What will it take to improve the conditions for learning in our schools?

   

What will it take to improve our schools?

    This question has sparked the zeal of civic minded citizens ever since a movement for universal public education and “common schools” arose in the U.S. in the early 19th century. Ever since, perennial tensions between vocational and classical education, public and private governance, unions and management, and between progressive and traditional visions have cycled yearly through our discourse, like influenza. 

Public school fervor escalated to a fevered pitch between the 1980s and 2000s, first with the publication of the seminal report, A Nation at Risk, which created a national sense of dire urgency, followed by a bipartisan drive across Bush senior’s and Clinton’s administrations to set moonshot goals, such as, “All children in America will start school ready to learn,” or “The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.” The zenith of federal school reform was George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which paired performance standards to accountability measures.

    Needless to say, those ambitious goals from the ‘90s have not yet been achieved, despite a concerted focus of federal funding and private market solutions. There is some debate about whether schools have improved at all as a result of those efforts—I would agree with those who have argued that they have—but a deep sense of disappointment in the results seems to be relatively universal.

    Perhaps this is because public education seems to embody our society’s quest for a better future. Standing at a dynamic confluence of policy, politics, law, culture, psychology, geography, and human behavior, schools reify conflicting visions, values, and beliefs about children and what they should be taught, and how. There is a thirst to redress our society’s failures through educating our children, whether teaching them proper conduct, civics, or how to code.

    Since public schools were first established, efforts to improve their ability to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse body of students have swung and cycled between competing interests, resulting in the accretion of complex and often contradictory layers of policy and practice. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, in their exploration of the pendulous cycles of education reform over the course of a hundred years, Tinkering Towards Utopia (Tyack and Cuban, 1995), put it thus:

Reforms have rarely replaced what is there; more commonly, they have added complexity. When reforms have come in staccato succession, they often have brought incoherence or uncomfortable tensions.

    Yet despite the increasing complexity of schools and school systems, the primary approach of would-be reformers remains primarily linear, as if every school were more or less interchangeable, as if a school were a machine defined solely by the product of its inputs and outputs: students + funding = graduation rates + test scores.

    This approach has led to a preponderance of initiatives that seek to impose a set of seemingly logical mandates from afar, such as systems for teacher evaluation, school ratings based on test scores, state-wide standards and assessments, or legal regulations for special populations of students.

    Many of these are worthy efforts, and can result in positive change when enacted in tandem with the cultivation of practitioner knowledge through allocated resources and training that are sustained over time. But such reform efforts all suffer from a fundamental error: they conceive of schools as a simple unit of organization. But in reality, schools are far from simple. While the hierarchy of law, policy, and funding that schools operate within may appear orderly, schools are not defined only by how they are governed and funded, nor solely by their inputs and outputs.

    Schools are highly complex organizations, and how they respond to external mandates or initiatives rarely plays out as planned.

Schools are defined primarily by the people who lead the school, and by the ever evolving relationships between that leadership and their staff, students, and parents. A school is furthermore defined by the very structure and appearance of its hallways and stairwells and windows, the quality of the air that its children breath, and the manner in which acoustics are shaped by its surfaces. A school is defined by the very place in which it sits, in that particular community, within that particular state and local policy context, in that specific time. And it influences and shapes the children within it in ways that can be nearly indefinable—in ways tremendously positive, or in ways tremendously negative.

    In other words, a school could be more accurately described as akin to an ecosystem—as a complex, dynamic system. A community of adults and children interacting within a unique space, time, and place. An interconnected set of social relationships and roles governed as much by unpredictable and unseen forces as by the stable grammar of grade-levels and discrete academic subjects.

    When you think of a school as a simple, linear organization, then you think that they can be improved with the alteration of a specific variable or component. But viewing a school as an ecosystem means that you recognize that changing one thing may result in a cascade of unforeseen and perhaps unintended consequences.

