A board dinner discussion about scaling educational impact reminded me of Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival.  The Library Journal summarized it this way:

Jacobs argues that modern societies utilize two distinctive moral systems–one being suited to the world of commerce, the other to the world of politics. Commercial morality is unsentimental, nonpartisan, and efficacious; political morality is personalistic, expansive, and vaguely altruistic. The problem is that we don’t always know which system of morality to employ in concrete situations. Furthermore, the wrong choice can have disastrous consequences.

While it failed to gain critical or popular support, Jacobs work is still a classic for those of us trying to improve a public delivery system by injecting private sector innovation and values.  I was reminded by the dinner chat of how fundamentally different the cultures and incentives are for organizations designed to deal in commerce from those designed to deal in politics.  It does help explain the oil & water reaction we often see when trying to mix the two.


  1. Is there any way to synthesize The Life and Death of Great Cities with your support of NCLB? Honestly, you know how Jacobs would have ridiculed data-driven accountability in education. I enjoy your work on innovation, but I’ve never understood how you can reconcile it with your support for accountability practices that – at their best – represent a leap into the Taylorism of the early 20th century. At their worst (with Klein and Rhee) they are turning the clock back to the mind body dualism of the 18th century.

    • John,
      thanks, great question. Like my friends at http://www.EdEquity.org, I’m for a ‘great schools promise’ that ensures that every kid has access to at least one great public school. That means measurement and accountability. I wish the US wasn’t so dependent on old psychometrics and am optimistic about adaptive curriculum embedded and performance assessment. Let’s hope with the $350m to be spent on Common Core assessments that we see some improvement.


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