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’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.