Education Reform as a Schizophrenic Regime

I’d like to discuss an ecological principle this week I introduced a while back that has potential application in school design: succession. Succession refers to the natural evolution of a landscape from barren earth, to weeds (known to permaculturists as “pioneer plants“), towards an eventual stable and mature ecosystem.

In gardening, many folks have a strange obsession with immature ecosystems and create endless hours of labor through the maintenance of vast expanses of lawns. Toby Hemenway puts it thus:

An immature ecosystem like a lawn demands that we expend time, energy, and materials to wrench back the hands of the ecological clock, holding the land at prairie phase with mowing and weeding. Yet nature–and our irrigation and fertilizers–will inexorably advance the clock another tick, sprouting seedlings and saplings, inundating us with her fecundity. With sprinkler and fertilizer we’re tromping on the accelerator, yet with tiller and pruning we’re slamming on the brake. No system runs well under that kind of schizophrenic regime.

This “schizophrenic regime” of “tromping on the accelerator” and “slamming on the brake” also aptly describes our current constrained focus for education reform. We’re desperately focusing on achievement at all costs, applying the fertilizer of test prep and other short bursts of whatever contracted program the district or state has hastily invested in, while at the same time militantly cutting budgets and weeding out “bad teachers.”

What we require is a balanced focus that looks not simply at short-term indicators like standardized test scores, but at a set of multiple indicators that is oriented towards long-term growth, well-being, and sustainability of the system as a whole.

How do you think the ecological principle of succession applies in school systems? I would love to hear your ideas!

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