The Influence of Greenery on Learning

“Compared to most of the interventions aimed at relieving stress (e.g. emotional skill building, anger management, positive behavior programs), placing trees and shrubs on the school ground is a modest, low-cost intervention that is likely to have long-lasting effects on generations of students.” 

—Li & Sullivan, 2016

    When Joe walks around his neighborhood, he is surrounded by sepia-toned brick buildings. When he goes to bed at night, he sleeps, fitfully, to the vehicular chorus of the Grand Concourse, a symphony of sirens, revving motors, car alarms, and bass blasting from souped up subwoofers. His access to nature is primarily derived from TV shows and a small city park a few blocks away, scattered with trash-strewn weeds. Joe (not any of my former students’ real name) is a 5th grader living in a dense urban area of the Bronx. 

Joe’s neighborhood from a bird’s eye view, courtesy of Google Maps

You might be forgiven for assuming this is all so normal for Joe that he has neither any conception nor desire for the vistas his peers raised in lusher landscapes have constant access to. Yet when Joe came to interview at the middle school where I worked (we interviewed our prospective 6th graders) and was asked, “What would you like to improve in your community?”, he replied that he would like to reduce trash and noise, and, furthermore, that he would like to live somewhere with more space and trees.

It wasn’t only Joe who responded in this way. Other students we interviewed voiced similar wishes, though they said it in different ways. For one it was a desire for more flowers, for another less violence, or a bigger bedroom, or a backyard, or no upstairs neighbor who made so much noise. I haven’t surveyed all the kids in the poorest areas of the city, but I’d wager they’d also appreciate a little more peace and quiet or nature, if given half the chance to express it.

Actually, many kids have been asked, and their answers were uncannily similar to Joe’s. In the early 1970s, urban designer Kevin Lynch organized a survey of teenagers in cities across four different countries. “When children were asked to imagine the best place to live in, they often mentioned trees, and as beautiful places, gardens, and parks” (Lynch, 1977, as summarized by Chawla, 2015, p. 436).

A craving for access to a beautiful natural expanse may be an intrinsic aspect of being human. There’s even a term for this, biophilia (introduced by Erich Fromm in 1973 and expanded on by E.O. Wilson in a 1986 book by the same name), which means that we have an innate urge to connect to nature and other living things. This doesn’t mean everyone wants to go camping nor be anywhere near a wilderness. But at the very least, we are all likely sustained by an occasional walk through a stand of whispering trees or an urban garden, just as we are by a visit with a friend.

In fact, even a mere view of living green things out of a window can be vicariously invigorating, as a wide array of studies have shown in a wide variety of settings, from our homes and neighborhoods to institutional settings such as hospitals, prisons, offices and—of course—our schools.

The Impact of A Green View on Student Learning

A Room With a View

    The idea that greenery could be rejuvenating was kickstarted by an influential study in 1984 by Roger Ulrich, in which he found that surgical patients in a hospital whose windows looked out onto trees recovered more quickly—and with less pain medication—than patients in rooms facing a drab brick wall.

    Prison inmates similarly benefit from glimpses of nature. A study found that prisoners in cells with outward facing views of farmland were sick less often than their counterparts with views of the inner yard (Moore, 1981). Of prison inmates, there are none more deprived than those placed in solitary confinement: they are enclosed in a cell for up to 23 hours a day for days, months—sometimes years—on end. Forget windows. Just showing videos of natural landscapes to prisoners in solitary confinement can help them to remain calm and reduce violent behavior (Nalini, et al., 2017).

    Perhaps it is unsurprising people confined, whether to a hospital bed or a prison cell, would benefit from a small peek at something, anything, vibrant and alive. What may be more surprising is how subsequent studies have shown that “views of nature out of an office or factory are associated with increased employee productivity, enhanced feelings of job and life satisfaction, greater psychological and physical well-being, and reduced levels of frustration and stress” (Matsuoka, 2010, p. 274). This suggests that a green vista is not only a spark of life to a desperate inmate or sick patient, but a rejuvenative force for all of us who toil indoors for the majority of our day.

    An accumulating stream of studies have shown that views and access to green space can improve the well-being and learning of students in K-12 schools. Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college, with a concomitant decrease in stress and criminal behavior (Matsuoka, 2010; Wu et al., 2014; Dadvend et al., 2015; Li & Sullivan, 2016; Hodsen & Sanders, 2017; Kweon et al., 2017). Furthermore, greenery in a student’s neighborhood can result in an increase in mental health and a decrease in aggression (Alcock et al., 2014; Younan et al., 2016).

    Sounds too good to be true? Maybe you think this is fluffy sociological stuff written to assuage the confirmation bias of tree huggers. It certainly sounds fluffy to say greenery is calming. We could say the same sort of thing about aromatherapy, crystals, and listening to whale sounds. But the significant and positive impact of the presence of greenery has been confirmed through randomized controlled trials and longitudinal studies. Fluffy? Maybe not so much.

    There’s two theories about why greenery is rejuvenative: one is Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and the other is Stress Reduction Theory (SRT). ART theorizes that green space restores focus and fights fatigue, whereas SRT hypothesizes that nature reduces stress. Both theories have evidence to back them up, so there may be some interplay between reducing stress and restoring focus.

    The natural views that seem to wield the greatest restorative and calming effects are from a school’s cafeteria and hallways (Matsuoka, 2010; Li & Sullivan, 2016). Li and Sullivan’s study suggests that “a 10-min break [with a natural view] would suffice in restoring students’ attentional capacities and help them recover from stressful tasks” (p. 156). Another study found even only five minutes of exposure to nature could help to reduce stress (Barton & Pretty, 2010; as cited by Kweon et al., 2017, p. 36). Ensuring that cafeterias, hallways, and other spaces, such as gyms, have a sightline to nature could be an effective way to support students in reducing their stress and restoring their ability to focus when they return to class.

