Command v. Choice Part II: Trust and Teamwork

(Guest post by Greg Forster) 

Jay P. Greene’s Blog Presents: 

Ineffective Teambuilding Techniques!

Group Religious Instruction


Mandatory Employee Leave Policy 

See Part I.

The existing school system persistently fails to pick up and reproduce best practices. Reformers have identified no end of good ideas that hold a lot of promise – provided you can get schools to try them. But no matter how good the ideas are, no matter how many high quality models you build and demonstrate, other schools never seem to pick them up and adopt them.

Therefore fixing schools will require the exercise of power. Somehow we have to get people to do things they currently find unpersuasive or excessively painful.

But people don’t like to be made to do things. They want to live in the way that seems right to them. And this is a legitimate desire – we can’t “live in the truth” if we have to live in ways that we experience as inauthentic. The more we have to do things that we don’t believe in because others, who have power, force us to to them, the more inauthentic our lives become. This makes us miserable, destroys motivation and idealism, shuts down the entrepreneurial drive for improvement, and breeds resentment.

That last item on the list can’t be stressed too strongly. Command and control is not only destructive in many other ways, it also fails to accomplish its explicit goals, because people who are subjected to it quickly develop a strong sense that cheating the system is okay, even virtuous, since the system itself is evil.

Reforms only work if you have three things. First you need a good idea – the reform itself. Next you need people who are capable of carrying it out – hence the rise of teacher quality as a focus of reform. But there’s a third thing you need, and this is why command-based approaches never work: you need an institutional culture in which reform is viewed as legitimate, necessary and empowering.

In any organization, institutional effectiveness is driven by trust and teamwork. To the extent that people are merely obeying rules, chasing carrots or avoiding sticks, effectiveness collapses. Effective institutions are ones that succeed in 1) cultivating trust and teamwork – for real, not the phony kind you get by making people do ropes courses and stuff; and 2) harnessing the trust and teamwork of the organization for effectiveness.

That second point is key. The trust and teamwork of an organization can be oriented toward goals other than the proper goal of the institution. They can even be oriented against the proper goal of the institution – as in Atlanta, where the whole system mobilized in a high-trust, intensive team project to cheat on accountability testing.

But trust and teamwork can only be mobilized for the right goals when people sincerely believe in the goals. The processes – and reforms – necessary to achieve those goals need to be understood and experienced as legitimate. Reform can’t just be imposed by power; it needs to become part of people’s truth.

Forgetting this fact, and actively corrupting the social processes that people rely on for truth, is the great temptation that always comes with power. The Gates Foundation, having succumbed to this temptation, is now embarking on what looks to be a wasted, deeply counterproductive decade or so (depending on how long it takes them to come to themselves) of command-and-control based reform.

So how can we accomplish reform in a way that is both humane and effective?

Let’s go back to the original reason we need power: “Somehow we have to get people to do things they currently find unpersuasive or excessively painful.” Emphasis added!

People need to be persuaded to adopt reform as part of their truth – something they experience as legitimate, necessary, and empowering.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “That’s what we’ve been trying for decades, and it hasn’t worked!”

That’s right, so let’s ask why it hasn’t worked. I mean, isn’t it a little odd that 1) the system is so overwhelmingly dysfunctional that it’s destroying millions of children’s lives, 2) the people in the system are normal people, not psychotic or anything, people who by all accounts care about children’s education at least as much as the average person if not, you know, a lot more, and yet 3) the people in the system can’t be brought by any means to see reform as necessary?

What is it about the system as currently constituted that ensures reform is never embraced as something legitimate, necessary and empowering?

The system is moribund because it is a monopoly. When any institution has a captive client base, support for innovation vanishes. Reform requires people and institutions to do uncomfortable new things. Thus it won’t happen unless people are even more uncomfortable with the status quo than they are with change. So we need institutional structures that make the need for change seem plausible and legitimate. A captive client base ensures that such structures never emerge. An urgent need for change never seems really plausibile. An institution with captive clients can – or at least it will always feel like it can – continue to function, more or less as it always has, indefinitely. So why change, when change is uncomfortable, even painful?

This is why even small reforms that seem like they would be easy to implement have consistently failed to scale, and the attempt to impose such reforms through national command structures will fail even more spectacularly. Institutional culture in the existing system is hostile not just to this or that reform, but to reform as such, because it excludes the only institutional basis for making the need for change seem plausible and legitimate: the prospect of losing the client base.

