It’s Time to Do Something About Diversity, NY

It’s well past due that New York made it clear that public education is about learning from and about our differences, so that we can better foster our shared knowledge and understanding. Increasing student access to a diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and people must be an explicit priority of our system of education if we are to continue to have a functioning democratic republic.

On election day, many New Yorkers experienced a jarring disjoint; the world we thought we knew transformed before our eyes. We have grown increasingly sheltered within our own immediate social media spheres, where it’s easier to disregard the arguments in different communities across our nation about the ongoing tensions that exist between equality and liberty, the power of the federal government vs. local communities, and between honoring our differences and backgrounds while developing and maintaining a shared set of values and understanding. These are essential arguments that thread back to the founding of our nation.

Similarly, in many of our public schools, students spend their days with others who are mostly just like them — they may look similar, speak the same language, or share the same values. And any who don’t adhere to these norms tend to be ostracized, whether due to appearance, belief, or behavior. Human beings, most especially children and adolescents, are highly attuned to differences. When I first began teaching, I was taken aback by how much attention my students paid to the state of my shoes!

And while there is much talk of a “culturally responsive” or “relevant” curriculum, the reality is that even a basic core curriculum is all too often lacking, not to mention access to adequate resources and opportunities and experiences beyond the school. Schools require coherent, well-structured, and thoughtfully sequenced content that will build students’ understanding of their wider society and world.

When students from segregated schools and communities graduate to an institution of higher education, or into a field of employment, they may suddenly feel a sense of disjoint between their social identity and the norms of the institution they’ve joined. They may discover that many others may not share their values nor experiences, and they must learn to assume a new manner of speaking, navigate a new culture, and demonstrate new behaviors. Many find their way into a niche where they can be accepted and supported in their transition into adulthood. Some young adults, however, find themselves stranded and unable to navigate across this divide. And the norms and practices of their society’s leaders and institutions will grow increasingly alien to them.

It is the fundamental mission of public education to support our student’s success in that transition into adulthood, to equip them with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that will enable them to question and clarify other’s perspectives who are different, while effectively communicating and refining their own. To empower them to partake in the great debates of our nation and expand those conversations to include themselves.

Yet if we are honest in our reckoning, New York state is patently failing in this mission. In 2014, a UCLA Civil Rights Project report stamped NY with the shameful status of host to the most segregated schools in our nation. And this year, EdBuild released a report on the most extremely segregating school boundaries across the nation. Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica made the list, making NY number 6 out of the 50 states with the most segregating districts.

Families and neighborhoods with the most wealth continue to have the greatest access to a high quality education and positive life outcomes. For children less fortunate than others, segregation manifests in less access to resources, quality teachers, and safe and clean learning spaces.

And for both populations, an increasing lack of shared understanding and communication leads to further disengagement from participation in the civic institutions that should serve us all.

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Highways Destroyed America’s Cities. So Let’s Tear Them Down

“…highways also created problems, some of which have become much worse in the years since. Urban freeways displaced communities and created air and noise pollution in downtown areas. They made it easier for suburban commuters to “zip to their suburban homes at the end of the work day, encouraging those with means to abandon the urban core,” Ted Shelton and Amanda Gann of the University of Tennessee wrote in a paper about urban freeways. . .

“Where urban highway construction did occur, in urban design terms, it was highly detrimental to the urban fabric; creating physical and psychological rifts that are extremely difficult to bridge and introducing a substantial source of noise and air pollution,” Shelton and Gann wrote. “Cities across the country continue to struggle with this legacy.”

The quote above comes from Alana Semuels’ article on The Atlantic, “Highways Destroyed America’s Cities” which pairs well with her prior piece on Syracuse,”How to Decimate a City.”

I find this relation between highways and segregation to be illuminating, especially when I consider a local area I used to work in, East Tremont, and how it has been impacted by the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Some connections, like highways, are not universally beneficial — it depends upon whom is being connected, and how. Highways provide a clear short-term benefit to those with means, while further isolating others. The tragic irony is that in the long term, most everyone ends up further disconnected. Witness the standing lines of cars each morning and evening, commuters sitting bathed in fumes, stressed out, paying exorbitant fees for parking and maintenance of a vehicle no longer a luxury, but a burden — and a dangerous one at that.

I take the public bus to work each day. It might be stressful sometimes when it’s most crowded and the doors won’t close because of that last desperate commuter trying to cram in. But I’d take that bus over an isolated, stressful, dangerous commute in by car any day.

And while there is always a part of me that craves escape from my noisy nook in this city, and envisions my own backyard, in some quiet haven where there’s no panhandlers, and no loud music, and no pollution, and lots of trees — I also know there’s a cruel trade off to such an escape (assuming I could even afford such luxury). It means losing access to the riches in diversity of connections, cultures and experiences that this city affords me.

Maybe I’m just strange, but I believe that I am a better person, that I am enriched, when I’m able to interact, live, and work with people who are different than me. It’s why I love working with children, why I love working in the field of special education, why I love working in the Bronx, and why I begrudgingly love NYC (though this former Californian misses — sometimes achingly so — the vast spaces and mountains and coast of the West).

