education theory

A New Model: Schools As Ecosystems

What makes a great teacher? To a lot of people, the answer seems simple enough: a great teacher is one whose students achieve. For the most part these days, student success is measured with test scores. Logically then, a great teacher is one whose students perform well on tests.

Let’s take it a step further: what makes a great school? Again, the same basic logic applies: great schools are ones that produce the highest proportion of students who perform well on tests. The role of the school, in other words, is to produce students successful according to test proficiency.

Perhaps this framework appears overly simplistic, but it’s the framework that currently directs our efforts to improve public schools. Schools are knowledge-manufacturing facilities, with students being their products. This framework has led school reformers to advocate for accountability systems, human capital mechanisms, and other private sector management tools in public school reform.

Not surprisingly, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is an aggressive proponent of this business framework. The mayor’s private sector management approach recently led him to propose a “turnaround” program at 33 city schools that would require replacing half of those school’s teachers. Not happy with the product? Fire experienced workers and bring in cheaper, lower skilled replacements.

This framework is not just a New York thing. All across the country, school districts are being pushed, by influential figures like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Calif. Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss, to evaluate teachers based on a “value-added” analysis. What does this mean? It’s a kind of metaphor: students are raw natural resources; unprocessed, they contribute little to the economy and thus possess little value. If teachers process them effectively, however, their value increases.

Let’s leave aside our gut reactions to talking about children this way. The real problem with this framework is that it’s been a dead end. For the most part, debates about how to produce better students have led to discord within the field of education, while demonstrating little significant impact.

Applying an industrial-growth model to student learning has rightfully caused consternation on the part of both parents and teachers. Parents don’t send their children to school simply to be processed like chaff from wheat. Yes, parents want their kids to get good jobs and to be academically successful, but they also want their kids to become mature, responsible, well-rounded individuals. Parents look for more from a school than its achievement on tests: is the school safe? Will their child receive individualized support and attention? Are there extracurricular resources and programs available? Are children happy at school? What sort of curriculum is offered?

As special education teachers, we know how critical these environmental factors are. Our students, for reasons as varied as their individual learning needs, rarely thrive in a high pressure, test-driven environment. The vast majority of students with exceptional learning needs perform significantly below the norm on standardized tests, significantly enough that these tests (or the scores required to pass them) must constantly be modified so that our students can be accounted as successful. Students receiving special education services are often more attuned to environmental factors than their general education counterparts. It is this sensitivity to their environment that often makes it so difficult for such students to focus on their studies.

Schools as ecosystems

But positive, supportive environments are not important only for students with exceptional learning needs. All students thrive in environments that support their development in diverse ways: from offering a coherent, sequential curriculum to providing students with a comfortable, stimulating physical space. Such schools, like their curricula, take responsibility not simply for academic development, but personal development as well. School environments where the curriculum is designed around standardized tests, and where factors like the physical and social environment take a back seat to those tests, are not conducive to learning.

We propose a fundamental shift in the framework and language we use to discuss educational reform. Instead of a framework that views students as products, we propose a framework in which the products of education are viewed as the contexts and content of schools themselves. The schools we produce should be positive and nurturing learning environments where students are engaged in a rich, coherent curriculum. Rather than view our students as widgets, we’d do better to view them as vibrant, dynamic organisms, and view the school, by extension, as an ecosystem. While such a model would make it harder to quantify school quality based on a simple numerical scale, it would enable us to have more productive conversations about systemic education reform, and to take action in targeted ways that will have a sustainable impact.

There are principles for maintaining a healthy ecosystem that can provide guidance in strengthening our school environments. We are certain that this shift in focus will — perhaps paradoxically — result in more productive student outcomes. Land maintained according to sound ecological principles results in abundant microbial soil life, interdependency of diverse species, and a sustainable yield. A school maintained according to ecological principles will result in lower teacher turnover, greater community engagement, and positive long-term student outcomes.

Our belief is that many schools commonly considered “great” already operate as healthy, sustainable ecosystems. Such schools offer their students adequate sunlight, fresh air, exercise, and nutrition. Their students feel intellectually, emotionally, and physically safe because their school communities celebrate diversity and offer equity of opportunity. These schools offer an array of supplemental options–such as music, foreign languages, clubs, and sports–to meet the diverse needs of their dynamic student bodies. They offer protection from short-sighted policies and destructive external forces through the strong relationships and trust engendered and developed within the school community. They possess built-in mechanisms to maintain equity and equilibrium, preventing one type of personality or learning need from dominating at the expense of others.

Cultivation, not demolition

How does this framework relate to ongoing conflict around school closures? Under the Department of Education’s current “turnaround” plan, as many as 33 city schools could be closed, re-staffed (with as many as half their current teachers replaced), and reopened. At schools all over New York, teachers, students, and families have voiced concerns about the city’s slash-and-burn approach to school “turnaround.”

If schools are factories, tearing down “ineffective” ones and replacing them with newer, shinier ones might sound like good business. If, however, we view schools as ecosystems, then struggling schools are depleted ecosystems desperately in need of resuscitation and support. Such resuscitation requires a holistic, long-term approach.

Using an ecological design approach, reformers could not treat schools as vacant lots primed for subdivision. Instead, school revitalization would need to be a community-driven, long-term process. In an ecological framework, school reformers would need to acknowledge the complexity of school communities, rather than simply pretending that schools could be leveled, bulldozed, and magically reinvented as high performing lots of isolated land.

Implicit in such a framework, and diametrically opposed to the “student as product” framework, is the understanding that there is no ideal school (nor student). Just as healthy ecosystems might come in a myriad of forms, healthy school environments may come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, dependent on specific local community needs and circumstances. That said, healthy school environments, like ecosystems, are guided and cultivated by a set of core principles, which the authors would like to explore in future posts.

Perhaps the best part of this paradigm shift (for the authors) is that in such a framework, the role of the teacher would shift from test-prep overseer to environmental steward. Instead of being trained and treated as a widget, teachers would be content experts and community leaders of their classroom and school ecosystem, responsible for all the students who inhabit it. Such stewards would necessarily need to be long-term inhabitants of these ecosystems themselves, growing more and more effective as their knowledge of the environment deepens and their relationships within the school community strengthens.

A new metric

Do we sound like dreamers? Would such a model be impossible to quantify? We do not believe so, and we’re not the first to propose such a paradigm shift. In fact, we believe that by refocusing our attention on the content and contexts of our schools, we can establish a new measuring stick. What’s more, since this framework would not be based on improving student test scores but on improving school environments, the responsibility would be shared by all who work within and support that community, rather than solely upon the backs of individual students and teachers within the confines of an isolated classroom.

In the posts that follow, the authors will lay out a series of ecological principles that we believe can be used as a guide for effective school design and reform. We will also examine model schools and investigate how they’ve constructed such exceptional school environments. We look forward to your feedback.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.