    While this may seem daunting at first glance, it also opens up opportunities for us to explore a much broader field of study than that of the small, insular world of education, to which it has been primarily confined for too long. We can draw upon interesting principles and concepts from fields as diverse as ecology, organizational theory, and quantum physics, or from such disparate phenomenon as neurons, ant piles, avalanches, and cancer. And it furthermore allows us to be more realistic—and humble—about what results our efforts to reform a school can incur.

    We can improve our schools. But in order to do so more effectively and strategically, we must acknowledge the incredible influence of the contexts in which learning occurs, both physical and social. This means looking at a school more fully as a unique ecology, within which ever evolving forces and players interact. It furthermore means looking at the context within which a school operates also as a unique ecology, in which policies and district leaders and politics collide.

    What the view of a school as an ecosystem can also equip us with are significant areas for intervention that we have been mostly overlooking in our zeal for what is rational, cheap, or linear. The purely physical and spatial context in which students and teachers interact each day may have a far larger influence on student learning and behavior than has been heretofore recognized. Consider research on acoustics, temperature, greenery, lighting, and architectural and interior design, and examine how we could better (re-)design our schools for safety, well-being, productivity, and learning.

Consider research on the social context of a school, and consider overlooked opportunities for leadership, the criticality of diverse relationships, collaboration, social-psychological interventions, and social networks that enhance positive behaviors, rather than amplify negative ones. Examine the relationship between vectors, viruses, and children, and draw upon parallels from network and organizational theories.

    Looking at a school as an ecosystem, once you come around to this way of thinking, can be intoxicating. But it can also provide us with a necessary dose of humility for any endeavor to improve public education. There is no silver bullet, no easy fix, no technological potion that will magically enable all kids to learn the preferred civic, academic, and social wisdom we’d wish them to ingest. Improving schools is hard work, and it plays out on the ground in the minute-by-minute interactions of the key players—our administrators and teachers and students—on the stage of learning.

    The least we can do is to design our schools to promote the greatest well-being, positive social interaction, and inspired learning that we can, based on what we know from available research and from what we know we would want for our own children.

Fractals, Self-Organizing Principles, and Self-Segregation

Fractals are all around us

Came across this study on planting patterns, “Fractal planting patterns yield optimal harvests, without central control” that bears some closer review.

What’s fascinating about this is that it seems to present a real-world solution to a problem commonly referred to as the “tragedy of the commons,” in which the self-interest of individuals leads to the destruction and overuse of shared natural resources.

Spatial patterning often occurs in ecosystems as a self-organizing process caused by feedback between organisms and the physical environment. “The centuries-old Balinese rice terraces are also created by feedback between farmer’s decisions and the ecology, which triggers a transition from local to global scale control,” explains Lansing. “Our model shows for the first time that adaptation in a coupled human-natural system can trigger self-organized criticality.”

This is absolutely fascinating, and it’s interesting to consider this in relation to other ideas on a “self-organizing criticality” that we’ve explored here before, such as in brains and sand piles.

For proponents of ed reform who argue against centralized control, this seems like it could be worth digging into further.

The aspect of fractals here is also tantalizing. After chatting with a colleague about the article, he referred me to Ron Eglash, a mathematician who has studied fractals in African history and culture. Do yourself a favor and watch his TED talk, it will blow your mind.

Eglash raising an interesting point about self-organizing principles: they can be wonderful, as in Google search, or our brains. But there is also a dark side, such as in the spread of HIV or the damaging effects of capitalism. He suggests that the fractal algorithms employed in Africa could present us with “robust” “ways of doing self-organization — of doing entrepreneurship — that are gentle, that are egalitarian.”

I’d love to explore more about how the fractal design of school structures and systems could be utilized for a productive purpose. Please share if you’ve got more on this.

Another interesting angle on the Balinese rice farmers is suggested in an earlier study reported also on Phys.org, “Phase transitions of rice farmers may offer insight into managing natural resources.

Their study and modeling seems to suggest that smaller self-segregated communities within a society are desirable in the long-run.

They found that the downside of the segregation is that it increases the social disharmony throughout the society as a whole. The upside, however, is that the social disharmony within each community becomes very low. In some communities, individuals are more likely to keep cooperating with each other—using the shared resource fairly—compared to the situation without segregation. These results were very similar to what the researchers observed in the segregated society of the Balinese subak.

