A Solution to the Failing Schools Dilemma

GothamSchools’ Philissa Cramer reported last week that schools up for closure in NYC serve a greater proportion of high needs students. As she notes, this evidence initially “backs up critics of the Bloomberg administration’s school closure policies.”

But the fly in the ointment for those critics is that “schools up for closure all received more funding from the city last year than other schools.” One of the major critiques of school closure is that failing schools have been left to fester without adequate funding.
I believe that there is an underlying problem with “failing” schools that all too often gets talked around and that this is where Richard Kahlenberg’s argument for socioeconomic integration in schools becomes especially significant.

Both sides of the school closure debate may be right: schools that are struggling are struggling first and foremost because they serve high concentrations of students who have great needs. And those students have great needs because they live in isolated communities of great poverty. But the answer to serving them better may not simply be to increase funding to their schools (though that certainly wouldn’t hurt).

The more sustainable answer is to provide all students access to schools where the learning environment is positive and inclusive, rather than ridden with isolation, toxicity, and aggression. And as Kahlenberg suggests, developing this kind of environment is best done when there is deliberate socioeconomic integration within the school or community.

In other words, we need to stop talking about whether or not to close “failing” schools, and instead begin talking about building new ones that will integrate students traditionally stranded in toxic islands of poverty with students cushioned in the foothills of networked resiliency.

Yes, there are schools such as KIPP that serve students in urban deserts that are able to provide a sound and rigorous education. But as Geoffrey Canada noted, these schools do so by “quarantine” — they more effectively buffer their lucky students from the barren winds that surround them.

Forget quarantine. Forget “contamination.” We need to intermix, diversify, and invigorate.

Seeing the Trees, and the Forest

I always find it refreshing to hear perspectives that are willing to breach boundaries and avoid deprecating opposing perspectives. We are all too familiar with polarized rhetoric, most especially in the narrow world of education commentary. So it was with great appreciation that I read Andy Smarick’s recent piece on Fordham’s Education Gadfly, Can bad schools be good for neighborhoods?

He thoughtfully addresses the issue of school closure,  providing evidence for why school closures can be warranted, but taking into deep consideration the idea that even “bad” schools can be positive forces in their communities.

He states that a school “acts as an important strand in the invisible web of social connectivity that helps to hold a community together despite all the malign forces trying to pull it apart. Those who cleared Chicago’s “slums” to make way for new high-rise public-housing towers didn’t realize that they were severing intricate, generations-old social bonds” (Bold added).
It is precisely this aspect of interdependency and interconnection that underlies the use of our metaphor of viewing a school as an ecosystem. Smarick’s point about the razing of existing housing to erect new structures also echoes the ecological caution that hysteresis provides–in some cases, we may be causing damage that will be irreversible.
Smarick outlines ecological comparisons to demonstrate this connectivity: 

Environmental parallels are numerous: misbegotten projects that cleared eyesore swamps and walls of mangroves to make way for highways, waterfront condos, and more. We found out too late that these “messy” wetlands actually served as massive water filters, flood preventers, wildlife protectors, fish incubators, and much more. Profound environmental degradation was the consequence of well-intentioned, if naïve, attempts at progress. (Bold added)

Viewing a school and community as an ecosystem requires acknowledging and valuing unique local contexts and resources, which is precisely what Smarick articulates when he states that “maybe all urban public schools—perhaps even all schools—deserve a greater degree of deference because of characteristics associated with their ‘local-ness.'”

As he notes, acknowledging complexity and the value of local resources does not always necessitate that school closure should not be done. I have written before (“Turning Schools Around”) about the reality that–in certain cases–drastic action must be undertaken. I suggested in that post that when a school closure must be made, ensure the process of building a new one incorporates the input of those most vocal in their opposition, and turn the process of rebuilding into a collaborative community effort.

Having examined the ecological aspects of Smarick’s post, I would like to return to its political dimension. Smarick professes to be politically conservative. I generally fall on the liberal end of the political spectrum. But in a post I wrote back in June, Beyond Ideology, I proposed that the conceptual framework of Schools as Ecosystems offers a potential avenue for bridging conservative and liberal perspectives, in the form of the following convergences:
  1. The idea of minimizing top down control with a goal towards community self-governance, and a restoration of human dignity
  2. A focus on a methodology demonstrated to be effective
Smarick’s post, one focusing on what he terms the “communitarian tendencies of my brand of conservatism,” demonstrates this great potential for responsible, mature, sustainable, balanced, and pragmatic collaboration in education policy.