I’m thankful to live in a city where there are many public transportation options, and while I miss California, I don’t miss the general lack of public infrastructure there. I like driving just as much as anyone, when the roads are clear, but being stuck in traffic and driving around a vehicle I don’t know how to fix myself is not how I wish to spend most of my money and my life.

But I’m going off on a navel gazing tangent. The point is that building highways to ease the flight of well-off suburbanites damages our greater social fabric. In fact, building more roads even makes congestion worse, not better. Rather than establishing routes for middle and upper class people to “escape” the city, Semuel’s presents a sensible solution, in the case of Syracuse in “How to Decimate a City“:

“What Syracuse needs, more than anything else, is a way to knit back together a region torn asunder by the construction of an urban highway and the outmigration that followed. That means more affordable housing in the suburbs, more access to transportation to outlying areas, and better jobs and housing in the urban core.” [Bold added]

These ideas parallel ideas for fighting desegregation. I would also add to that list “better schools.”

Forget building highways. Let’s tear them down, and build more parks, profuse protected bike lanes, and Googleplex-style schools that act as centers of their communities, flooded with natural light, greenery, and fresh air. Let’s ensure affordable housing is available everywhere. And let’s design our schools and admissions processes to include, rather than exclude.

How Would You Revise the Common Core Standards?

Chalkboard

NY State will conduct a formal review of the Common Core State Standards. I welcome the opportunity for a review. In my opinion, the more people talk about what should be taught in classrooms, the better.

Too often, we discuss education as an abstraction, polarizing around political issues largely irrelevant to kids and teachers at the ground level. What most impacts us on a daily basis is what is taught, and how. So while I would prefer we discussed the curriculum and content itself, talking about standards is at least a step closer to the heart of the matter.

As you may know, I’m a proponent of the Common Core Standards. I’ve advocated for them publicly, and I work with the standards in my daily practice.*

I advocate for the standards because I believe strongly in the need for shared, rigorous, and coherent standards. But that doesn’t mean I believe the standards, as written, are perfect.

If I Could Revise the Standards

Here’s what I would suggest as major points for revision of the ELA standards:

  • Provide more explicit guidance within the literary standards for the study of poetry. (See Sandra Stotsky’s Curriculum Framework for a good model.)
  • Overhaul the writing standards to include literary analysis as a genre of writing.  Merge argumentative and informative/explanatory writing, as the distinction between those two is unclear and it’s of questionable value to distinguish them. Consider broadening the scope of narrative writing to that of creative writing, to include poetry.
  • Clarify the meaning of the idea that literacy extends across all content areas, while reducing the stress on the oft misunderstood recommended percentages between informational and literary text. It should be less about pushing informational texts into ELA, and more about pushing the teaching literacy across science, social studies, and other content areas.

Others have also been saying that the Kindergarten standards need much revision. This is an area I’m less knowledgeable about, but I assume there’s some tweaking that should be done there, as well.

What aspects of the Common Core standards would you revise?

*I work (or have worked) with the standards in some of the following ways:

  1. my daily work as a special education ELA teacher, using them to develop and align my school’s curriculum and assessments, as well as to develop IEP goals (I began analyzing them more closely to break down the relevant knowledge, skills, and products for grades 6-8 to guide this work)
  2. my work with NYCDOE as a Common Core Fellow to assess teacher team submitted performance assessment tasks
  3. my work with LearnZillion to develop online videos, lessons, and resources aligned to the Common Core

Let’s Change Mindsets About Both Business and Education

By Dipl.-Päd. Renate Henning (OSTO Systemberatung GmbH) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In his most recent post, Will wrote about how the language we use to discuss education can impact our understanding. He wrote:

I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.

Will raises an important point: schools are social institutions, not ones of profit. And while we must acknowledge and pay close attention to the operational side of running school systems, we must not lose sight of the most important function of education: to cultivate the character and minds of our children. While we can argue that a quality education has a long-run payoff in economic gains for our nation, the functional and everyday purpose of a school is not to profit off our children, but rather to instill and inculcate the values and knowledge we hold critical for citizenship.

When we talk about education, how easy is it to slip into language (I’m frequently guilty of this) of “human capital,” “social capital,” “achievement gains,” or other proxies of the mindset of business? As Will pointed out, this can obscure the complex and alternately beautiful and excruciating human reality that working in a school really requires.

Yet I also believe that schools should not be set so far apart from the realm of business that we can’t establish relevant and necessary connections between them, and that such isolation can even be damaging, given the amount of research and funding that goes into management topics such as leadership, accountability, training, diversity, relationships, and institutional/organizational health. When I was attending The City College of New York to obtain my Master’s in special education, I did a literature review on the topic of self-control, and found it remarkable that some of the most useful research came from outside the realm of education (sports is another area which has a lot to offer).

I also believe that when schools are so isolated from local economies and the realm of business that students graduate from high school with nearly zero skills or knowledge applicable to a career, this is highly problematic and especially damaging to students living in isolated areas with few opportunities.

