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.

Research: A School is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

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“When aspects of the school context—for example, a principal who is an ineffective instructional leader, a school that lacks a consistent disciplinary code—are partly, or largely to blame for poor performance, efforts to measure and strengthen individual teacher effectiveness are unlikely to be adequate remedies in themselves”

—Gillian Kiley, “School environment key to retaining teachers, promoting student achievement, study finds” on Phys.org

Check out the study linked to above, which uses NYC school survey data. Certainly confirms everything this blog is premised upon.

The Influence of Context On Character

“What is emerging is a new idea: that qualities like grit and resilience are not formed through the traditional mechanics of “teaching”; instead, a growing number of researchers now believe, they are shaped by several specific environmental forces, both in the classroom and in the home, sometimes in subtle and intricate ways.”

–Paul Tough, “How Kids Really Succeed” in The Atlantic

Relationships

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When I began teaching in a 5th grade self-contained classroom in East Tremont, I found myself constantly confounded, on a moment-by-moment basis, by the behaviors of my students. The raw emotions, aggression, anger, and frustration that my students expressed, and that I also experienced, was like I can only imagine as comparable to the experience of warfare. I dragged myself home each night feeling like I’d been turned inside out.

I found some solace in reading a copy of Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI), a book about a therapeutic system of strategies for supporting children experiencing crisis developed in a residential care setting. But I did not have any formal training in the method.

Fortunately, in my 2nd year of teaching, it just so happened that I was able to attend a workshop from two educators from D75 on a method called Therapeutic Crisis Intervention—a modified and simplified version of LSCI created by Cornell University specifically for classroom use. This was and continues to be the most influential and useful professional development I have ever attended. It helped me begin to shift my mentality and how I approached student behavior.

So it was with delight that I saw one of the educators who provided me that training, Dana Ashley, featured in American Educator. I urge you to read her piece, “It’s About Relationships,” in full.

“When teachers wonder “What should I do?” in response to challenging student behaviors, the answers are not as simple as they might seem. Although an individual teacher asks the question, the response must be nuanced enough to take into account the specific school and community. As in any field—not just in education—context is key.” (Bold added)

Birds make us better

I’ve always loved animals–I grew up alongside a German shepherd, an Amazon parrot, parakeets, and cockatiels. The parrot, Vincent, is still with me today. Here’s my current little vibrant family:

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Birds are, in some ways, representative of humanity’s simultaneous fascination and awe of the natural world, as well as utter disregard. Many bird species are declining due to human activity, their diverse voices silenced. Many are killed by pet cats allowed to roam freely outdoors. In the past, tribal kings would kill hundreds of parrots to string their iridescent feathers into gaudy headdresses and capes.

These beautiful creatures possess an intangible intrinsic value that makes our world a better place to live. But as you will see in the following stories, they can furthermore provide benefits that are more tangible. Just like greenery, natural light, and other environmental enhancers, the sounds, visuals, and presence of birds brings greater vibrancy into our existence.

♥ In this first story of aging well, Bill Thomas, a professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, brings alive the concept that our environment has a tremendous impact on well-being. This story is not only about birds, of course, but birds are a part of the equation of what he terms the “Eden Alternative.”

“So he decided to transform the nursing home. Based on a hunch, he persuaded his staff to stock the facility with two dogs, four cats, several hens and rabbits, and 100 parakeets, along with hundreds of plants, a vegetable and flower garden, and a day-care site for staffers’ kids.

All those animals in a nursing home broke state law, but for Thomas and his staff, it was a revelation. Caring for the plants and animals restored residents’ spirits and autonomy; many started dressing themselves, leaving their rooms and eating again. The number of prescriptions fell to half of that of a control nursing home, particularly for drugs that treat agitation. Medication costs plummeted, and so did the death rate.

He named the approach the Eden Alternative — based on the idea that a nursing home should be less like a hospital and more like a garden — and it was replicated in hundreds of institutions in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia as well as in all 50 U.S. states (the animal restriction in New York was voted down).” . . . 

He moved beyond nursing homes to set up small, intimate residences called Green Houses. With private bedrooms and bathrooms, they offered dignity and privacy. Their size had an unexpected effect.

“Within six weeks, they had to send a truck around to pick up all the wheelchairs,” Thomas said of one house. “You know why most people [in nursing homes] use wheelchairs? Because the buildings are so damn big. . . . The buildings disable elders.”

—Tara Bahrampour¸ “We’re lucky if we get to be old, physician and professor believes” on Washington Post

Imagine if we had schools that were “Eden Alternatives”!

♥ In this next story on parrots and veterans of war, we learn that traumatized parrots and traumatized veterans can support one another in ways that traditional therapy may not always be able to address. According to the veterans, it has something to do with the nature of the birds themselves—something a bird lover such as myself can well relate to.

Taking hold of Cashew once again, she cupped her against her cheek. ‘‘Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’ Love lowered her hands and watched Cashew roll over once more on her back, a play position known as wrestling that is peculiar to caiques. ‘‘They don’t belong in captivity,’’ Love said, rubbing Cashew’s white breast feathers. ‘‘But they have a real survivor’s mentality. These forgotten great beams of light that have been pushed aside and marginalized. I see the trauma, the mutual trauma that I suffered and that these birds have suffered, and my heart just wants to go out and nurture and feed and take care of them, and doing that helps me deal with my trauma. All without words.’’ . . . 

‘‘You can look in their eyes,’’ Love said, returning with Bobbi, ‘‘any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense.’’ . . .

‘‘They look at you, and they don’t judge,’’ Jim Minick, the badly injured helicopter-squad member, told me. ‘‘The parrots look at you, and it’s all face value. It’s pure.

—Charles Seibart, “What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?” on The NY Times Magazine

As we know from research on stereotype threat, our children are intensely aware of stereotypes and judgment. Unfortunately, not every adult who works in a school with children experiencing acute and chronic stress and trauma looks at our children without some form of judgment, however unconscious it may be.

Perhaps if we included birds in our schools, children would gain a similar benefit from the non-judgmental gazes of our feathered brethren that veterans can gain.

♥ In this final story, a former drug dealer from DC’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.

“Rodney Stotts grew up selling dope and guns. But he’s always loved caring for birds. The drugs landed him in jail. The birds helped set him free.”

—Ari Daniel, “Rodney Learns to Fly” a Podcast on Transistor

A world without birds would be an immeasurably poorer place to live.