Spring Break and the Circle of Life

Public school teachers (and students) in New York and beyond are on vacation this week. Should we feel guilty about it? More than any aspect of our jobs, the vacation time we teachers receive draws resentful, bitter comments from folks outside the profession.

Having held a variety of other jobs, I definitely appreciate that teachers get more paid time than any other profession I know of. Sometimes, we take trips on these vacations, spending our exorbitant salaries on VIP suites in the finest resorts the French Riviera has to offer.

Sadly, I won’t be visiting the Riviera this week. Aside from writing blog posts, I’ll be catching up on work. I have about 50 pages worth of research papers to grade, a stack of written responses to Act III of Romeo & Juliet, and some lessons to plan.

I’m not complaining; I like most of this work and it’s the job I signed up for. Most teachers I know look forward to some of our vacation time precisely for this reason: we’re so overworked that without the time off, we could never catch up on our grading, planning, and sleep.

Schools, like ecosystems, follow the seasons. Fields and orchards lie fallow for long stretches in between planting and harvesting. These fallow periods aren’t wasted time; they allow ecosystems to regenerate and remain fertile.

Similarly, while teacher vacation time may look like a needless luxury to the value-added zealots, it’s restorative for both teachers and students. Whether we’re talking about schools or ecosystems, overwork and exhaustion are destructive forces. I’m grateful to have this week off; my students (and my well being) will be the better for it.

We Are Not Hippies

Currently, public schools are run like single-minded industrial factories. The aim of a school? To produce students that score high on tests. Achievement on tests supposedly translates into higher skilled workers who will contribute to our knowledge economy and keep our nation globally competitive.

But this conception of schools as knowledge factories, producing high achieving students, has resulted in the opposite: according to both our own measurements and international comparisons, our students remain “mediocre,” and the achievement gap between socio-economic groups continues to lengthen. Not to mention the grim statistics on literacy rates, dropouts, and college remediation for those  who even make it that far.

The response to this failure has resulted in a monomaniacal focus on school choice and accountability as saviors of public education, to name a few. But these measures alone will do little.

Will and I have proposed a new model for our public schools. We propose that our schools be perceived as ecosystems, ripe with interconnections, dynamic niches for learning and collaboration, and bountiful opportunities for positive and productive explorations with wider society. Using an ecological lens founded upon natural principles and an ethics of humaneness, equity, and sustainability, we can steer our education reform efforts to focus upon the environments and content that schools deliver, rather than upon the quixotic demand for production of “better” students.

When we discuss our model of schools as ecosystems, we’re talking about man-made, cultivated ecosystems–like a garden or farm. This distinction is an important one to make, because it suggests that we can deliberately cultivate sustainable ecosystems that not only function based upon ecological principles, but that it will produce a ‘high yield’ (translate to ‘higher student achievement’) for our intended purpose.

In other words, we can have our cake and eat it, too. But in order to do so, we require the knowledge and understanding of how to harness and utilize ecological values and principles systemically. This kind of cross-disciplinary work is already being done in other fields, but not much of this kind of work is trickling into public education.

We are not hippies. We strongly believe that viewing our public schools through an ecological lens and designing schools and implementing policies based on our holistic, community steeped model will result in better schools — by any measuring stick.

I believe that the model Will and I are proposing can unite both sides of the great education debate, reformers and activists, business interests and open source enthusiasts, conservative and liberal alike. How? Because I believe that using our model will result in higher performing schools and an education that respects and nurtures the whole child. Simply said, our model will result in better schools.

We want our schools to be better. We believe that we can make them better using the framework that we are suggesting.

Quote of the Day: Teaching in the Sausage Factory

Mark and I must feel particularly nerdy this week, as we’ve gone from Emerson to Ken Wilber in two days. Today I had Marx on my mind and dug out this quote from Chapter 16 of Capital:

“If we may take an example from outside the sphere of production of material objects, a schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his scholars, he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation.”

What’s he talking about? Value-added! What’s he saying? Basically, the folks who run the factory don’t care if we’re producing students or sausages; they just want us to do more for less. Anybody out there who works in a public school disagree?

Let Them Eat Test Prep

When we talk about diversity in schools, we usually focus on school populations. We measure diversity by counting off how many races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds are represented in the school community.

Diversity is about more, however, than demographics. If schools are like ecosystems and students are the organisms that inhabit those ecosystems, curriculum is the nutrition that feeds those organisms. A diverse that offers a variety of classes (including offerings in the arts, music, and applied sciences) is a critical element in a healthy school ecosystem.

Writing about the connection between biodiversity and nutrition, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states:

Biodiversity plays a key role in ensuring dietary adequacy, because nutrient contents between foods and among varieties/cultivars/breeds of the same food can differ dramatically. 

In other words, ecosystems that offer a diverse menu of nutrients are healthier than those that offer limited options. The same holds true for school curricula; when students have access to a smorgasbord of subject matter (including arts, music, and elective classes), those students and their schools are healthier and happier. Sadly, the more schools are forced to emphasize test preparation, the less diverse their curricula become.