    According to one randomized controlled experiment, views of green expanses from a classroom can also support the cognitive performance of students, leading to 13% greater attentiveness than students with views of a parking lot, other buildings, or without any windows (Li & Sullivan, 2016). Another study found that schools with higher levels of nearby tree canopy cover had higher scores on tests of reading comprehension (Hodsen & Sander, 2017). One study even suggests that a mere glance of 40 seconds out of a window onto a green roof rather than a concrete one can serve to sustain attention on a challenging task (Lee et al., 2015).

    And we’re still just talking about the presence of greenery outside of a school building. What kind of greenery is most influential? What about greenery within a building? And what about getting kids out of a building to interact with the real thing?

It’s All In the Canopy

    Greenery, or green space, could mean a wide variety of things. Are we talking grass? Shrubs? Trees? Astroturf? Let me give you a hint. It’s not lawns. It’s not athletic fields. In fact, those land features, along with parking lots, are associated with reduced academic goals and achievement, and even higher criminal activity (Kweon et al., 2017). Shrubs don’t really do much, either.

    It’s those trees, man. It’s that breathing green canopy cover that is the most focusing, calming, and restorative.

    This isn’t so strange, when you think about it. Dallying under the dappled shade of trees is the hallmark of the good life. That soothing sound of breeze moving through leaves. The way sunlight shimmers across a variegated green marquee. There’s just something about trees. Something magical and magisterial. They buffer us from wind and rain. They enrich and entrench the soil and bear us fruit. They even communicate to one another through their root systems (Wohlleben, 2015). Some live on a timespan so protracted it’s unfathomable to our puny human minds. Trees bestow us with a sense, however subconscious, of flourishing ethereality that we may only most appreciate in their absence.

I was fortunate to grow up with this stout olive tree poised outside my bedroom. I spent many an afternoon playing or resting in its branches and shade.

    More practically, trees also help to reduce air and noise pollution, and help get people to exercise more (Dadvand et al., 2015). Trees can do much to not only “soak up fine particle pollution from cars, power plants, and factories” but furthermore “cool down neighborhoods anywhere from 0.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius on the hottest summer days” (Plumer, 2016). Pleasing on the eyes? Check. Providing ecosystem services for the public health and well-being of mankind? Check.

It is possible that trees only have a restorative visual impact within a certain range of density. For example, one study suggests somewhere between 24-34% tree cover* is a sweet spot (Jiang et al., 2014). Intriguingly, this may reflect an evolutionary preference for savannah-like landscapes and acacia-like—or thin trunk, large canopy—tree forms (Falk & Balling, 2010). Another study suggests that it’s not simply about the quantity of trees, but the quality of those trees, such as how well maintained, varied, and orderly they are (De Vries, van Dillen, Groenewegen, & Spreeuwenberg, 2013). This makes more sense. You could meet any quantitative quota with a sickly or monotonous row of trees, but a healthy, diverse copse will do much more for both your health and your soul.

    I suspect there’s something about the just-right visual complexity and dimensionality of a healthy tree canopy that is especially pleasing to our mind’s eye—there’s just enough subtle unpredictable movement, variation, and depth to stimulate, while just enough light and green shade to soothe. In fact, there is the possibility that it is the fractal nature of tree canopy that makes it so pleasing to the eye and the brain (Cepelewicz, 2017).

In barren environments, like the flat expanses of the interstate highway in Kansas or like most school playgrounds, our minds grow desperate for distraction. And indeed, one study found that if a school has a barren playground, children with ADHD have greater difficulty concentrating after recess (Taylor & Kuo, 2001).

    Man-made visual complexity, such as urban landscapes, can certainly inspire their own form of awe and appreciation, but as of yet, our architecture can hardly replicate—in a cost effective manner—the gentle scintillations of leaves nor the myriad other environmental benefits, like air filtration, that trees provide.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think we need trees not only to feel most fully alive, but in order to truly live.

*Having trouble visualizing what 24-34% tree cover looks like? I was, too. Fortunately, MIT offers a nifty tool that provides percentages for the density of tree cover in cities across the world. Head to senseable.mit.edu/treepedia to take a peek. You can zoom in on a specific spot in a city that has a density within that range, then pull up Google Streetview to get a ground-level visual. Compare between spots with a large percentage of tree cover, such as 50%, to ones with barely any, such as 2%. That disparity will give you an idea why there may be a sweet spot for restorative effects, at least from a visual standpoint.

Trees and Green Spaces Combat Inequality

Here’s a riddle for you: how can you tell the difference between a poor and affluent urban neighborhood from outer space?

A more expensive neighborhood only 4 miles away from Joe, also courtesy of Google Maps

Yep. It’s that mass of green.

One longitudinal study found just moving to a greener urban area not only immediately improves mental health, but sustains positive psychological benefits for at least three years (Alcock et al., 2014). That’s all well and good, but there’s another compelling reason to get more trees into your ‘hood: they help raise the property value (Mullaney, Lucke, & Trueman, 2015). Even better yet, “planting 10 or more trees per city block is equivalent to increasing the income of every household in that city block by more than $10,000” by improving perceptions of health, while decreasing “cardio-metabolic” conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease (Kardan et al., 2015).

Not many can afford to move to a greener area, but even small injections of green into dense urban neighborhoods, like replacing vacant lots with gardens, can reduce symptoms of depression in local residents (South et al., 2018). A longitudinal study in 2016 by Diana Younan and her colleagues furthermore found that green space in urban neighborhoods in Southern California reduced aggressive behavior in teens. The researchers found no evidence that this effect was strongly influenced by either sociodemographics nor the quality of the neighborhood, which suggests “the universal benefits of neighborhood greenspace” (p. 9). This corresponds with research showing that “building areas with high levels of vegetation can have approximately 50% lower crime levels than areas with low levels of vegetation (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001), and a 10% increase in the amount of tree cover has been associated with a 12% decrease in crime (Troy, Grove, & O’Neil-Dunne, 2012)” (as cited by Mullaney, Lucke, and Trueman, 2015, p. 159).