Speaking of language, there’s also something about the fanatical inveighing against “privatization” and “corporate deformers” in the education sphere that bothers me.  Perhaps because I’ve worked as a manager in both retail and hospitality industries, or perhaps because I think that markets do have a connection to schools, and that we are putting blinders on when we pretend that education can be something wholly pristine and apart from the influence and interaction of markets. It seems to me that the districts that seek to leverage markets to develop better schools, rather than ignore them, are ones more likely to be successful.

But the fact that education systems at the moment are most responsive and beholden to large investments of money from philanthropists and “Silicon Valley investors” also seems extremely problematic, let alone completely unsustainable.

So how to resolve this conundrum? Well, let’s take a closer look at the other side of things first: the realm of the marketplace itself. Is capitalism and entrepreneurship really only about profit? Perhaps we do a disservice to entrepreneurs to reduce their efforts to such banality.

Muhammad Yunus, who has done inspiring work with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and is a proponent of the concept of “social business,” makes the following point in a speech when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He states that our current conception of capitalism and business:

“originates from the assumption that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives — to maximize profit. This interpretation of capitalism insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives. This was done perhaps as a reasonable simplification, but it stripped away the very essentials of human life.

Human beings are a wonderful creation embodied with limitless human qualities and capabilities. Our theoretical constructs should make room for the blossoming of those qualities, not assume them away.

Many of the world’s problems exist because of this restriction on the players of free-market. The world has not resolved the problem of crushing poverty that half of its population suffers. Healthcare remains out of the reach on the majority of the world population. The country with the richest and freest market fails to provide healthcare for one-fifth of its population.

We have remained so impressed by the success of the free-market that we never dared to express any doubt about our basic assumption. To make it worse, we worked extra hard to transform ourselves, as closely as possible, into the one-dimensional human beings as conceptualized in the theory, to allow smooth functioning of the free market mechanism.”

Interesting how Yunus’ sentiment on capitalism so closely parallels Will’s statement on the mindset and language around education!

Perhaps Yunus’ idea of a hybrid “social business” is a potential solution to the conundrum of what the service that a school provides stands in relation to the marketplace. School districts need sustainable funding and investment, but their goal cannot be one of profit. The goal is to provide the highest quality education to all children in that district:

Social business will be a new kind of business introduced in the market place with the objective of making a difference in the world. Investors in the social business could get back their investment, but will not take any dividend from the company. Profit would be ploughed back into the company to expand its outreach and improve the quality of its product or service. A social business will be a non-loss, non-dividend company.

Once social business is recognized in law, many existing companies will come forward to create social businesses in addition to their foundation activities. Many activists from the non-profit sector will also find this an attractive option. Unlike the non-profit sector where one needs to collect donations to keep activities going, a social business will be self-sustaining and create surplus for expansion since it is a non-loss enterprise.”

A school as a social enterprise. Perhaps such a recognition of schools could help break down the unnecessarily ideological and political divides between charters and district schools? This is an interesting realm of hybridization that I’d like to hear about more, rather than the tired old debates between charter and district systems.

Tragedy Does Not Have to Define Our Management

Anderies JM, Janssen MA (2012) Elinor Ostrom (1933–2012):
Pioneer in the Interdisciplinary Science of Coupled Social-Ecological Systems.
PLoS Biol 10(10): e1001405. 
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001405
Image credit: Courtesy of Indiana University.

Following a link from Aditya Anupkumar on Twitter, I read this excellent article from Tim Harford in the Financial Times contrasting approaches to “the tragedy of the commons” between Garrett Hardin, the coiner of the term, and Elinor Ostrom.

To review, the tragedy of the commons refers to the conundrum of managing natural resources that require collective sacrifice, but individual incentives are to over harvest.

Hardin saw this tragedy as inevitable, and advocated for strict policies to reduce overpopulation. He made the assumption that all situations in which a commons was at stake would play out in the tragic manner that he described.

On the other hand, Ostrom observed successful collective management of natural resources, and derived principles from those observations.

“These principles included effective monitoring; graduated sanctions for those who break rules; and cheap access to conflict-resolution mechanisms. . . Lin’s only golden rule about common pool resources was that there are no panaceas.”

Note that I can’t provide any more quotations from the original Financial Times article, as they have a rather strict copyright policy.

Something that stood out to me was Ostrom’s observation that the complexity of problems of the commons rendered top-down policy largely ineffective. What was effective was a community driven “polycentric” approach, following such principles as Ostrom outlined above. Polycentrism is a term which means “a political or cultural system which contains many different centres, especially centres of authority or control.” School systems could rightfully be said to embody that concept.

Reading this, I was struck by how this approach to managing complexity mirrors a vision for collaboration between political divides I cherish for the model of schools as ecosystems, which I’ve written more about on “Beyond Ideology“:

  • The idea of minimizing top down control with a goal towards community self-governance, and a restoration of human dignity
  • A focus on a methodology demonstrated to be effective
Our management of complex public systems and resources does not have to be tragic. With the proper recognition for the necessity of community driven collaboration, rather than the infantile broad dismissal polarized “sides” have for one another, public education can be effectively managed.