David Catania (By Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

(Update: Response from David Catania’s office)

My colleague Emma Brown reported in this story that David Catania, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, is using private donations to hire an outside law firm to help him design school-related legislation aimed at improving the city’s public schools.  Here’s a piece about why this is such a bad idea. It was written by Sam Chaltain, a DC-based education writer, a senior fellow at the Institute for Democratic Education in America, and a former member of Mayor Vincent Gray’s transition team for education policy. He can be reached at schaltain@gmail.com.

By Sam Chaltain

The decision by D.C. Council Education Committee Chairman David Catania to hire an outside law firm to craft school reform legislation is an awful one, worthy of serious public rebuke – and for two interrelated reasons.

The first is that hiring a small team of lawyers is the least likely path towards achieving imaginative and effective policy. Despite public stereotypes of the profession, K-12 education is a complex web of cognitive, social, emotional, language, ethical and physical challenges and opportunities. Its systemic barriers to change are as myriad as our complicated shared memories of what schooling is (and is not). And it’s a field in the midst of a major paradigmatic shift – away from the traditional notion that a student’s job is to adjust to the school, and towards the radical notion that a school’s job is to adjust to the student.

So while it’s true that the final stages of policy-making involve a certain amount of legalese, Mr. Catania’s belief that this process should start with a team of lawyers – and not end with one – speaks to a fundamental missed opportunity, and the second reason it’s a bad idea: We are ignoring the wisdom of our own community, and the chance to imagine DC’s future education policy as a city-wide, regenerative civic event.

Of course, surfacing and applying the insights of our own community is not something we do often – perhaps because so many of us secretly agree with Thomas Carlyle, who famously said: “I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”

The thing is, Carlyle was wrong. As New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki writes in his 2004 bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds, “If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to make decisions affecting matters of general interest, that group’s decision will, over time, be intellectually superior to the isolated individual.”

In other words, when our imperfect individual judgments are aggregated in the right way, our collective intelligence is often extremely helpful. That’s why Surowiecki suggests, “We should stop hunting and ask the crowd. Chances are, it knows.”

In fact, that’s exactly what Mr. Catania is doing – hunting. It’s an impulse so common sociologists have given it its own name: “Chasing the Expert,” which references our tendency when facing difficult decisions to search for that one person (or small group of people) who will have the answer.

What Surowiecki discovered was that the opposite was true, but only if the core conditions of making a good large-group decision were present: diversity, independence, and a particular form of decentralization. “Paradoxically,” he writes, “the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.”

Imagine if instead of seeking outside funds to hire the lawyers at Hogan Lovells, Catania had announced a citywide initiative in which the best wisdom around crowdsourcing would be utilized in order to help the community arrive at a thoughtful, informed collective decision around the future of education policy?

After all, politics is about the impact of government on the everyday lives of citizens. Why, then, do we think the way to do it well is by distancing ourselves from the voices of the citizens themselves?

Indeed, the most damning implication of Mr. Catania’s decision is his inattention to the mechanisms of democracy, to the wisdom of the community, and to the regenerative power of combining both in an effort to improve public education. As Surowiecki writes, democracy “is not a way of solving cognition problems or a mechanism for revealing the public interest. But it is a way of dealing with (if not solving once and for all) the most fundamental questions of cooperation and coordination: How do we live together? How can living together work to our mutual benefit?”

“The decisions that democracies make may not always demonstrate the wisdom of the crowd,” Surowiecki concedes. “But the decision to make them democratically does.”

RESPONSE FROM BENJAMIN YOUNG, Chief of Staff for David Catania:

Sam Chaltain’s criticism of the D.C. Council Committee on Education, and in particular, Council member David Catania’s decision to engage an outside counsel to assist with education legislation is wholly without merit.  His suggestion that the act of retaining legal and policy expertise bypasses the democratic process is a complete overreaction and unfairly characterizes how the Committee approaches its responsibilities.

As reported in the Washington Post, the Committee recently enlisted the education practice at Hogan Lovells LLP to assist in the areas of research, legal reviews, and legislative drafting – items squarely within the purview of a legislative committee.  It is entirely unclear why Mr. Chaltain finds consulting with thoughtful individuals who are experts in education law so offensive.  This is what other individuals, organizations, and policy experts do every day.

Mr. Chaltain jumps to an unfounded conclusion – that Committee members are substituting the views of lawyers with those of educators, parents, and students.  It’s a conclusion that bears no relationship to reality.

In just a few short months since the Council re-established an Education Committee, Council member Catania and his colleagues have conducted 34 school visits.  Before each visit, they are briefed on all aspects of the school – academic performance, attendance trends, truancy and more.  The discussions with school administrators and teachers that take place on these visits are lengthy, substantive and useful.   Without question, they inform all aspects of the Committee’s work.  A list of these school visits can be found here: http://www.davidcatania.com/school_visit_update.

In addition to educators, Council member Catania and his colleagues spend a great deal of time talking directly with the real clients of the public education system – parents.  During this school semester alone, Catania will speak to 17 District parent-teacher associations (PTAs).  Does Mr. Chaltain believe these discussions do not count as community feedback?  A list of upcoming PTA meetings can be found here: http://www.davidcatania.com/david_in_your_community.

While perhaps not as trendy as “crowdsourcing,” speaking directly to educators and parents is an indispensable component of the Committee’s work.   Even so, we realize that not everyone can attend one of the Committee’s meetings, hearings, or other events.  For those individuals we established a webpage precisely to gather community input.  We love receiving good ideas and value all forms of input.  I encourage all who are interested to tell us their opinions here: http://www.davidcatania.com/schoolreform.

In short, had Mr. Chaltain taken the time to learn about how the Education Committee interacts with community members, he would have found that educators, parents, students, and other residents directly inform the work of the Committee and its counsel nearly every day.  Ironically, the Council is more engaged with these individuals than at any time in District’s history.