Joe and many other children in our densest urban areas crave natural environments with green space and restorative shade. One of the most sustainable and cost-effective interventions we can take to support future generations of children is simply to plant more trees—most especially near homes and schools.

Bringing Greenery Into Schools

    Here’s the reality, though. Most schools are already built, and whether or not they are so lucky as to have any windows, let alone views of trees, is entirely outside the realm of their direct and immediate control. We may not be able to plant trees in classrooms, but is there any way we could bring some of that green juju indoors?

This is a school, not a prison. Get this place some trees and windows, stat!

Some research suggests that the presence of plants in a hospital room can increase tolerance for pain (Grinde & Patil, 2009), while indoor plants in an office may reduce fatigue and health complaints (Grinde & Patil, 2009; Ranaas et al., 2011). But most of the research on the impact of indoor plants on classroom well-being, performance, or stress reduction, while suggestive, remains mostly inconclusive (Doxey, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2009; Han, 2009, 2018; Berg et al., 2016). 

I’ve been grappling with this, given the more robust effects for outdoor greenery. Is it because potted plants in most studies are not selected and situated primarily for visual complexity? If there were more plants or greenwalls with a diversity of size, form, and color placed around a classroom, could these have greater restorative effects?

There may be a sweet spot between quantity and quality which has not yet been discovered for indoor plants. Each study uses different variations and configurations of plants. As one reviewer put it, “although the evidence suggests indoor plants can provide psychological benefits, the heterogeneity amongst the methods and results may imply the benefits are contingent on the context of the encounter with indoor plants and the participants in the experiment” (Burnard & Kutnar, 2015, p. 972).

Furthermore, no study (to my knowledge) has yet examined the two areas where green views are most likely to have the greatest restorative impact: school cafeterias and hallways. Clearly, we need further research (while we’re waiting on the research, to add some dimensionality to your own indoor plant collection, try placing plants at different heights, such as on stools, boxes, or crates, as “garden stylist” Satoshi Kawamoto suggests (Gordon, 2015)). But here’s a short quiz that may help you to determine whether or not you want to bring plants into your classroom or school: 

  • Do you prefer a few plants near where you work or relax? Do you liven up your workspace or living room with a flower or succulent? 
  • If so, why, and if not, why not? 

Let your answer to this be your guide.

Indoor Plants for Air Filtration?

Even if they may not have the fully restorative or stress reducing impacts that views of outside tree canopy can provide, could they filter and reduce indoor air pollution? If they could, this would be huge because poor indoor air quality impacts learning. Effects reported by various studies have been a reduction in cognitive performance and the ability to make complex decisions, and an increase in sleepiness (Carrer, 2018). In other words, everything you don’t want in a classroom.

This tiny drab classroom could sure use some green air filtration. And windows, while we’re at it.

A widely cited NASA study in 1989 (Wolverton, Johnson, & Bounds) found that a wide variety of plants filtered volatile organic compounds (VOCs) often present in indoor environments, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and ammonia. Some later studies support this initial finding (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), but unfortunately, it seems that outside of a lab setting and in the much larger, real-world spaces of offices and schools, plants do very little to filter indoor air (Meyer, 2019). Well, OK, maybe they don’t filter pollution much, but another side benefit of indoor plants is that through the process of transpiration, they can add moisture to the air, which is good for dry skin (Horton, 2015).

Overall, unfortunately, it appears that indoor plants do not provide the same benefits that outside greenery does.

    Keeping plants in a school requires careful consideration, such as how much daylight, if any, is available in a given space, as well as who will be responsible for watering and upkeep, not to mention the issue of safety. Ideally, the plants you select should require little sunlight and watering, provide air filtration benefits, be visually appealing, and highly durable.

    Through a survey of friends and online sources, I drew up a shortlist of promising plants for school use, most of which are within the $15-30 range if you buy them pre-potted:

  • Variegated Snake Plant
  • Chinese Evergreen
  • Peace Lily
  • ZZ Plant
  • Pothos
  • Philodendron
  • Cast Iron Plant
  • Peperomia

If you are fortunate enough to have access to some sunlight in your school or classroom, then look also into the following:

  • Palms
  • Succulents, such as aloe
  • Spider Plant (hang these from the ceiling and they can also help absorb noise!)
  • Begonias
  • Rubber plants

    If you are even more fortunate and can secure funds, you could also consider the installation of greenwalls. While further research is required, there is potential in the biofiltration potential of a greenwall (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), as well as possible restorative effects (Berg et al., 2017).

Bringing Schools Into Greenery

    So far we’ve focused primarily on the mere presence of trees and greenery, which even passively can be powerful for learning and health by reducing stress and increasing attention, in addition to reducing pollution. But given our focus on education, the logical next question is: does interacting with nature amplify and deepen these effects?

    The answer thus far, at least according to research on playgrounds and gardens, is “Yes.” School gardens help to increase physical activity (Wells, Myers, & Henderson, 2014), while playgrounds that are surrounded by greenery promote better cognitive functioning (Kuo, 2010), “concentration and relief from stress,” in addition to more imaginative, explorative, and socially cooperative play (Chalwa, 2015, p. 445). It should also be recognized that just spending time in nature can support the development of stronger immune systems. One study found that walking in a forest boosted anti-cancer cells by 50% or more, which remained elevated even a month after returning to everyday urban existence, while also decreasing inflammation (Li, 2010, Mao et al., 2012, as cited by Kuo, 2015, p. 4).