It is my hope that squabbles over political ideology can be reduced in favor of balanced and mature approaches to public education that value local context and eschew reductionism in the name of either ideology or efficiency. I believe that we can see both the individual trees, and bear in the mind the big picture of the forest entire. 

Turning Schools Around

We’ve pointed out on this blog how closing schools and isolating and ignoring practitioner and parent voices can be detrimental to local communities. But acknowledging this reality does not mean we can also ignore that some schools are indeed failing their communities. And while we can blame a variety of factors for this–such as lack of systemic funding, resources and support; lack of parental engagement; lack of teacher training; short-sighted policies and politics that remove programs that would better develop local economies; and so on ad infinitum–the real question is: what can we do to truly transform a school that is struggling to serve its community?

Note before I continue that there are indeed school systems that are failing, such as in the case that ACLU has made against Michigan’s Highland Park District. I’m not going to tackle this deeper diagnosis here, but want to simply acknowledge that no school is an island — a school is a part of a larger ecosystem, inextricably linked to district and state policies and funding contexts.

That said, I believe that there are some out there who would claim that a struggling school simply requires more support in terms of resources and funding. While such a school is more than likely struggling with basic supplies, I don’t think the charitable and often entirely necessary funneling of more money into a school addresses the underlying issue. The question is how wisely, sustainably, and systematically that money will be leveraged. Many struggling schools are struggling not simply due to inadequate support but moreover from a culture of poor leadership, defeat and/or complacency. And once such a culture has been established, it can be monumental to overturn. While–like an Ent–I chafe at the hastiness that most education reformers advise when it comes to schools that are struggling, there are cases where something immediate and drastic certainly must be undertaken. In ecological terms, we are no longer just talking about basic conservation of the existing ecosystem, but rather carefully managing succession, a process of transformation and introduction of a new paradigm.

Firing all the staff, or half the staff, or just the leadership, and then rehiring new staff and giving the school a new name sounds like a start, if you are a business minded education reformer. But there’s a problem with this approach to public schools. Aside from the obvious fact that a school doesn’t sell anything, a school is also different than a business in that it is much more deeply embedded in the community it serves. Relationships between staff and parents and children are historic and complex. Furthermore, the relationship between that local community and the larger school system can be complicated. Some parents and educators have a deep mistrust of the school system, often for very sound reasons.

In NYC, the clash between a business-minded, “shut-em-down” approach and a vocal and angry school community is constant. And each time a school is shut down in the face of community protest, that relationship continues to worsen.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can dramatically change a school culture, expunge staff that aren’t interested in being part of that change, and positively involve local community leadership and incorporate their perspectives and concerns.

I was talking with a good friend the other day about this problem, which came up as a result of a conversation about collaboration versus competition. On this blog, we have been pretty heavily on the side of collaboration and advocating for much more of it, due to the heavy dominance of competition and markets in school reform agendas at the moment. But his point was that you need a balance of both, so long as the competition has a purpose that is of ultimate benefit to all. Collaboration in and of itself is no silver-bullet. It must have a specific outcome that will be better achieved through involving multiple perspectives.

When I brought up the fact that markets and competition can be detrimental to local communities when schools are closed in the face of community protest, his suggestion was simple: close the school, but involve the leaders in that community in building the ‘new’ school.

In other words, we can have a win/win solution that addresses the concerns of both the business minded reformers and of dissenting local communities. In drastic cases, turning a school around can be necessary, just in the way that turning the soil can be sometimes necessary, but as the new school community is developed, those leaders who were at first vocally opposed to the school closing should be the ones most involved in the creation of the new one.

Turning a school around, in other words, should be seen as a community-wide, collaborative problem solving process, as opposed to a top-down executive order. Yes, indeed, schools that are failing to serve their communities must be turned around. But that turn around will be best achieved when the community is directly involved in its recreation.

