Beyond Isolated Individuals and Ersatz Reform

A while back I followed a link on Twitter from Michael Clemens to an interesting economics paper entitled Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: How development has disappeared from today’s ‘development’ discourse. The author, Ha-Joon Chang, outlines some concerns around the term “development” that I feel has bearing on our perspective of schools as ecosystems.

. . . there are only so many productive capabilities that can be developed through improvements at the individual level. This is because development in productive capabilities in reality mainly occurs in (public, private, and co-operative) productive enterprises. However well-educated and healthy the individuals may be, they cannot produce rapid, lasting, and sustainable productivity growth that makes development possible, unless they are employed by firms engaged in production activities with large scopes of productivity increase.  

One of Chang’s points that stood out to me was his emphasis on the collective impact of systems, as opposed to individual factors and components. This parallels our emphasis on this blog on schools and communities as dynamic environments filled with dense interrelationships. We believe that it takes a whole school, not isolated islands of superstar teachers, to nurture and educate children.

Even if the total number and the capabilities of the individuals involved are the same, more and better ideas will be produced by individuals working together in a productive enterprise through cross-fertilization of ideas than isolated individuals running their own oneman operations. Moreover, because much of  the knowledge in productive enterprises is acquired in a ‘collective’ manner in the sense that they are created in the context of a complex division of labour (rather than through the activities of isolated individuals) and deposited in the form of organizational routines and institutional memories (rather than in individuals), when the individuals are organized into productive enterprises, productivity growth stops being dependent on individuals and therefore acquires a self-sustaining dynamic that individual entrepreneurship cannot produce.

This passage also struck me because I am deeply committed to the principle of collaboration in schools. But collaboration, as Chang points to here, is not enough — it is only when it becomes “deposited in the form of organizational routines and institutional memories” that positive effects are seen. Schools require rituals and established protocols for transferring and maintaining knowledge across time, classrooms, and teachers.

. . . What little developmentalism that there is in the currently dominant vision of development is ersatz developmentalism – the belief that, if you educate them better and make them healthier and give them security of property rights, rational self-seeking individuals will exercise their natural tendency to ‘truck and barter’ and somehow create a prosperous economy. However, this vision is fundamentally  at odds with the reality of development. In reality, development requires  a lot of collective and systematic efforts at acquiring and accumulating better productive knowledge through the construction of better organizations, the cross-fertilization of ideas within it, and the channeling of individual entrepreneurial energy into collective entrepreneurship.

. . .  Predictably, the dominant agenda has singularly failed to deliver any lasting development. To go beyond it, therefore, we need to go back to the ‘productionist’ tradition of old development economics and put the transformation in productive capabilities that go beyond individuals back at the heart of our development thinking.

This critique of “ersatz developmentalism” could just as well apply to what we could call “ersatz education reform” — the notion that simply by fostering competition, increasing school choice, and holding teachers more accountable, prosperous communities filled with high achieving students will result. But without “collective and systematic efforts” that work to foster collaboration, inclusive communities, equity of opportunity, and better schools for all, then our efforts will not be sustainable over the long haul.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Isolated Individuals and Ersatz Reform

  1. Very good column. I'm happy to see an emphasis here on “the collective impact of systems, as opposed to individual factors and components.” All of us need to think more about our school as our community. Schools work for EACH of our children, as individuals, BECAUSE of the strength of our community.

    My family is very fortunate. Our young son is a student at an outstanding public school, which is part of a larger urban district; one with all of the challenges inevitably found in any large, complex system.

    But the reason my son's school is so good—as defined by a variety of measures, from formal test score data to the smiles you see on the faces of students and teachers—is because of the shared values and common goals of our School Community.

    Our families are connected. We like each other and we know and watch out for each other's children. And we all pitch in together to contribute whatever we can, respecting each individual's limits of time and money that apply to every one of us in different ways.

    The Public School as our COMMUNITY is a vital, enriching idea that gets real results for each student; in fact, it's the only thing that does. My son cannot succeed academically if he is surrounded by a room filled with students who are struggling. He's not an island; he can't learn in isolation, completely removed from his classmates. He's going to do as well, or as poorly, as his peer group, the kids sitting all around him, eating lunch with him, playing with him at recess, and coming to our house for play dates and sleepovers.

    Each one of us—child or adult—tends to rise to the expectations inherent in our social milieu.

    It's very rare to see one beautiful, thriving flower surrounded by a a bunch of withering, fading plants. The same is true for our children.

    For each of our precious flowers to thrive, and fully bloom, the garden in which their planted must be constantly and consistently maintained, with just the right amounts of water, sunlight and plant food. The soil must be healthy. The entire flower bed—not just one small section of it—provides the fundamental requirements for any individual flower to blossom.

    Tend well to the entire garden—our school community that all of us share equally—and we'll create the conditions that allow any of our children to succeed.

    Driving over a bridge allows each individual motorist to get to a job, or visit a friend, or run an essential errand. But none of those motorists alone could have built that bridge, no matter how much money or expertise they possessed. The same is true for OUR school. It belongs to all of us, and only with a commitment to the entire community, will any one child have what they need to succeed.


  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Steve. Very poignant analogy about the flowers and soil–your perspective aligns well with our concept of schools as ecosystems. Would you be interested in writing a guest post for this blog to elaborate on your vision? I love hearing this parent's perspective on the importance of the whole school and its community.

    I agree strongly with your concept of building up the community soil as fundamental. Our approach to bettering public schools must be systemic and take the whole school and community into account.


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