    But there is much more to interacting with nature than the solely utilitarian benefits to health and well-being. Access to nature provides opportunities to build greater self and world knowledge. How can you truly understand how food grows, or how plants utilize photosynthesis, or what it means to cultivate microbial soil life, unless you get your hands dirty? How can you truly develop resilience, fortitude, and patience without having experienced the alternating awe and weariness of spending a day walking through the woods or up a mountain? Some studies have suggested that simply playing in nature increases the likelihood of environmental stewardship later in life (Wells & Lekies, 2006; Thompson et al. 2008). Imagine having a curriculum that includes not only reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but moreover a scientific and aesthetic engagement with real plots of land?

    Hosting school outside may sound radical at first, but ‘forest kindergartens’ are a thing in Germany, Finland, Switzerland, and . . . Vermont (Gregory, 2017; Schoolsoutfilm.com, 2012; Walker, 2016; Hanford, 2015). Given the research we’ve just reviewed, such seemingly hippie-dippy programs now seem eminently sensible. The key hurdle is whether you happen to have a forest handy nearby. But what about schools in local parks? Actually, I wrote that sentence, then poked around on the web for a minute, and lo and behold, there’s classes called Tinkergarten at a park near me that promotes learning through play in local outdoor spaces (and maybe one near you; check it out at tinkergarten.com).

    Humanity now faces repercussions from the incredible stress we have placed on the natural world. The great diversity of microbes, habitats, plants, and animals our earth once carried is swiftly ebbing. Traditional ways of living and knowing are preserved primarily for entertainment, rather than as respected sources of wisdom. If developing an appreciation of nature, both scientific and aesthetic, means getting children outside into whatever local park, water feature, grassy knoll, garden, flower box, or forest you may be fortunate enough to have near to your home or school, then let’s do it. If it means bringing plants into a school via hydroponics, as teacher Stephen Ritz does at CS 55 in the Bronx (Check out Ritz’ website greenbronxmachine.org or read his book, The Power of a Plant, to learn more about his work), or via potted plants or greenwalls, or lining playgrounds, starting rooftop gardens, or even just gazing out at a natural landscape from windows or in videos . . . then, hey. We’ve got to start somewhere.

What We Can Do

    Trees take a long time to grow. Unfortunately, leaders in education tend to focus on shallower, shorter-term initiatives, like tablets or teacher evaluations.

    There has been a growing recognition of the general importance of greenery in our communities, and many trees have been planted in areas that were once urban deserts. Here in NYC, organizations like GrowNYC, Bronx Green-Up, Learning Gardens, and many others are available to help get kids get their hands dirty in a garden. And city-wide initiatives like Greenstreets and MillionTreesNYC have brought street trees to nearly every block. 

For students like Joe living in dense urban neighborhoods, this means a lot. But having a row of street trees is not enough. We need more vacant lots converted to green space, more green roofs, more parks, and far, far greater access and opportunities to interact with nature on a frequent basis.

It may be that growing a green thumb may be one of the most beneficial things you could do to support the learning of future generations.

In Sum

  • Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college
  • Greenery in a neighborhood decreases stress, aggression, and criminal behavior
  • Views of trees can both soothe (reduce stress) and stimulate (refocus attention)
  • Views of trees from school cafeterias and hallways seem to have the greatest restorative and calming effects 
  • Views of greenery from a classroom can also lead to 13% greater attentiveness
  • Trees help to reduce air and noise pollution, and support an increase in exercise and property value
  • It’s less about quantity and more about the quality of the trees and tree canopy
  • Indoor plants don’t seem to provide the same benefits as external greenery
  • Moving school playgrounds and classrooms outdoors can provide a range of benefits to health and learning, in addition to building a greater sense of environmental stewardship

Extra Credit: The Ecology of Greenery

Clearly, it’s not within any individual school’s purview alone to increase the greenery within a neighborhood, and nor is one dedicated community organization that receives some grant funding enough. It takes a coordinated effort between local businesses, governmental agencies at different levels, nonprofits, and civically engaged citizens to make it happen. It truly takes a community to plant, sustain, and scale the kind of quality tree canopy our children need.

Caring for plants—and for animals—can not only strengthen a community, but also provide therapeutic benefits for individuals.

Bill Thomas, a NY professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, has come up with a model of elderly care he calls the “Eden Alternative” (Bahrampour, 2016). Instead of cold, clinical institutions, he creates environments that are more akin to gardens. He stocks nursing homes with cats, dogs, rabbits, and birds in addition to an array of plants. The effect is reduced need for medication, lower death rates, raised spirits, and greater autonomy.

In Baltimore, one volunteer, Gene DeSantis, has planted over 15,000 trees, overcoming a childhood of trauma while contributing to the long-term health and well-being of his community (Zaleski, 2019).

In D.C., a former drug dealer’s love of birds helps him to discover his better self. He now works with children, introducing them to the beauty of raptors, to help them learn to engage with the natural world, and in the process, also discover their better selves (Daniel, 2016).

In schools across our nation, our children are struggling to cope with chronic and acute stress, trauma, and poverty while attempting to learn in environments that offer little rejuvenation nor tranquility.

It’s not only the immediate adults around them who need to build lattices and networks of love, resilience, and calm, but furthermore the sustaining canopies and anchored roots of trees in the land that surrounds them, planted and nurtured by the many diverse people, groups, and organizations of their community.

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Meyer, R. (2019) ‘A Popular Benefit of Houseplants Is a Myth’, The Atlantic, 9 March. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/03/indoor-plants-clean-air-best-none-them/584509/

Mitchell, R. (2015) ‘More reasons to think green space may be equigenic – a new study of 34 European nations’, CRESH, 21 April. Available at: https://cresh.org.uk/2015/04/21/more-reasons-to-think-green-space-may-be-equigenic-a-new-study-of-34-european-nations/ (Accessed: 25 July 2018).