This is what school choice advocates are talking about when they talk about the value of competition. “Competition” does not mean a cutthroat, ethics-free environment where individuals and institutions seek their own good at the expense of the good of others. Rather, competition is the life-giving force that drives institutions to become their best and continuously innovate, because it is the only way to hold institutions accountable for performance in a way that is both productive (because it aligns the measurement of institutional performance with people’s needs) and humane (because it creates accountability in a decentralized way rather than through a command-and-control power structure).

Where real competition is present, the cutthroats and self-servers are generally the first to fail. It is the individuals and institutions that focus on serving the needs of others who find success.

This is why big corporations, Wall Street firms, etc. are always opposed to free competition and are always seeking partnerships with government to undermine and eliminate it. They want to be able to use their dominant position to extract wealth without being accountable to serve anyone else’s needs.

This is the most important reason school choice has consistently improved educational outcomes for both the students who use it and for students in public schools. Studies of school choice programs consistently find that students using choice have better outcomes, and also that public schools improve in response to the presence of school choice. The explanation is simple: school choice puts parents back in charge of education, freeing the captive client base and creating an institutional environment in schools that makes the need for change seem plausible and legitimate.

Educators experience the urgency of the need for change when families not being served can leave for other schools – and they will never experience it any other way. Discomfort with change is also reduced for parents, because school choice restores their control over their children’s education.

This is not to say that power plays no role. The school choice movement needs power to break the union deathgrip on education policy and implement a real (i.e. universal) school choice program. And of course that means we need to be on our guard against the temptation to corrupt the knowledge process – to make power more important than truth, to say things that aren’t true but will help us get power. And power will continue to play a role, not only in continuing to defend real choice once it’s implemented, but also to enforce the rules of participation (to punish cheating, etc.).

But choice is the approach that is able to take both power and truth seriously. Command and choice are the two great methods of changing institutions. Command puts power in the driver’s seat, and sometimes (e.g. when punishing crimes) that’s necessary. Choice tends more in the direction of favoring truth over power.

I know which path I’m betting on. And so, I guess, does Gates. May the best man win.

7 Responses to Command v. Choice Part II: Trust and Teamwork

  1. Doug says:

    Oh ya those reform ideas are big winners.

    Vouchers? Failed to improve in Milwaukee.

    Charters? The finacial scandals are endless and there is no improvement over public schools.

    Merit Pay? Loooser, NYC just abandoned it.

    Testing? Dumb as a bag of hammers, years of NCLB leave almost every school failing to meet AYP and people are cheating all over the country. Naep says no real improvement.

    Mayoral control? Another big disaster, anti-democrtic, Kathleen Black, Joel Klein Michele Rhee all disasters, political and educational. Rhee cheats her way to stardom supported by Rupert Murdoch?

    What reform ideas? They have all crashed and burned.

  2. Ayn Marie Samuelson says:

    There will always be a conflict between choice/freedom and command/power, and historically this has proven true.
    Parents want real choice – BUT they also want to take part in authentic educational decision-making on behalf of their children. The system regularly devalues their experience, education and sincere desires.
    Why is it that we hear so little about who pays – mostly taxpayers (mandatory taxes regardless of performance) and who benefits – the antiquated education system in the form of: administrators, unions, politicians and myriad educational elites from powerful textbook publishers to researchers and writers, who are funded by foundations with their own objectives. Do these groups understand that without their captive audience – the students – and taxpayer money, their “skills” are largely unnecessary? Maybe they understand this all too well. Too diversions and “bread and circuses”.

  3. Parry says:


    A few quibbles with what I believe is otherwise a particularly interesting and persuasive post.

    First, I would add to your list of the elements necessary for reform (and my additions aren’t based on any specific literature or research, just my own experience). To the three you already have, I would add effective leaders. I know you mention people who are capable of carrying the reform out, but I see effective leadership as a separate element. I would also add external environment. I’m not exactly sure how to explain this, but I think the larger environment within which reform happens has a big impact. For example, the fact that many state legislatures have become Republican majority has created an environment more fertile for school choice opportunities, even though it wasn’t school choice as a political topic that got the Republicans in power.

    Second, I would differ with you on some small points, and add to a couple ideas. First, I disagree that the current K-12 education system is overwhelmingly dysfunctional. The system is no worse now that it has ever been, but it is being asked to do something it wasn’t previously asked to do—provide a high-quality, customized education for all kids (that’s a generalization, but I think it’s a fair one). I think there are plenty of dysfunctions, but I think the term “overwhelmingly dysfunctional” is a stretch.