This seems to be a dark side unmentioned in the more recent study on how the Balinese farmers exemplify a self-organizing society in harmony with nature. Or perhaps this isn’t a dark side — it’s a suggestion that some self-segregation can be positive.

But I don’t know anything about the Balinese subak, either, so not sure how much to read into this. Certainly worth going deeper into this. If any readers have knowledge of African fractal algorithms or Balinese subaks, please share!

A complex system is defined by system-level goals, not only by the movement of its parts

Hoel and his collaborators claim to show that new causes—things that produce effects—can emerge at macroscopic scales. They say coarse-grained macroscopic states of a physical system (such as the psychological state of a brain) can have more causal power over the system’s future than a more detailed, fine-grained description of the system possibly could. Macroscopic states, such as desires or beliefs, “are not just shorthand for the real causes,” explained Simon DeDeo, an information theorist and cognitive scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and the Santa Fe Institute who is not involved in the work, “but it’s actually a description of the real causes, and a more fine-grained description would actually miss those causes.”

https://www.wired.com/story/new-math-untangles-the-mysterious-nature-of-causality-consciousness/

Special Education: Inclusion or Specialized Intervention

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“Street Crowd” by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (French (born Switzerland), Lausanne 1859–1923 Paris) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

A fair amount of academic literature calls for clinical, evidence-based models of intensive intervention for students with disabilities in K-12. Yet in the field, there is limited effective implementations of such interventions.

Models such as Response to Intervention (RTI), multi-tiered support systems (MTSS), and standard, evidence-based protocols and programs all make complete sense when you learn about them. But there’s also a problem with these interventions: they are based on clinical frames of implementation, as in a trained clinician in the given model or protocol delivers the intervention in a prescribed manner.

The daily reality of a K-12 school, however, is far from clinical. Opportunities to deliver prescribed interventions, whether in a small group or in the ideal of a 1:1 setting, are few and far between. Moreover, opportunities to be trained in such interventions are few and far between. One is certainly not trained in any given intervention in any traditional education program.

The very model of a self-contained classroom, a class in which students with more severe disabilities are separated from their peers, relies upon this clinical ideal. And again, in isolation, as an ideal, it makes perfect sense. Let’s separate out the kids with greatest of needs so we can provide them with individualized, supportive instruction.

Similarly, within an inclusive classroom, district leaders continually speak about and prescribe the need to move away from a one-teach, one assist model to a parallel, station, or team teaching model. Or they speak of the need to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction.

Idealized models that make perfect sense and sound great, but that rarely play out that way on the ground.

A Division Between Inclusion and Specialized Intervention

There is some scholarly debate about this. Fuchs et al, in a 2010 paper, “The ‘Blurring’ of Special Education in a New Continuum of General Education Placements and Services,” provides a useful delineation into two camps they term IDEA and NCLB. The IDEA group advocates for a top-down (i.e., replicable), linear, and time-sensitive process with fewer tiers of instruction, which serves both prevention and a more valid method of disability identification. They believe in evidence-based programs at Tier 1, the strength of standard protocols in Tier 2 and Experimental Teaching for Tier 3 intervention. They believe in the importance of a distinct special education program.

On the other hand, the NCLB group focuses on a problem-solving approach based on standards. “Whereas special education remained a distinct entity in reform making in the 1980s and 1990s, many in the NCLB camp today are advocating for obscuring, smearing, dimming, and confusing special education by blurring it into general education. In their plans—however implicit—special education vanishes in all but name (and maybe in name as well).”

Research suggests that the standard-protocol approach is superior to problem solving in accelerating the progress of children with serious learning problems. However, the authors acknowledge that “because there are insufficient numbers of such protocols in many academic areas and in the higher grades, and because ‘the school bus arrives every morning,’ many practitioners may have little choice but to rely on some variant of problem solving.”