Moore, E.O. (1981) ‘A prison environment’s effect on health-care service demands’, Journal of Environmental Systems, 11, pp. 17 – 34. doi: 10.2190/KM50-WH2K-K2D1-DM69.

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Smorgasbord: Summer in the City

By Juhanson [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0)
 

The school year in NYC just ended on the 28th; summer school begins this week. I’ve been facilitating training for summer school programs the last few days so have been pretty busy, but I’ve still got a few ed-related links worth reading compiled for you.

I’m waaay late to this, but this NTCQ report on what teachers need to learn in ed programs is excellent

I’ve had this PDF sitting on my desktop since January and just finally got around to perusing it.

The 6 strategies, based on extensive research, are deceptively simple. And yet, barely any of them, aside from asking probing questions, are covered in most teacher prep textbooks or courses.

Here’s the 6 strategies:

  • 1. Pairing graphics with words.
  • 2. Linking abstract concepts with concrete representations.
  • 3. Posing probing questions.
  • 4. Repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions provided and problems that students must solve.
  • 5. Distributing practice.
  • 6. Assessing to boost retention.

These would be a good focus for any sustained PD for a school. And I would argue that numbers 5 and 6 would be the biggest bang for your buck if you looked across the curriculum of a school.

What do most teacher prep textbooks focus on? Stuff like, “How teachers and students should organize themselves (e.g., inquiry learning, direct instruction, or cooperative learning).”

You know what? That’s what most professional development focuses on, too.

National Council on Teaching Quality, Learning About Learning

Ideas for how to change entrenched misconceptions in education (and beyond)

“We think advocates of learning science should be more curious about why teachers believe what they believe, including learning styles.”

Why mythbusting fails: A guide to influencing education with science, Deans for Impact

Joe Kirby presents important ideas on how to distribute practice and assess to boost retention

If your school is committed to addressing those 6 points outlined above, Joe Kirby has some good advice that not only will promote better student learning, but furthermore reduce your workload.

Three Assessment Butterflies, Pragmatic Education

Amanda Ripley forwards a wonderful idea for promoting tolerance and understanding diversity: cultural exchanges within the US

Over the last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about the problems of segregation across New York state, and something I found under-explored and often trivialized by integration advocates was how to address rural and urban divides, as well as other students who are geographically isolated in urban areas.

Plus, it must be said that the reality is that there isn’t enough affluent or white kids in our public schools to spread around, if we’re going to start counting beans. So we need to look at more than only getting kids of different backgrounds in the same schools, though that can go a long way. We also need to look at how we can bring kids together in other ways.

Kentucky is bringing people of all ages together through a Rural-Urban Exchange. This is something other states should emulate, most especially for our children.

“It’s harder to demonize someone once you’ve stayed in their homes and shared meals and stories together.”

America, Meet America: Getting Past Our Toxic Partisanship, Wall Street Journal

How did this DC public school get to 100% college acceptance?

System-wide support and money.

“a strong support system within D.C. public schools made it a reality. Staff tracked students, often working side by side with them to apply for college in the library. It also took a lot of money. Grants, donations and district funds took kids on college tours, and the school incentivized students with pep rallies, T-shirts and free food.”

Every Senior Applied To College At This Washington, D.C., High School, NPR

And a reminder that “transforming” schools is incredibly hard

Well-reported, and as Eliza Shapiro (Politico reporter who’s an ace journalist herself) stated on Twitter, “nothing cute, no triumphant narrative, just proof of how hard it is to change schools.”

The Fight for Fairmount Park Elementary, Tampa Bay Times

Revisiting the ‘Parents Involved” SCOTUS case and its unrealized potential for racial integration

“for all the obstacles confronting a rebooted school desegregation movement, the legal path towards integration still lies mostly open”

‘Parents Involved,’ A Decade Later, American Prospect

Rural youth are leaving (and pushed to leave) for greater opportunities

“Researchers have found that the hollowing-out of heartland communities is the result of a push-pull phenomenon: Ambitious students are drawn to the attractions and opportunities of major cities, but they’re also encouraged to leave by teachers and parents who see college as a chance to escape stagnation.”

When College Grads Don’t Come Back Home: New Numbers Show a Widening Urban-Rural Education Divide, the 74

If rural communities want to keep their youth, they must engage them

“Their creative thinking and problem solving can advance communities when given the opportunity.”

RURAL COMMUNITIES MUST EMPOWER YOUTH, The Daily Yonder

And here’s an example of that

“I was taking a class called Latina Leadership Initiative — that class is all about empowerment. When I saw that I had access to these programs to bring them to Perry, I kind of let go of [my] shyness and said – this is something I need to do.”

A ONE-WOMAN EDUCATION START-UP MACHINE IN SMALL-TOWN IOWA, The Daily Yonder

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz with a great finale to a commencement speech

“Oh, by the way. That young lady I was chasing? Twenty-eight years later, she’s still my wife.”

Bronx borough president to high school grads: ‘Start breaking the mold of what the face of techies look like’, Chalkbeat NY

We may be jumping the gun on ‘microaggressions’

We’re already incorporating “microaggressions” into trainings here in NY (the mandated 6-hour DASA trainings), but we may be jumping ahead of any solid evidence that backs up the concept.

A psychologist argues for a moratorium on use and training around the term until more evidence is gathered.

Microaggressions?, Aeon

Climate change will increase inequality in the US

“The ‘hidden costs’ of carbon dioxide emissions are no longer hidden, since now we can see them clearly in the data,” said Jina, a postdoctoral scholar in the department of economics at the University of Chicago. “The emissions coming out of our cars and power plants are reshaping the American economy. Here in the Midwest, we may see agricultural losses similar to the Dustbowl of the 1930s.”

