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

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.