    You also discuss why small reforms don’t scale well. I don’t disagree with the reasons you give for that phenomenon, but I would add another: complexity and context. As an example, in my own school, we have spent years developing an intervention system for struggling or excelling students. It wouldn’t take me more than a couple minutes to describe to someone, and it would sound like something that would be relatively straightforward to implement, but it has taken years to get to where we are. I think it is incredibly hard to successfully import solutions or strategies from one institutional context into another. And I would imagine that, the more successful the strategy, the more difficult it is to export well.

    I hope those thoughts make sense.


    • Greg Forster says:

      I would only add two things in reply:

      1) The system produces the same outcomes it always did, but consumes more than double the resources – even if you adjust for enrollment and inflation. That by itself justifies “overwhelmingly dysfunctional.” More important, however, is this: the system should have been providing a high-quality, customized education for all kids back then. Why should uniformity and mediocrity for white students plus warehousing like stock animals for minority students be OK in 1975 if it’s not OK now?

      2) The party balance on education is changing. I think the day is soon coming when the fortunes of school reform will no longer be captive to the political success of the GOP. And we should be doing everything in our power to hasten that day.

  4. GGW says:

    Great post.

    A tricky aspect for me: how do you think about price?

    For example, I run a couple charter schools. Our team creates large gains for kids, measured by value-added and other things. Demand is very high.

    We can’t raise our price. We can’t charge the gov’t more money for a better product. Therefore, we can’t “invest” in our people — spend something today, generate even more measurable social value each year, and then get paid more for the good results, to recoup our investment. We get the same lump sum whether our kids do decently, well, or really well.

    Similarly, if we have services to offer other charters, they have no monetary incentive to buy — so long as they attract enough customers, they have no incentive to do really well. This may explain why so many charters follow their existing incentive structure — do just well enough to get customers, and therefore don’t significantly outperform traditional schools.

    Thoughts on price?

    • Greg Forster says:

      Private school choice! Charter schools are a halfway house. They’re tons better than the uniform mediocrity of the default system, but they’re still hobbled at one leg to the government monopoly. That’s why you have the problems you describe. Private schools can invest in their people because they aren’t part of the government monopoly system. Right now they don’t support entrepreneurship because the tuition barrier keeps most kids trapped in the monopoly; existing private schools are just the rump left behind by the destruction of the marketplace, serving niche clients who don’t want serious reform. Private school choice would let you do exactly the same things you’re doing now, except with the freedom to do radically better.

  5. Parry says:


    I’ll walk pretty far with you, but “overwhelmingly dysfunctional” just isn’t accurate. There are plenty of kids throughout the US getting an excellent education. There are a good number who are not, and there are a large number that are getting nothing more than an adequate education. In addition, I completely agree that rising K-12 expenditures have not led to commensurate improvements in student learning. But those features define a mediocre system that is frequently inconsistent and inefficient, not one that is overwhelmingly dysfunctional. I would imagine that there are plenty of third-world education systems that are overwhelmingly dysfunctional, but that’s not the US. I quibble on this point because I think that exaggerating the problems weakens your arguments about solutions.

    I also disagree that the system “should” have been providing a high-quality, customized education to kids all along. That’s not what the system was originally built to do, and saying that a system “should” have accomplished something that it wasn’t built to accomplish doesn’t make sense. Plus, if we were able to somehow magically replace the current, state-run system with an entirely free-enterprise education system, we still wouldn’t have one that provided a high-quality, customized education to all kids. And I think there are two reasons for this.

    First, the quality of the education system in the US (and I would imagine in other countries as well) is largely dependent on human capital. You can’t improve human capital like you can improve microprocessors, doubling their effectiveness every 2 years. If you gave every kid a set of individual professional tutors who could spend time to get to know each child’s specific needs and interests, then maybe you could come up with a system that provided a high-quality, customized education for everybody, but that’s cost- and resource-prohibitive.

    Second, I can’t think of any service-based system in our country that provides everybody with customized, high-quality anything. Particularly when you talk about systems and services based on human capital, you can’t provide uniformly high quality service for everyone within a reasonable price point. Restaurants, health care, social services (e.g., counseling)—there are huge disparities in quality within these service industries.

    Again, I am not arguing against your larger points, but it rubs me the wrong way to hear a “doom and gloom” argument that I think is neither necessary nor accurate. I don’t think you need to exaggerate the deficiencies of our all-too-frequently mediocre education system to convince people that it needs to get better. A high-quality, customized education is absolutely what we should strive for, and we should look for solutions most likely to move us in that direction. But exaggerating the deficiencies of the current system, or the potential promise of an alternative system, bugs me.

    No need to respond. I just had to get that off my chest.


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