In a more recent paper in 2015, “Inclusion Versus Specialized Intervention for Very-Low-Performing Students: What Does Access Mean in an Era of Academic Challenge?“, Fuchs and other authors again examine the split between those who push for a problem-solving, inclusionary approach vs. that of “specialized intervention” approach and advocate for a focus on explicit, specialized intervention delivered in a separate setting.

Here’s a couple of provocative quotes from this paper that struck me:

“. . . access cannot be assumed even when inclusive instruction reflects state of-the-art accommodations and support. Instead, only evidence of adequate student outcomes demonstrates that access to the curriculum has been accomplished. In fact, the present analysis indicates that such access is sometimes more satisfactorily achieved under a service delivery arrangement that occurs outside the physical space of the inclusive program and using instructional methods that differ from the inclusive program. All this argues for a definition of access to the general educational curriculum that is based on empirical evidence of adequate learning— regardless of the setting in which or the instructional methods by which that learning is achieved.”

“…it is not possible to ignore students’ foundational skill deficits if progress toward CCSS is to be realized. For example, to demonstrate meaningful improvement with informational text, specialized intervention must address very low performers’ decoding, word recognition, and vocabulary deficits, and this often requires out-of-level foundational skills instruction. Therefore, although reconceptualizing access as empirical demonstration of learning, schools must also recognize that the access mandate often requires schools to provide out-of-level instruction to meet students’ needs for accessing the grade-level curriculum.”

Yet I don’t agree with the authors that putting in place explicit instructional intervention programs will solve all the problems they’ve identified with inclusionary practices. You can place my own professional stance as firmly within the “NCLB” camp outlined above. Schools are not clinics, and unfortunately, special education teachers and other personnel in school buildings are rarely, if ever, trained in the delivery of specific interventions.

In fact, I think the issue of either strong inclusionary instruction or specialized intervention comes down to the same fundamental issue: there is a general lack of instructional capacity and expertise in most schools, in addition to a general lack of curricular coherence and vision.

Either way, we certainly need to rethink how we are putting in place supports for students who struggle the most and assessing whether those supports are actually effective.

My argument, however, is to place our primary and immediate focus on establishing coherent and rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students. I thus argue for inclusion and a problem-solving approach.

A recent article in Education Next,”Reforming Remediation” neatly encapsulates the rationale for this inclusionary argument. Students placed directly in college-level statistics did far better than their counterparts in remedial classes.

While that example is focused on a higher education setting, we can find parallels in K-12 by looking at access to Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, or to difficult academic subjects such as Latin. Disadvantaged students rarely have the opportunity to experience such rigorous curriculum. Yet when they do, as Bronx Latin teacher Peter Dodington put it, “The combination of a difficult topic and a well-ordered, step-by-step curriculum allows even otherwise weak students to succeed, and gives them a new understanding of their own strengths and talents.”

If we raise our expectations and the rigor and coherency of our curriculum, then we will see more educational benefit for all students. The dire reality of poor teacher training and knowledge of the content they teach is a significant problem, but a stronger school-wide curricular program can help to assuage this.

I strongly believe in the need for specialized interventions for students who require the most support. But how can we put in place effective interventions when a strong and well-implemented core curriculum is not present?

Let’s address the foundations first before moving to the clouds.

Principles for Robustness

“Snow Crystal” — Wilson Alwyn Bentley

In an article in Harvard Business Review, “The Biology of Corporate Survival*” the authors lay out some principles for managing complex adaptive systems. While framed for a business audience, these principles could be applicable to the complex adaptive system (or, perhaps more aptly, the “complexicated” system) of a school.

The authors delineate a set of principles for robustness into structural features, and managerial levers:

Structural Features

  • Heterogeneity (Diversity)
  • Modularity
  • Redundancy

Managerial Levers

  • Expect surprise, but reduce uncertainty
  • Create feedback loops and adaptive mechanisms
  • Foster trust and reciprocity

How might these principles apply in a school?

I’ll leave that to you to contemplate, but for the record, I’ll note that most public school managers typically do quite poorly in reducing uncertainty and in fostering trust.

 

* “The Biology of Corporate Survival – Harvard Business Review.” 2015. 15 Apr. 2016 <https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-biology-of-corporate-survival>