Climate change damages US economy, increases inequality, ScienceDaily

Smorgasbord: 3rd week of May 2017: Segregation, CTE, Curriculum, and the One Straw Revolution

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On the 63rd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed, worth reviewing last year’s GAO study findings

“[Segregated] schools, investigators found, offered disproportionately fewer math, science and college-prep courses and had higher rates of students who were held back in ninth grade, suspended or expelled.

What’s more, GAO investigators found, public charter schools, a key strategy in improving education for such students, may take minority and poor students from larger more diverse public schools and enroll them into less diverse schools.

Overall, investigators found, Hispanic students tended to be “triple segregated” by race, economics and language.”

GAO study: Segregation worsening in U.S. schools, USA Today

A panel on desegregation offers insight

Jill Bloomberg: “So there were lots of questions about safety, which are really very coded questions about race and racism. We assured them that their kids would be fine.”

David Goldstein: “We would create these little Shangri-Las of these beautiful little high-performing schools that were diverse and all that. Meanwhile, all the rest of the schools got squat. And that wasn’t our plan, so we went districtwide.”

And a comparison of integration to broccoli.

Upper West Side parents gather to tackle middle-school integration, Chalkbeat NY

As in Staten Island, so in the US

When it comes to Staten Island’s North Shore, as in many other areas of our society, “We make judgements about a whole community without ever walking in the door.”

Equity for North Shore schools still a work in progress, SILive

High school admissions changes in the works for NYC may promote diversity

This is good to hear. But we’re going to need to look at zoning and the elementary school level if we’re really going to fight segregation.

Chancellor: ‘We’re reconsidering how some enrollment is done’ in high schools, Chalkbeat NY

Great data visualizations and background on segregation in Indiana

Examining the Cross-Roads

Vacations (or the lack thereof) highlight class divisions

“school vacations can highlight disparities and fracture the sense that students are equal in the ways that matter most”

This piece also points to an often under discussed aspect of school integration: it takes a lot of work to ensure kids (and staff) are interacting with one another’s differing experiences and perspectives in a constructive manner.

I know as an advocate of integration myself, I don’t usually even bring this up because the very first step: just getting kids physically (or even virtually) into the same classrooms and schools is hard enough in and of itself. But it’s an essential piece. Just getting kids together is only half the battle. Curriculum, conversational protocols, academic interventions, and social-emotional support then needs to be firmly in place.

Kids’ Vacations Highlight School Segregation, motto

Student voices on segregated schools

“My reality is gym lockers with brown rust.

My reality is the suffocating phenomenon of poverty present on a daily basis.”

‘I am a product of the South Bronx’: One student on how the city’s high school choice process failed her

“Education was my only hope for redefining my life. But it seemed like the bar was always set out of reach for people like me, and most of our time was spent elevating ourselves to reach the bar instead of figuring out how to surpass it.”

‘I didn’t realize that an A in Harlem was not the same as an A in a majority-white high school’: One student’s discovery

Jeb checks the NY Times

“Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program simply gives parents options if their children are stuck in the wrong learning or social environment for their unique needs. It is not a condemnation of public schools or a seal of approval for private schools. In fact, the McKay program includes public school choice as well.”

What the Media Is Getting Wrong About Florida’s Push to Help Students With Disabilities, th74

Recent research on wrap-around services brings to light our goals for public services

MDRC has recent research that brings into question the impact of the “community school” model — if we assume that raising test scores is the goal of providing such additional services.

But as a community school advocate notes:

“The services themselves are, of course worthwhile — don’t we all agree that having kids who have access to mental and physical health care, regular nutritious meals, and quality, safe afterschool and summer programs is inherently a good thing?”

Let them eat cake?

Community schools are expanding — but are they working? New study shows mixed results, the 74

Strange things are afoot at Deborah Meier’s school

What exactly is the problem going on here? Too progressive? Not progressive enough? More to explore here, for sure.

East Harlem Elementary Principal Is Out After a Yearlong Fight, NY Times

The need for a progressive agenda for the working class

“Democrats need a comeback strategy, and the American working class needs an ally. The solution to both problems can be the same: a muscular agenda to lift up people without four-year college degrees.”

How Democrats Can Get Their Mojo Back, NY Times

Was the high-profile LA school board president race determined by the negativity bias?

So there’s this cognitive bias called the “negativity bias.”

Aside from the vast funds that were plowed into this race, I wonder whether that played a role? Here’s a description from the74 that suggests it did:

“Zimmer campaigned on a platform that the district is improving, pointing to rising graduation rates. Melvoin campaigned on the premise that the district was failing and the board needed to act with more urgency to improve student achievement and address its financial situation.”

Education Reformers Sweep Los Angeles’s School Board Elections, Setting Up Pro-Charter Majority, the74

North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx takes a stand for CTE

“In order for these people to thrive, we must do everything we can to change the way people think about CTE, shifting the narrative from a Plan B option to a Plan A option”

Career and Technical Ed Should be ‘Plan A,’ Foxx Says as House Takes Up Perkins Bill Today, the74

And the House takes a bipartisan stand for CTE

A nice moment of positive legislation in the midst of the chaotic destruction the GOP has been nurturing in DC.

Career and Technical Education Overhaul Bill Approved by House Ed. Committee, ED Week

Sure would be nice to see this piece of legislation on school infrastructure get bipartisan support . . .

“The legislation has six other Democratic lead co-sponsors in the House, but no Republican lead co-sponsors.”

Oh, and “The IES survey also found it was an average of 44 years since the construction of the main instructional building at schools.”

School Infrastructure Spending Plan Introduced by House Democrats, ED Week

Professional development should be based on the curriculum

“We argue the need to take the important but often overlooked step of organizing teachers’ professional learning around the curriculum materials they are using with their students.”

Makes sense to me. I go into schools to support ELA teachers, and the only way my work is able to have any traction is by supporting implementation of a curriculum.

But there’s more to it than this. Which curriculum? Why? A school needs to coalesce around its vision for what skills and knowledge it wants students to graduate equipped with — and then align their curriculum to that vision.

