Viewing Economies with a Gardenbrain, and Schools as Ecosystems

Alerted by a tweet from The Browser, I discovered an article on how we should view economies not in traditional, simplistic, and mechanistic ways, but rather as complex ecosystems. The authors, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, term this framework the “Gardenbrain,” as opposed to the “Machinebrain” that we typically ascribe to economies, such as rationality and efficiency, with the inevitable result that economic fundamentalists view regulations as impediments to the functioning of a meritocratic free market. From the Gardenbrain perspective, Liu and Hanauer suggest the following:

What we require now is a new framework for thinking and talking about the economy, grounded in modern understandings of how things actually work. Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren’t simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic. An economy isn’t a machine; it’s a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not.

Note how parallel their argument is to the argument Will and I first made to introduce Schools as Ecosystems as a framework for looking at schools! Here’s what we said on GothamSchools back in February:

We propose a fundamental shift in the framework and language we use to discuss educational reform. Instead of a framework that views students as products, we propose a framework in which the products of education are viewed as the contexts and content of schools themselves. The schools we produce should be positive and nurturing learning environments where students are engaged in a rich, coherent curriculum. Rather than view our students as widgets, we’d do better to view them as vibrant, dynamic organisms, and view the school, by extension, as an ecosystem. While such a model would make it harder to quantify school quality based on a simple numerical scale, it would enable us to have more productive conversations about systemic education reform, and to take action in targeted ways that will have a sustainable impact.

Later, here on this blog, I also talked about how viewing a school as an ecosystem is another way of recognizing the school as a complex adaptive system. Schools, like economies, are nonlinear and highly unpredictable, and defined primarily by the quality, interdependence, and complexity of their relationships.

Using the framework of the Gardenbrain, Liu and Hanauer then go on to demonstrate how this fundamental shift in mindset can apply to practical considerations for the well-tended regulation of an economy. All of these great suggestions align with a perspective that ecosystems (man-made or curated ones, such as gardens) must be intensively managed, as opposed to left to self-regulate.

Here are the implications for policy from the standpoint of the Gardenbrain — all of which have pertinence to education policy:

  • The necessity for regulation: “Gardenbrain allows us to see that an economy cannot self-correct any more than a garden can self-tend.”
  • The necessity for taxes: “recognize taxes as basic nutrients that sustain the garden. A well-designed tax system — in which everyone contributes and benefits — ensures that nutrients are circulated widely to fertilize and foster growth.”
  • The necessity for spending: “To spend tax dollars on education and health is to circulate nutrients through the garden.

On the Centralization of Governance

In his thought provoking response to my post Beyond Ideology, Will notes that though there is a trend in current ed reform measures towards centralization of power, at the same time we are presented with a paradox inherent in regulation. Regulatory power is both necessary to protect democratic freedoms and property of the commons, yet can simultaneously become detrimental to democracy by freezing out local communities (in this post, I am going to concentrate on the first part of that equation).

In light of this paradox, Will ends his piece asking “how then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities?” I feel that forwarding solutions to this problem is essential to promoting our vision of schools as ecosystems. This is parallel to the “tragedy of the commons.” How do we regulate something that belongs to all in a manner that protects long-term benefits while yet protecting local individual and community freedoms and rights?

I don’t know any clear answers to these questions or problems. But I have the sense that there is no one, monolithic right way to govern or regulate something, and that best governance practices may differ dependent on contexts and the nature of what is being regulated. Some things may be best governed through federal policy. Some things may be best governed by local community control. Some things may be best governed by being left up to the whims of market forces. I think this openness to fluidity is applicable to governance of public schools as well. Some aspects of public schools may be best left to the autonomy of  a local school or district to choose. Some aspects are perhaps better directed as a centralized process.

In politics, there are those who are fairly universal in their prescription that issues are best determined by federal policy, or on the other side, by state policy. Not to oversimplify this, but I think immediately of the Articles of Confederation. They were too weak. A stronger, more centralized government was required in order for our economy and nation to flourish. But the debate that eventually engendered the subsequent Constitution seems to live on today. Jay P. Greene’s arguments against the Common Core Standards (my response here), for example, appear stolidly due to a rejection of the intrusion of the federal government upon what he perceives as the state’s rights.

I believe that a centralization of standards such as the Common Core is in fact necessary to the continuation of our democracy. If we cannot agree upon standards of common skills and knowledge that we would expect our students to achieve, I’m afraid achieving the solidarity of vision and capability necessary to maintain a democracy will be unfeasible (for more on this, read E.D. Hirsch, Jr.; he explicates this much more eloquently than I can). What we would be left with is the chaotic mess of individual teachers and students struggling in the isolation of their classrooms with disconnected and disparate ideas, inevitably leading to inequity, as I argued in my post on GothamSchools on the need for a coherent core curriculum. My main point in that post, and I will repeat it again — because I believe it strongly — is that “without a systematic approach to the core content we teach, then we are systematically failing our students.”

So in this case, I see centralization as necessary to provide the systematic guidance and direction for schools in determining what sequence of topics to follow as they make curricular decisions. That doesn’t mean that I think we all have to agree on everything. It just means that we have to agree to the foundational topics necessary to gain academic understanding of a given content area. For example, in the most recent AFT American Educatoran article on the difficulty of teaching such a core topic as evolution in biology notes that if teachers do not have the confidence and knowledge to teach essential scientific facts, and “if students come to think that science is simply a matter of one’s opinion, and that those opinions come from our values and faith, then it will be impossible for science to provide trusted, unbiased information to citizens and policymakers.” [Bold added]

My point in bringing all this up is to challenge the idea that centralization of power or decision-making is necessarily a bad thing. The deeper question, then, is the one that Will brought up in his post: “how then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities?” I’d like to dig deeper into some potential avenues of thought about involving and engaging local communities in democracy and governance in my next post on this topic.

The Paradox of Regulation

I found Mark’s recent post on ideology quite interesting, particularly the question it raises about community control of schools. As I wrote in my comments, it seems to me that education reform is currently geared towards increased centralization of power, with local communities given little say in the direction their neighborhood schools may take. Mayoral control, the Common Core standards, No Child Left Behind: the dominant trends in education policy all seem designed to freeze parents and communities out of their children’s schools.

In principle, there’s a lot wrong with this approach. Most of us think parents should have some say in how their children are raised, and as Americans we all probably have some knee-jerk, “don’t tread on me” distrust of centralized authority. This distrust of government raises an interesting paradox, which I’ll call the paradox of regulation.

On one hand, if we believe in real democracy, we must believe that communities should have significant power over community institutions like public schools. On the other hand, we’ve often seen that without some regulatory authority, local communities often pursue policies that are fundamentally anti-democratic (such as the radical privatization-of-public-schools experiment taking place in Louisiana). Similarly, without federal intervention, discriminatory policies like Jim Crow might still be the norm in much of the U.S.

So, things to start to get circular: without regulation, communities may pursue policies that disenfranchise large segments of the population. With regulation, communities may be frozen out of the political process; regulation thus becomes another form of disenfranchisement.

Certainly, No Child Left Behind and mayoral control (as practiced in New York City, for example) have been practiced with such contempt for democracy that many educators would be rightly skeptical of the role of any centralized authority in public education. That said, regulation is necessary; it protects public resources like schools (and ecosystems) from those who seek to do them harm. How then can we create a system of regulation that protects public schools without marginalizing local communities? I don’t know the answer, but the current approach, wherein central governments impose policies upon communities, regardless of those communities’ concerns, has created a poisonous political climate. This is bad for teachers, students, and schools.