But now a word of caution. Looking to the ecological principles that have given us the metaphor of schools as ecosystems, one myth that people have when it comes to a plot of land is that the soil must be regularly turned. But this is false. When soil is healthy, you want to avoid turning the soil. Nutrients are lost and the land is degraded. It’s part of the reason why the Mississippi delta is overflowing with algal blooms, just as one example — farmers overcompensate for soil degradation by plowing the land with fertilizer, which then runs off into the river and eventually out into the sea, upsetting natural balances.

The best thing to do to maintain healthy soil life? Mulch the soil and install plants that will provide the nutrients that are needed. The soil, after all, is the foundation of a garden. Smart stewards of land invest the time necessary to build up soil life by considering the “pioneer plants” that are growing well on a plot of land, designing according to local conditions to maximize sunlight, reduce damaging weather effects, and cultivating the soil so it is resilient and full of microbial life.

In a school, the soil is the community. As Will has pointed out when he introduced us to the term hysteresis, damage to an ecosystem changes the future outcomes of that ecosystem in ways that we can’t foresee. Excepting the drastic cases that I assumed for this post, the better thing to do is to seek to retain, recycle, and redeploy existing staff members (mulch), introduce targeted resources, and install new leadership that will harness and develop existing human capital, while introducing necessary systemic changes to address the deficits in the school community.

What Does it Mean to be "At Risk"?

I grew up in the suburbs. Not far from my house, there were some woods that we used to explore. It wasn’t a forest or anything dramatic– just an acre or two of trees that some kids could get lost in.

Those trees are gone now. About ten years ago, they were bulldozed to make space for a small, generic-looking subdivision.
Growing up, I never realized that those woods were at risk. Sure, they weren’t spectacular or awe-inspiring, but they were doing okay. If you focused on the trees themselves, you never would have guessed their destruction was imminent.

The thing is, these trees weren’t at risk because they did anything wrong. They weren’t at risk because the people who tended them had failed at their jobs. They were at risk because some real estate developers and local politicians decided they weren’t worth much. And now those woods are gone.

When people talk about “at risk” children, they usually focus on some characteristic of those children– they’re at risk because they’re African American, or because they’re depressed, or because they’re using marijuana. I had a professor who described the shock of discovering, after leading what he considered a fairly stable childhood, that he had been an “at risk youth” because he’s Puerto Rican.

What’s strange about this approach is that it seems to blame these children, or their communities, for their likely failures. At the very least, the existence of an “at risk” demographic places the focus on the students, rather than the forces that do them harm.

What factors pose the greatest risk to students these days? To many of us in public education, the answer is obvious: the value-added reformers whose short-sighted policies have undermined schools and teachers across the country

What does it mean to be an at risk student? As far as I can tell, any student whose school lies in the path of the value-added bulldozers is at risk. Perhaps rather than making these students’ educational environments more chaotic, policy makers should work to protect and support them.


A good friend of mine just introduced me to the idea of hysteresis, which fits very well with our “school as ecosystems” framework. Essentially, hysteresis refers to the impact that a system’s history has upon its condition. The good folks at wikipedia provide an example:

“Coral reef systems can dramatically shift from pristine coral-dominated systems to degraded algae-dominated systems when populations grazing on algae decline. The 1983 crash of urchin populations in Caribbean reef systems released algae…allowing them to overgrow corals and resulting in a shift to a degraded state. When urchins rebounded, the high (pre-crash) coral cover levels did not return, indicating hysteresis .”

This is a hysteretic effect: despite the fact that some elements (the urchins) in an ecosystem (the Caribbean reefs) had returned to previous levels, the ecosystem’s history prevented the system from returning to its prior state. Phew.

Among other things, the concept of hysteresis should give us all caution. When we alter a system of any kind, the effects may be irreversible, or not reversible in the short term. For example, when we close down public schools by the dozen, then later find out that our system for rating schools bears no relation to the actual student learning, we might not be able to undo the damage.

There’s the damage we do to students, whose social and emotional (not to mention academic) experiences of school may be severely disrupted by school closures. There’s the damage we do to educators, whose efforts to build their school communities are discarded like so much city trash. Perhaps most importantly, there’s the damage we do to communities all over the city, where students and their parents learn that their voices do not matter, even when the decisions being made affect them most.