Instead, I see schools teaching something just because they think they are supposed to. (“Why are you teaching these texts?” “Because I’m told to.”) And getting weird directives from their bosses, such as that EL (EngageNY) or CodeX are a “reading” curriculum, then adding Teacher’s College units as the “writing” curriculum. These kinds of misunderstandings become embedded into the scheduling: a teacher is teaching EL lessons for 3 days a week, and TC lessons for 2 days a week.

If you are an ELA teacher, then you know how incredibly difficult it is just to implement one ELA curriculum with fidelity, let alone two completely different and unaligned ones.

In other words, the problem isn’t just that curriculum is detached from PD — it’s that curriculum is detached from school and district leadership and the structures and schedules they enforce.

In Washington, D.C., a Road Map for Reinventing Professional Development in Schools, the 74

And there’s mounting evidence that a coherent curriculum is an effective method for improving outcomes. Like some of us have been saying all along . . .

“There are no silver bullets in education. But a growing body of both empirical and real-world evidence makes a compelling case that curriculum is a key component of student success.”

A Compelling Case for Curriculum, US News

BASIS schools exemplify what a coherent and rigorous curriculum can do

BASIS is also doing some really interesting practices worth emulating:

Student notebooks as sources of communication and data between teachers and parents. . .

“Many schools create an online grade portal that allows parents to see how their children are performing. BASIS doesn’t. Any information about grades comes to parents because their kids have shown them the contents of their planner, which contains test scores, homework assignments, and notes to see the teacher after school for help.”

Building empathy and understanding of diverse perspectives through it’s Global Classroom Project:

“…which connects kindergartners in different BASIS schools virtually to help them learn about one another. In one project, the children exchanged pictures of their local grocery stores so they could compare them. They also sent the Shenzhen school a video of second-graders sharing a Lunar New Year greeting in Mandarin.”

BASIS: Inside the Acclaimed School Network That’s Blended Together the World’s Best Education Practices, the74

More sunlight = higher test scores

One of the central tenets of this blog are that some of the most basic contextual factors are overlooked in schooling, and here’s one that’s so basic but clearly powerful: starting school later results in better test performance.

More sunlight, more fresh air, more greenery. The best method for improving test scores? Very well may be.

Sunshine Improves Test Scores, The Atlantic

As in ecosystems, so in schools?

Look to the soil for our future.

A geomorphologist and author’s book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” outlines the drastic difference that healthy soil management practices can make, and the common practices that good soil management entails.

Not surprising at all that conventional methods (monoculture, frequent tilling) ain’t good for soil.

If you are interested in this kind of stuff, there’s a book written long before this one with the word “revolution” also in the title, in which the author lays out the philosophy and practice of no-till farming: “The One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka.

TODAY’S MOST INNOVATIVE FARMERS ARE GETTING DOWN TO EARTH, SAYS SOIL SCIENTIST, Daily Yonder

Essential reads on segregation

In case you’ve missed it, the Baltimore Sun has run an excellent series on segregated schools in Baltimore County: Bridging the Divide

Part 1: The struggle to move past segregated schools

  • “You are potentially causing our property values in Academy Heights to plummet!”

Part 2: Struggles of new East Baltimore school show challenges of integration

  • “Schools filled with students living in high concentrations of poverty are like boats going against a strong tide.”

Part 3: Within integrated schools, de facto segregation persists

  • “Victoria Howard said being in classes with black students made her feel more at ease, but she believes “nothing changes if everyone’s just too comfortable.”
  • “Exposing people to being around different kinds of people is how we acclimate and how we change,” she said. “And that’s important when we leave high school. Because out in the world, you don’t get to pick who you’re around.”

And The Grade has a behind-the-scenes take on the creation of the series.

“If I had covered it with someone who thought the same way as I did, it probably wouldn’t have been as strong,” says Green.

And here’s another comprehensive piece on integrating schools from City Limits

To increase diversity Goldsmith says, “You need middle class families that have some commitment to public education and are willing to vote with their child.” You can attract such families, he says, with schools that offer a quality education, have inspired leadership and can “create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive to all.”

This is from an older piece about the Upper West Side squabbles over rezoning. Worth bringing back up here.

“It’ll take thousands, maybe a hundred thousand dollars off the value of my apartment”. . .

. . .”We moved here basically for that school, and that school is kind of like our right.”

Because apparently “public” is now synonymous with “private.”

Public service over property value: Ann Holton suggests how white parents can make integration a value

My parents did a good job of helping us feel like we were part of something bigger than ourselves, something that really mattered. That influenced me in all kinds of ways.

“It influenced me toward a career in public service, and more immediately, the experience of going to school with people who were from different backgrounds. My background was not only white, but homogenous: Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, upper middle class. I didn’t know much of anybody who came from different backgrounds, and that experience of being with folks who were different, and yet discovering how much similarity we had across differences, it was a very important part of my education, and I have valued that throughout and including in my role as secretary of education.”

Anne Holton, in an interview with the74

Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that democracy depends upon individual parents thinking more about the common good

Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. . . .

“If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools.”

Derrell Bradford responds to Hannah-Jones’s piece, suggesting that individuals should have equal power to public institutions

Our relationship with public institutions — and schools in particular — is only in balance when the individual can wield equivalent force against them. Achieving a state of balance with the nation’s public schools rests not in the constant altruistic acquiescence to them, but the strategic self-interested defiance of them. . . .

“In the school districts of the rich and the ruling, this equilibrium between voluntary participation and the ability to exit is the essential tension that drives performance. It’s a game for the privileged, but it’s a game they win.”

Bradford’s assertion here is interesting. But should individuals be able to wield “equivalent force” against public institutions? The “public” is by definition an aggregate of individuals—the people as a whole—and an institution that is a “public” institution therefore serves the interests of the many, rather than that of the individual.

