The Agenda

Walter Russell Mead’s Model of a Post-Blue World

One of the pleasures of being a cultural worker is finding like-minded allies. I really admired Walter Russell Mead’s sketch of a post-blue educational system:

Imagine a system in which our current top down, administration heavy school districts and large schools were replaced by networks of teachers who band together to offer instruction to students in a given neighborhood or district. A cooperative firm of anywhere from half a dozen to a few score teachers might open for business, receiving a government payment for each student they enroll. Parents would have the right to enroll their children with the coop of their choice. The test scores and other information would be available so that parents could assess the firm’s track record.

These firms could compete by offering different educational and disciplinary philosophies. A group of like minded teachers who wanted to use a particular curriculum or approach would be free to do so; if enough parents bring kids, the firm is in business.

These firms could set their own policies about how many teacher aides they had, or even about class size. (Smaller classes would mean smaller revenue, but creative teachers who believed in the importance of smaller classes could find ways to cut other corners.) Teachers would be free to teach as they thought best; they could recruit congenial and like-minded colleagues into their coops. Rather than being evaluated by political hacks and administrators, their coops would stand or fall based on their ability to recruit and retain students from the community that knew them best.

What largely disappears in this model is management as we know it. Some sort of skeleton administration would be necessary, but its size and powers would be greatly reduced. Teachers in this system would have much more autonomy than they do now — and parents would have much more choice. Because less money will be sucked up by administrators, consultants and large bureaucratic offices of enforcement and conformity promotion, more money can go to the people and services on the front lines.

All I’d add is that the firms could also be curators that match students with an appropriate mix of instructional providers, some of which would be distance providers while others would be local. As Mead makes clear, the arrangement he envisions would give workers more autonomy and dignity:

This system transforms teachers from employees seeking protection from politicians and administrators in a labor union to owners and stake-holding professionals who direct their own work. It will likely lead to higher pay for teachers, and experienced teachers in successful coops would have the opportunity to recruit, select and mentor younger associates.

Students from difficult neighborhoods and special needs students would come with larger dowries; the vouchers their parents can present would be topped up to account for the issues and costs involved in teaching certain types of children. This could attract high quality teachers to poor neighborhoods in a way that the current system simply cannot.

In this kind of system, where there is a lot of diversity in practice and philosophy, oversight would shift from process to product. Students would need to pass exams at key points along the way to move up in the system, including a comprehensive test to get a high school diploma.

Dignity is not generally a term we hear in policy debates. To the extent we hear it at all, it is usually associated with the political left, and the cause of defending privileges secured by organized public workers, e.g., to reform public pensions is an assault on dignity, etc. Yet there is a different way of thinking about it: giving workers the freedom to collaborate and to build their own models for service delivery affords them more dignity than binding them and evaluating them according to rigid, centralized work rules devised by a leadership class of experts and political activists.

Recently, a commenter observed that rigid work rules arose not because they were sought by organized labor, but rather because they were imposed by management during an era when Taylorism was in vogue. They’ve been preserved because bargaining over these work rules, and fighting for some degree of autonomy and freedom with the Taylorist cage, emerged as the dominant paradigm. We’ve become locked in a destructive pattern that incumbents prefer to the profound uncertainties created by robust institutional reform. And this is hardly surprising, as the public sector broadly tends to attract workers who are somewhat more risk-averse. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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