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.

Hysteresis and the Legacy of Industrialization

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I recently shared a fascinating study on the impact of the historical legacy of a place, which found that students living in neighborhoods with a legacy of economic and residential segregation had greater odds of dropping out of high school compared to their peers in other neighborhoods.

The existing social capital of a neighborhood, in other words, is associated with the historical legacy of that particular place.

This makes a lot of sense to those of us that work in communities with legacies of poverty and trauma. And it also relates to a concept that Will shared here back in 2012: hysteresis. As explained on Wikipedia, hysteresis refers to “the dependence of the state of a system on its history.” This concept can be applicable to a wide range of systems—in our case here, we are considering socio-ecological systems.

Another recent study presents further support for the impact of the legacy of a place on people. Researchers used online surveys of the “big five” personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and examined them in connection to a region’s historical legacy associated with industrialization during the 19th and 20th century.

Their results suggest “that the massive industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries had long-term psychosocial effects that continue to shape the well-being, health, and behaviors of millions of people in these regions today.”

“. . . .Our research shows that a region’s historical industries leave a lasting imprint on the local psychology, which remains even when those industries are no longer dominant or have almost completely disappeared.”

The author concludes that “Without a strong orchestrated effort to improve economic circumstances and people’s well-being and health in these regions, this legacy is likely to persist.”

Granted that this study is based on data gathered from online surveys. But the “big five” survey has a fairly robust research base behind it and predicts academic achievement and parenting behavior (you can also take the survey yourself; I found my own results enlightening). But of course, further research into the impacts of the historical legacy of a place should continue to be pursued.

In the meantime, for those of us who work with children raised in communities that bear the legacies of injury, we need to be mindful not only of the individual needs of the children before us, but furthermore the history of the place within which they live.

 

Research: The Industrial Revolution Left Psychological Scars That Can Still Be Seen Today, Martin Obschonka / Harvard Business Review

A Farewell to Fariña

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Unless you’ve been stuck in a subway tunnel somewhere for the last few months, you know that NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña has announced her 2nd retirement, Miami Supe Alberto Caravalho psyched out De Blasio and had an even shorter tenure than Cathie Black, returning to the bosom of weeping Miami-ans before he’d even left (telenovela style), and Houston Supe Richard Carranza has since stepped eagerly in.

Prior to the spectacle, you may have missed an interesting Politico/Shapiro piece on how Fariña operated as NYC Chancellor: This is how Carmen Fariña works: Outgoing chancellor led from inside schools. The piece provides insight into Fariña’s strengths, as well as possible weaknesses.

A while back in 2014, we examined how Fariña was leading from a socio-ecological perspective, and we rated her quite highly at that time.

I think those ratings still hold. Fariña has brought deep instructional and administrative experience to the role, and she has demonstrated many of the traits that we’ve examined as signs of a leader who recognizes the importance of schools as ecosystems, such as:

  • Values inclusion and diversity (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • Consistently observes local conditions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Plays the long game  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Models active listening (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Applies intensive management (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Displays a willingness to try different things (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Utilizes the principle of obliquity (1, 2, 3)
  • Sweats the small stuff (1, 2, 3)
  • Demonstrates humility (1, 2)
  • Facilitates the confrontation of the brutal facts (1, 2)

Yet I think, too, her administration has demonstrated some of the downsides of a few of these aspects when operating a system as vast and complex as NYC’s.

Take “consistently observes local conditions.” As Shapiro’s article highlights so well, Fariña’s great strength as a leader is her ability to step foot into a school and see what’s going on and speak from her expertise as an educator.

Yet in operating a system as vast as NYC’s, it doesn’t make as much sense to attempt to direct the system from such supervision alone. As Shapiro points out in the article, despite all of the visits she’s conducted in her tenure as chancellor, she still has only been “inside fewer than half of the city’s 1,800 schools.”

Fariña’s theory of change, as articulated in this piece, seems to be that she and her superintendents will ensure better outcomes in NYC schools by visiting schools.