Yes, it is true that those with wealth and power are not reliant upon public institutions. But however much those institutions have failed over the years, as Bradford rightly points to, I’m highly skeptical that in the absence of those institutions things would be better.

Public institutions, however problematic, get better through greater civic engagement, not the reverse. I would propose that if those that are better off chose to get more involved in those institutions–as Nikole Hannah Jones has suggested we do–than maybe we’d all be better off.

How Did New York Become So Segregated?

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How did New York end up so segregated? As part of my NY Policy Fellowship, I did a little bit of research to try and answer this question.

The Great Migrations

During WWI, industrial urban cities in the North actively recruited Southern black laborers due to labor shortages and war production demand. By the 1920s, Harlem housed 200,000 African Americans and became an epicenter of black literature, music, and visual arts. NYC’s black population expanded from 140,000 in 1910 to 660,000 by 1940. Only a quarter of that 1940 population were born in New York. Economic demand during and after WWII similarly spurred a large influx from southern states. By 1970, NYC’s black population was at 2,350,000, and Buffalo’s at 108,000. Meanwhile, “NYC’s Hispanic population increased by almost twenty times between 1940 and 2010, while its total non-Hispanic White population decreased by over 60% over the same time period.”

Redlining

After WWII, the Federal Housing Authority provided funding for homeownership for many white working class families. However, some banks would refuse to lend money to aspiring black homeowners. The practice of “redlining” refers to maps banks would keep of neighborhood racial demographics, which they would use to determine “bad investments.” Banks would then deny services to African American families, or selectively raise prices. This practice furthered racial segregation, and also guaranteed that many black neighborhoods were either underdeveloped or left in disrepair.

Urban Redevelopment and Highways

Robert Moses engineered passage and amendment to the 1942 Hampton-Mitchell Bill (enacted as the Urban Redevelopment Companies Law), which allowed the displacement of communities (typically low income) by private developers. The NY State Court of Appeals, in a 1949 case, Dorsey v. Stuyvesant Town Corp., later upheld the right of private property owners to discriminate by race. The court ruled: “It is well settled that the landlord of a private apartment or dwelling house may, without violating any provision of the Federal or State Constitutions, select tenants of its own choice because of race, color, creed or religion … Clearly, housing accommodation is not a recognized civil right.”

In a trend-setting development, Moses built the first highway through a crowded urban center, the Cross Bronx Expressway. This development, like the Stuyvesant development on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, resulted in the displacement of lower-income families and reinforced segregation.

Other cities in New York followed suit, with the Skyway in Buffalo and the I-81 in Syracuse similarly stranding low-income families in noisy, polluted inner cities, while creating swift escape routes for suburban commuters. Coupled with strict zoning rules and the lack of affordable housing and public transportation options in many suburban areas, poorer families found it difficult to gain the means either to leave or improve their high poverty neighborhoods.

Loss of Industrial Jobs

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made redlining practices illegal, the stagnation of the economy in the 1970s, coupled with deindustrialization, spurred the flight of white and middle class families to suburbs, leaving behind inner city neighborhoods with few employment opportunities and resources. According to EdBuild, twenty nine of the country’s 50 most extremely segregated school districts are in the Rust Belt, with New York State number 6 on that list.

Fruitless Fights for Integration

In the 1950s and 60s, a Reverend in Brooklyn, Milton Galamison, fought for integration, first as chair for the Education Chapter of the NAACP, then as founder of the Parent’s Workshop for Equality in New York City Schools. His group “presented a series of integration proposals to the New York City Board of Education, none of which were implemented.” In 1964, Galamison led a group of civil rights organizations to boycott NYC public schools, but he did not gain the support of the teacher’s union and later lost the support of national civil rights groups. In the late 60s, he began fighting for community control of schools, creating tension with the teacher’s union, the Al Shanker-led UFT. This tension came to a head in Ocean-Hill Brownsville in 1968. Tensions between labor rights and community control advocates, as well as between advocates of integration and of black separatism, created fissures in liberal thought that shifted key narratives and perceptions of public education. As Dana Goldstein notes in her book, Teacher Wars, “Ocean Hill-Brownsville created rifts between teacher unions and black civil rights groups, as well as between liberal elites and the union.” These rifts and tensions continue to reverberate today, especially via the critique of teachers unions and traditional district schools offered by parental choice and charter school advocates.

NYC has never been under a desegregation order. There were a few efforts made to increase diversity through an open enrollment program or by shifting zone lines, but the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and subsequent white flight ended any further efforts until very recently.

In 2014, State Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch initiated the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program (SIPP), providing grant funding to school districts that sought to integrate student populations by socioeconomic status. A number of school districts are now implementing programs, including Manhattan District 1.

Beyond Race & Class: Special Education Segregation

From 1894 through the mid 1900s in New York state, increasing attention was paid to the identification and specialized support for students with disabilities due to legislation. In 1967, a “handicapped child” was definedas an individual who ‘because of mental, physical or emotional reasons, cannot be educated in regular classes but can benefit by special services and programs.’ This definition summarized state policy, which since the early years of the century had favored removing handicapped children from regular classrooms and schools, and placing them in ‘special classes,’ home teaching, or private schools.” The policy of segregation and outsourcing of support began shifting in the 1960s. Federal legislation, culminating in the 1990 IDEA act, pushed states towards inclusion in a “least restrictive setting,” and NCLB in 2001 introduced school accountability for educating students with disabilities. However, in an IBO report as of 2013, 25% of students identified with a disability continue to be educated in separate, “self-contained” programs. The outcomes for self-contained students are not positive, while some research seems to suggest that including students with disabilities in general education classrooms has more positive outcomes for them, while not harming the outcomes of general education students. Yet the populations of students with disabilities are far from evenly distributed between schools.