The Problem With Direct Democracy

Let’s start the new year off with some heresy.

Education, medicine, policing, journalism, fill in the cross-section of the work world, every work collective is attempting to reinvent themselves; to save money; to work smarter, not harder; and ultimately, to meet people’s needs more effectively. Thoughtful reformers across the gamut repeatedly cite the importance of public participation in reform efforts.

A friend of mine, a transportation engineer, shared a story with me recently about an award his office received for a particularly successful redesign of a small downtown in Central Washington state. What stood out in the write-up was how thoroughly his team sought citizen’s input on what improvements they most valued before ever picking up a shovel.

Another friend is in the State Highway Patrol. Last week I shared a lengthy article with him about changes afoot in the Seattle Police Department. Here’s his insightful reply:

I’m all for a new approach to policing and public safety, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives and new laws not local prosecutors deciding what to file based on what they think is important. I don’t agree with a lot of the prostitution laws, but it is still illegal. Just like I didn’t agree with the marijuana laws, but it was still illegal. The citizens determine what laws we live by not selective prosecutors and politicians.

That makes imminent sense. The education parallel is we need new approaches to K-12 schooling and teacher education, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives not middle managers at the Office of Public Instruction.

But I have to believe, given the notion of connoisseurship, or specialized expertise, that there are limits to direct democracy. When it comes to reforming our medical system, I trust Atul Gawande way more than I trust myself. Why? Because from reading him I know he has patients’ best interests in mind. Plus, he has highly specialized expertise.

Like everyone, I have some thoughts on how to improve medicine–I’d like my doctors to work more closely together, I’d love to see a dermatologist sometime before I die, and it would be nice if rising costs were in line with the Consumer Price Index–but I have no idea how to get from here to there. I don’t need a seat at the table, I trust the Atul Gawande’s of the world to reinvent medicine. I’m content, if in the end, I get to vote for what he and his doc friends propose.

For the last three decades education reform has been largely ineffectual because nearly every change has been imposed on teachers from well-intentioned people outside of schools—whether Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, Superintendents of Public Instruction, CEO’s, wealthy philanthropists, and academics. When it comes to revitalizing K-12 schooling, I trust teacher leaders in those schools way more than I trust President Obama, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, Bill Gates, Randy Dorn, or myself.

Here’s the most bold education proposal imaginable—let’s empower teacher leaders to reinvent their profession. Let them decide themselves what to teach; how to teach; and how to evaluate, promote, and reward one another. I’ll be content if, in the end, I get to vote up or down for what the teacher leaders propose for the schools in my community.

When it comes to redesigning a small town’s downtown, I trust my transportation engineer friend. When it comes to reinventing policing, I trust my State Trooper friend. Because they have citizens’ best interests in mind and they are far more expert than me in their respective fields. That’s why I’m more a fan of representative democracy than direct.

4 thoughts on “The Problem With Direct Democracy

  1. I don’t think you can compare teaching to medicine easily. This was an interesting read and has got me thinking this morning. It seems to me that teachers have to be something more than the representatives of either parents on one side or politicians and bureaucrats on the other. How they gain the prestige to exercise a genuine function in the education of children is the big problem. Many parents have fully accepted the “get grades, get more of them” culture of our society, so it is hard to see how direct democratic control of teachers’ work would be an improvement on top-down instructions. It is a paradoxical situation. In Great Britain Margaret Thatcher introduced Local Management of Schools, which meant devolved budgets and more power to the Principal, as a part of a profoundly centralising educational philosophy combined with a revamped inspection regime and a National Curriculum. The words that were used to frighten parents were “rigour” and “accountability”. Sound familiar? Without adopting a full-on anarchist approach I would tend to favour less involvement of the state in education generally. A voucher system, if it were completely divorced from “expert guidance”, would allow associations of parents to devise the education for their children that they want. What do you think?