I taught for a couple of years at a high school where administrators had created a curriculum devoid of elective content. Students took the same four classes (English, Math, History, and Science) all four years of high school, with Spanish, Art, and Drama classes assigned to students purely to meet city or state requirements. The school offered no classes in music, dance, creative writing, or applied sciences. It offered students no choice of classes whatsoever, assigning them to “electives” regardless of their interests or aptitudes. Despite this bland, homogenous curriculum, last year the Department of Education gave this school an “A” rating.

I understand why these administrators force-fed their students this cold gruel of a curriculum. High schoolers are tested heavily in Math, Science, English and History, and those test results can make or break a school. Unfortunately, city, state, and federal authorities provide virtually no incentives for schools to offer electives or music classes, even though these are often the classes that make high school worthwhile.

But school reform isn’t about making school worthwhile, meaningful, or enjoyable. Meaning and enjoyment are exactly the kind of fluff that value-added reformers want to eliminate from the classroom. To these folks, after all, education is about conditioning a malleable workforce, not cultivating a healthy citizenry.

Given that set of goals, diverse curricula are certainly not a priority for Michelle Rhee, Melinda Gates, Arne Duncan, and the rest of the value-added vampires. At least, not when they’re dealing with other people’s children. (Their own children, of course, get treated to four-star schools with lots of delicious electives on the menus.) As far as they’re concerned, the poor children of America’s impoverished districts can simply eat the test-prep cake.

On the other hand, those of us who work with children, who seek to educate those children in the hopes a building a strong, functional democracy– we know that children need music the way that daisies need sunlight. We see our students’ hunger for knowledge. We know they need more stimuli, not less. Barry Lopez, a brilliant writer and thinker, argues far more persuasively than I can for exposing people to all available forms of human expression:

Diversity is not, as I had once thought, a characteristic of life. It is, instead, a condition necessary for life. To eliminate diversity would be like eliminating carbon and expecting life to go on. This, I believe, is why even a passing acquaintance with endangered languages or endangered species or endangered cultural traditions brings with it so much anxiety, so much sadness. We know in our tissues that the fewer the differences we encounter in our travels, the more widespread the kingdom of Death has become.

Romney and the Value-Added Vampires

When Mark and I began exploring the concept of schools as ecosystems, we thought we had a pretty great idea. We wanted to replace the current educational reform narrative— which focuses on how schools and teachers can produce “better” students– with one that focuses on how to produce healthy, sustainable educational environments.

Two big assumptions lay beneath this thinking. One, that our readers will agree that cultivating and caring for the natural world is a good idea. Two, that our readers will agree that, like the environment, public education has an intrinsic value.

Of course, many people don’t agree with us. Value-added thinking rests, after all, on the assumption that public schools and their students are intrinsically worthless. They only become valuable when they produce improved test scores.

Similarly, many people agree with Mitt Romney, who believes that the earth has no inherent value. Speaking last month in Nevada, Romney described his confusion about the government’s stake in that state’s national parks, forests, and public lands:

I don’t know the reason that the federal government owns such a large share of Nevada…Unless there’s a valid and legitimate and compelling governmental purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land.

So I haven’t studied it, what the purpose is of the land…But where government ownership of the land is designed to satisfy, let’s say, the most extreme environmentalists, from keeping a population from developing their coal, their gold, their other resources for the benefit of the state, I would find that to be unacceptable.

Romney’s thinking echoes the value-added educational approach in a few key ways:

1. He hasn’t studied it: In other words, he’s speaking from ignorance. This mirrors the value-added advocates who either ignore or disregard all of the studies and data indicating that their approach doesn’t help schools or students.

2. He wants to destroy the planet: Not surprisingly, the only “legitimate and compelling” purposes that Romney sees for the earth involve incredibly destructive processes like coal and gold mining. These industries have done immeasurable harm to our planet, and much of that harm may be irreparable. Similarly, the value-added folks have shown a remarkable zeal for dismantling schools in cities across the country, doing immeasurable harm to those schools’ students and communities.

3. He thinks we’re idiots: Romney couches his approach to land management in terms of the public good. I’m sure, if asked, he’ll argue that coal and gold mining are industries where workers are treated well, work in safe conditions and earn a fair share of their companies’ profits. Similarly, the value-added zealots talk to parents, teachers, and students like we’re morons, when they even acknowledge our existence.

4. He has no soul: I’m not talking about Romney’s singing here. I’m speaking quite literally: Romney is a vampire. Anyone argues that the earth exists only to be sucked dry for the benefit of a few landowners is a true, old-school villain. Strangely, the value-added vampires are still human enough to recognize some value in our planet, but they think that students and teachers are only worth as much as the test scores they produce.

How do we respond to folks who lack the capacity to see the value of what happens in our schools everyday, unless it’s presented to them as a two-digit number? Who can’t see the value in showing a student how to love Shakespeare, or line drawing, or algebra? Treat them like vampires: expose them and their followers to the light of day until they shrivel up and disappear.