Greene has been remarkably wise on his comments about the Common Core. His recent writings have echoed a theme that I first encountered when I read Yale sociologist James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. In this book, Scott explains and demonstrates the many disastrous errors committed by technocrats and central planners who thought that they could move around entire populations and reconstruct entire cities and landscapes by their grandiose plans. Scott shows how time and again these supersize plans have come to a disastrous end because they failed to take into consideration that people are not ants, not checkers on a checker board, not inanimate objects whose lives can be rearranged at the will of government planners. Worse, they never listen to the people on the ground who are tasked with making their plans work. What worked beautifully on the drawing board turned out to be a giant failure because people who “see like a state” are, frankly, out of touch with reality and with the real lives of real people. More often than not, the craftsmen on the ground have knowledge that is unknown and unappreciated and scorned by the central planners.

 

Greene’s recent posts (see here and here) point out that it is a gigantic mistake to aim for total victory. He notes that the planners of the Common Core standards thought they could engineer a coup: get the U.S. Department of Education on board, get their program funded by the nation’s largest foundation (and expect that most of the others would jump aboard), buy the support of almost every D.C. advocacy group, pay off the education organizations, persuade the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable to acclaim their efforts, and poof!–victory was assured! Dissent is brushed aside, critics are dismissed out of hand as “Tea Party” and “extremists.” Editorial boards endorse the Common Core, puff pieces are strategically placed in the media. Yet, it is not working. What went wrong?

 

Greene writes in the first post:

 

Ed reform has been going through a bad stretch lately. Currently dominant reform theories are the result of technocratic thinking. They seek to identify (and impose) “optimal” topics to be taught, ways to teach those subjects, methods for training teachers, strategies for evaluating and motivating teachers, etc… An army of economists or economist-wannabes have seized the reins of reform organizations with the hope that their next regression will tell everyone what to do to solve the mystery of improving schools. They pay little heed to history, which might alert them to the failure of past efforts similar to their brave new undertakings. And they are unfamiliar with basic lessons from political science on the dangers and failures of technocratic central planning.

 

In his second post, he explains why it is a mistake to seek total and complete victory, a complete reconstruction of people’s work and lives, and why such grandiose plans usually fail:

Technocrats are inclined to seek total and final victory. If science or the experts have shown something to be wrong, why should that wrong be allowed to continue anywhere? This produces a tendency to over-reach. Technocrats can’t tolerate the notion that a solution won’t cover everybody and improve things for everyone. If things are bad in Mississippi it just ruins their whole day.

But trying to fix everything, everywhere usually leads to fixing nothing anywhere — or sometimes to making things much worse. In the end the technocrat doesn’t seem as motivated by helping as many people as possible, as much as motivated by the unreasonable feeling of responsibility for “allowing” something bad to continue for someone. But addressing your inner angst about someone still suffering somewhere at the expense of making progress toward helping more people is egotistical. It isn’t about you. You are not the Master of the Universe who “allows” bad things to happen. You’re just a person trying to work with others to make progress….Even if you are a standards and test-based accountability person, you are better off not seeking total victory as the Common Core people have. Yes, some states had lousy standards. And yes, some tests were poorly designed or had low thresholds for passing. But trying to fix all standards and tests, everywhere, all at once is the wrong approach. Seeking this total victory has more fully mobilized the opponents of all standards and testing. In response to a more heavy-handed and top-down national effort, more previously un-involved people have flocked to the anti-testing side. Not only will these folks undermine effective implementation of Common Core, but in their counter-effort to roll back national standards, they will destroy much of what was good about state standards and tests. The whole idea of standards and test-based accountability is being undermined by the imprudent over-reach of Common Core.

 

Greene ends his second post with a sage observation that ought to be pinned to the wall in every government office, every executive suite of every foundation, and every advocacy group:

 

Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.