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Friday, February 24, 2006

Zero-Sum Thinking, Demassification, and Asymmetrical Educational Systems

Imagine a contagious optimism surrounding urban education. Imagine children enthusiastically engaged in learning across the urban landscape. Imagine innovations in education spreading like a virus from one classroom to another.

A teacher has an idea, tries it in her classroom and it yields great results. She posts the strategy on a message board for innovative educational ideas. Within days other teachers across the urban landscape tryout the idea in their classrooms and offer feedback through the message board. The idea becomes an innovation and is spread by the hive. Through this process urban educators are able to test ideas, collect evidence, and innovate. Imagine optimism instead of pessimism.

Unfortunately, Rich Karlgaard is right to point out that the world’s greatest disease is zero-sum thinking. Public education in this country functions in a zero-sum framework that divides schools into winners and losers. Zero-sum thinkers have come to influence much of today’s education policy. Superintendents and principals fall into this camp because their positions are zero-sum in nature. After all, there is only one superintendent per district and one principal per school. In fact, zero-sum thinkers go all the way up the education policy food chain to the folks who passed NCLB and the president who signed it into law. Politics is predicated on winners and losers. The No Child Left Behind Act is zero-sum thinking writ large—labeling schools as winners and losers based on AYP.

Within the zero-sum paradigm failing schools are allowed to build cultures of failure while successful schools build cultures of success. But what if it were possible for all urban schools to be successful?

Don’t look to education professors for the answers to urban education because they are the product of a tenure system that inculcates them with a zero-sum worldview. Yes, even the most left leaning professor has been co-opted by the university system. The worst of this breed line their pockets with consulting fees from urban school districts. The flawed logic is that those farthest from implementation know best. These professors have a symbiotic relationship with urban school districts adding their credentials to reading initiatives, math, and science initiatives in exchange for fat checks. That’s right; they make money off the losers.

Sadly, zero-sum thinking trickles down to the level of the classroom teacher. Teachers are at the point of implementation in education, yet there motivations tend toward self-preservation instead of innovation. Many innovative teachers are under the radar because they are protective of their methods. The attitude is along the lines of “I’ve got mine; you get yours.” This is not a shock considering that trust is impossible in a zero-sum system. After all, that’s a big reason that the Coalition for Essential Schools had such disappointing results in large urban districts. Innovation and collaboration become the exception and not the rule. The status quo doesn’t support the hive, and instead thrives on self-preservation.

There is hope. John Seal Brown, Director of the Palo Alto Research Center, notes that we have seen the transformation in business from conglomeration to demassification. According to Brown, “Power in the new economy is shifting to the smallest possible unit.” Instead of urban education bureaucracies that are wildly inefficient money pits we need asymmetrical educational systems with portfolio oversight. Such a system would be comprised of numerous, autonomous small schools that would tailor their programs to meet the unique needs and tastes of their target audiences. In such a system, schools would encourage innovation by valuing the transformation of ideas into knowledge. Effective schools would prosper under entrepreneurial leaders who would steward the development of intellectual and social capital. Schools will be held accountable to accelerating the development of knowledge over time.

Since they have a stake in maintaining the status quo, zero-sum thinking educationalists and politicians will not go quietly. The demand for asymmetrical educational systems has to come from outside of this system. The innovative, entrepreneurial spirit made America great; that same spirit will soon be called on to reinvent the American educational landscape.

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