    • Thanks Jason. Like you, I’d like to see less involvement of the state. A Local Management of Schools approach has real promise independent of the contradictory elements you reference. Your reference to prestige is well-taken. But it’s a question of horse and cart. Without the authority to shape their profession, they’ll lack prestige. How to create that authority is a conundrum. My main approach is to call out everyone who is constantly usurping that authority—the feds, the ed bureaucrats, the business gurus, the scribes, etc.

  2. I would add there are also some differences between teaching and other professions. This next point is *not* to denigrate teachers, but it does not take an advanced degree in education or teaching or years of “teaching” to be an effective “teacher.” In fact, some of the worst teachers are those with their MAT or ME.D (and long seniority) who pull out their same curricula with the same textbook, same powerpoint slides/teaching material, and same lectures year after year. Two of the best teachers in our high school – one came from the business community after running his own company for years and another straight from a 20+ career in the military.

    It takes some expertise to manage a classroom, connect/communicate with students, or make the curricula “real.” – but unlike engineering or medicine, that expertise can be gained (for some, not all) through many different pathways beyond traditional educator education and professional development.

    And..I believe this translates to educational administration. Most principals and thus superintendents come from teaching ranks — may or may not have been great teachers, but for the most part has not prepared them to run educational enterprises. That is not to say we should employ business types who come in with no understanding and simply look at the bottom line, but we truly do not prepare administrators to lead so they often become “bureaucrats” instead of leaders.

    Let them decide themselves what to teach; how to teach; and how to evaluate, promote, and reward one another.

    Teachers for the most part have decided on the latter when they opted to allow education unions to represent them. I’m not ‘anti-union’ as unions can play an important role, but wow, some of the top driven over emphasis on evaluation and assessment comes from the fact the unions care more (in general) about growing and sustaining members and power over policing their own ranks. Teachers for the most part know the “bad” teachers or the ones who do the minimum, don’t contribute to the outside classroom planning and other requirements (or demand $$ to do anything beyond what’s in the collective bargaining agreement), and fight over minutia.

    So when you say “let them decide”, sorry but it’s also bringing in the union influence. I’m not a big fan of merit pay given the advocates want to associate pay with outcomes such as test scores that go beyond solely the control of the teacher, but do you honestly see in union driven profession a teacher driven reward system that is anything associated with reforming the profession?

    In the same vein, I also chafe at the intrusion of excessive federal and state mandates, especially given most public schools are still funded locally so their intrusion has long gone beyond the Title 1 and II and related areas they actually fund, so I agree with your point about about local control.

    However, I think you missed some important links. Your smart engineer was hired by someone (maybe the town manager or public works director) after some (hopefully) transparent and open process that was approved by your local elected officials (Mayor, town council, etc.) — a body or office the citizens (in theory) have control over through the election process (and fire) the town administrator. Similarly, if working correctly, teachers are hired and allowed (within again certain laws, rules, policies) the freedom to educate by administrators who are lead and managed by a superintendent who is hired (and fired) by a school board, whose members are accountable to the citizens every election cycle (or two). (I do note you mentioned representative democracy, but I think you missed the point it applies to local education as much as the municipal (public works, police/fire) side.

    • Thanks Joe. Jason and your replies have me questioning whether I clearly communicated what I intended. The education details were secondary to a conceptual or philosophical question: one person/one vote is wonderfully egalitarian, but is it efficient? My contention is you have specialized knowledge about a few things that are related to some vexing public policy questions, but not others. Your influence on public policy should be greatest in those areas where you’re most expert. A related question is how do we determine relative expertise? I’m guessing you and I would probably agree that it involves far more than formal educational credentials. Based on your email address, maybe you’re in higher ed. My university, like every other I’ve worked at, is a classic example of inefficient decision-making. Why? Because there’s insufficient trust that other people/committees have the U’s best interest in mind. Consequently, everyone wants to be involved in every decision. Which leads to endless discussion about the smallest of details.

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