our educational commons

Press conference with the laureates of the mem...
Press conference with the laureates of the memorial prize in economic sciences 2009 at the KVA: Elinor Ostrom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The remarkable Elinor Ostrom has passed away. The inability of so-called reform plans to significantly involve families shows that the full implications of Ostrom's work are yet to be widely understood in educational circles where we still think schools must rely on hierarchical organization and professionals. Families are not acknowledged as having any ability to participate in this process except for the fake choice of schools now offered.

Elinor Ostrom dies at 78; first woman to win Nobel in economics - Los Angeles Times: "By studying diverse groups around the world, including Japanese fishermen and Swiss cheese makers, Ostrom showed that it was wrong-headed and often counterproductive to assume that those who used the resources could not set their own conservation plan. She stressed the importance of working on multiple levels to solve complex problems such as global warming.

"What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people versus just having somebody in Washington … make a rule," Ostrom said the day her Nobel was announced."

Elinor Ostrom - Telegraph: "In fact, she argued that communities themselves had developed out of the need to come together to work out how to avoid over-exploitation of common resources and ensure fairness. The “Tragedy”, as she saw it, typically occurs when there are one or more “stakeholders” who are outside the community social-economic system, who impose their solutions, exert political power or change the rules to gain an advantage for themselves."

Schools Are Part of the Commons
It isn't hard to see that we can generalize Elinor Ostrom's wonderful work to schools in many ways. Her work supports the idea of decentralization and emphasizes the ability of people to manage resources for themselves.  Public schools, the physical infrastructure as well as the staff, can be considered our educational commons and could be managed by families and staff working together. We do not need voucher and charter plans that remain top-down models imposed on communities. Communities and families could make choices and collaborate on the learning process together in their local schools. Schools could network with each other is all sorts of productive exchanges and relationships if families could actually be involved and making choices. In fact, as Ostrom discovered, communities and families can be strengthened by the process.  

One of the most common opinions families have about homeschooling is that is strengthens the family because they must work together. A lot of homeschoolers don't expect that. They anticipate the increased workload but they are often surprised at the upside in family relationships. Extending that, families and communities that were working together on learning, working themselves, could be surprised at the many good relationships born from that work. From the same article above:
With her husband, Vincent Ostrom, she developed the concept of “polycentrism”, which vests more authority over regulating the use of common resources to individuals, communities, local authorities and local NGOs. Local small-scale solutions, such as better loft insulation or the installation of solar panels could, cumulatively, make a tremendous difference, she argued, while big changes invariably lead to destabilisation and chaos. “What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people versus just having somebody in Washington make a rule,” she explained.
Communities that were actively involved and supported by schools truly focused on their needs could find ways to make tremendous changes for the better. Crazy top-down models of change are just that: top-down, uniformed models created by people with no structural tie to the children or families involved.  Often these people have financial interests in specific outcomes or their large-scale experiments are ideological instead of the thousand small practicalities of a decentralized model.

Closing local public schools reduces our educational commons. This privatization means closing the one center that many communities already have in place, a school that could be managed by families and staff if we saw schools as a social service providing learning resources.  And that location could network with others in many ways since there is no reason to only stay in that location, like a prison. It is a base but a neighborhood base.  And that's important. Instead, we see schools as educational factories required to turn out credentialed students per specifications. And now they plan to move the factories around and let some choose.  There may be a few creative charters and a few that work their past suspension tactics but with 180 days of mandated core courses and loads of testing all locked into college tracks, well, good luck fighting that remote control.

US schools are routinely called decentralized by many education writers. What they mean is the funding is decentralized. And that is a problem, too. But the power or political structure and the administrative structure are centralized and a recent post of mine transcribes Holt's own statement of the necessity of decentralizing this power which means a different relationship with the family.

Decentralization could also mean using neighborhood schools as community hubs and bases from which to network with other schools as well as the neighborhood and wider area.

Reason magazine discusses Ostrom's work on decentralization:
Elinor Ostrom, Scholar Who Argued for Decentralization, RIP - Hit & Run : Reason.com: "Landing somewhere between Hayek and Kropotkin, Ostrom advocated "polycentric governance" -- in the words of her husband and frequent collaborator Vincent, a system where "many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments for ordering their relationships with one another within a general system of rules where each element acts with independence of other elements." The Ostroms applied these ideas to areas ranging from local government to climate change, pushing back against the idea that (in Elinor's words) "without a hierarchical government to induce compliance, self-seeking citizens and officials would fail to generate efficient levels of public goods." In fact, they found, a patchwork of private organizations and "multiple governmental units without a clear hierarchy" regularly outperformed centralized systems."
Ostrom's work demonstrates that non-professionals can indeed manage complex resource management issues and though schools may be a somewhat different task, it really shouldn't be hard to see how those principles could apply to families and local schools. John Holts wrote of the closed silos of education, locked away on the many schools in a city, that make it a challenge for someone to get an instrument to play or to participate in some event or get access to tools. And schools sit idle and under-utilized for long stretches of time.
The grand philosopher of the Commons: in memory of Elinor Ostrom: "Ostrom identified key design principles underlying long-term, robust common-pool resource institutions. These principles related to clearly defined boundaries; congruence between rules and local needs and conditions; collective-choice arrangements; monitoring; graduated sanctions; conflict-resolution mechanisms; minimal recognition of rights to organise; and nested enterprises."
Ostrom's Own Education
Ostrom worked her way through college (back when you could) and was in some ways an untraditional student.  She is a passionate interdisciplinarian and teamworker.  More from Ostrom's autobiographical sketch (link at bottom to more of her work) and her criticism below of universities:
Elinor Ostrom - Biographical: "... The National Research Council created a special committee in the mid-1980s to review the empirical research written about common-pool resources. Scholars began to recognize that much research on this topic had been conducted but was divided by discipline, sector, and region. Consequently, scholars who studied inshore fisheries in Africa did not know about other studies of resources in Africa. If they were sociologists, they did not know any of the work done by economists and vice versa. Participating in the NRC committee, and seeing the immense amount of research that had been done but not synthesized, taught me a major lesson. The way we organize the modern American university fragments our knowledge badly. Not only are we divided by discipline, but we are divided by the methods that scholars use. Economists using nationwide statistical data are critical of economists using the experimental lab to test theory. Scholars who do field research are critical of the use of any other method."

Elinor Ostrom Reading List - NYTimes.com: "For those interested in more information about Professor Ostrom, here’s a brief reading list:"

background posts
ten key values (see decentralization)
amar bhide
centers for continual learning
reforesting the commons
the compulsory attendance mindset

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