I think there’s sound logic to this–it aligns with the idea that context is key and that stepping foot in schools is essential to see past the numbers–but what I find interesting is that at no point have I heard this theory of action clearly articulated by either the Chancellor or her administration.

I find this problematic because if we are talking about a theory of action, we are acknowledging that it’s a hypothesis, and that we need to keep checking to see if it’s accurate. This is fundamental in the administration of a public system — the public needs to know what is happening so they can hold the administration accountable.

Under Joel Klein, the theory of action that governed his administration was pretty clear — by breaking up the ‘fiefdoms’ of the districts and empowering principals and holding them accountable, student outcomes would improve. You could disagree with this theory of action and how it was implemented, but at least you knew what it was.

Under Fariña, it has not been so clear what her theory of action has been.

Klein’s strength as a chancellor lay in systems thinking, but his weakness was lack of  experience and expertise as an educator. It might be said that Fariña flip-flopped these strengths and weaknesses.

Let me hasten to acknowledge that overseeing NYC’s vast and diverse system of schools is a tremendous challenge, and we are fortunate to have benefited from the deep dedication and service of Carmen Fariña.

Will NYC’s new chancellor be able to balance systems-level strategy with ground-level expertise?

 

The Historical Legacy of Place

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We’ve spoken here often about the need for a long-term perspective in education reform, as well as explored the concept of hysteresis.

A recent study,Towards Conceptualizing and Empirically Examining Legacy of Place: An Exploratory Consideration of Historic Neighborhood Characteristics on Contemporary Dropout Behavior” provides a novel look into such a perspective by examining the historical legacy of neighborhoods and how that legacy relates to inequality.

We argue that legacy of place is formed through historic economic and racial residential segregation, which influences economic and social status resource allocation in the present day. . . . School segregation influences the amount of social capital resources available to a neighborhood, which contributes to the existence of clusters of high poverty and high dropout rates among neighborhoods with low levels of social capital.

After testing their theory through multiple analyses, the authors found “that students living in legacy neighborhoods had over 16% higher odds of dropping out of school compared to their peers not living in these types of neighborhoods.”

“these findings should provide inertia for the creation of policies that address the lasting influence of historic neighborhood racial and economic segregation. Such polices may help to equalize racial educational outcome gaps considering minorities are more likely to reside in legacy neighborhoods compared to whites.”
This wider context is critical to bear in mind, especially in light of another recent study that challenges the benefit of in-school integration. As reported by the NY Times, “In School Together, but Not Learning at the Same Rate,”Nicole Mader, the co-author of the study, said the lingering achievement gap demonstrates that just having different kinds of students together in the same building is not enough to have true integration.”
Indeed. It’s bigger than that. It is the historical legacy that have led to segregated neighborhoods that must be actively fought.
But school diversity, even when it’s not enough, is at least a step in the right direction.

 

 

Shifting from Single to Twofold Vision

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Seeing a school as an ecosystem is akin to shifting from a “single vision” to a “twofold vision,” as William Blake outlines it and Philip Pullman explains it:

. . . when it comes to vision, we need to be able to see contrary things and believe them both true: “Without Contraries is no progression” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), despite the scorn of rationalists whose single vision rejects anything that is not logically coherent. Blake was hard on single vision:

Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God uskeep
From Single vision and Newtonssleep!
(“Letter to Thomas Butts”)

Fourfold vision is a state of ecstatic or mystical bliss. Threefold vision arises naturally from Beulah, which, in Blake’s mythology, is the place of poetic inspiration and dreams, “where Contrarieties are equally True” (Blake, Milton). Twofold vision is seeing not only with the eye, but through it, seeing contexts, associations, emotional meanings, connections. Single vision is the literal, rational, dissociated, uninflected view of the world characteristic, apparently, of the left hemisphere of the brain when the contextualising, empathetic, imaginative, emotionally involved right brain is disengaged or ignored.

William Blake and Me, Philip Pullman / The Guardian

We ain’t shooting for ecstasy nor poetic inspiration here, necessarily—not when it comes to school improvement. But if we can begin to see the wider complexity of connections and contexts beyond the linear machinations of everyday humdrum mundanity, then we might be getting somewhere.