Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part II


Well, so now–if you are one of the 4 people that may sometimes read this blog on a semi-regular basis–you are probably muttering unto yourself, “Manderson, what in the hell are you talking about? A school as an ecosystem doesn’t really make any much more sense than foundational systems of interconnectivity! Come off it already!”

But I feel I must persist, regardless, as this is one of the few avenues I have in which to ponder semi-abstract thoughts in regards to the systems in which I am currently embedded as a public school teacher. Let’s be honest: not many teachers in my school would care to sit down over whiskey and discuss the public school system as a whole, unless it accounts for a preponderance of venting and complaining. So I continue brazenly–or perhaps snoozingly–on the aforementioned topic: school culture.

School Culture

In my last job in retail management, our company would talk about the “intangibles” in leadership training sessions. What they were referring to were things such as how a customer feels when they leave a store, the interactions that were had through conversations between customers and staff, and the overall sense of happiness or adventure that a customer might feel in the store. Another way of stating the idea of intangibles when we are discussing business is “anything that you can’t gauge by a dollar sign.” But the fact is, that company is extremely savvy because they explicitly recognized that their bottom line would be enhanced by paying attention to things that might not be immediately quantifiable. And believe me, that company is doing pretty damn good when it comes to their bottom line. Because they pay attention to something that many businesses (and as I will now begin to examine–schools) do not take into consideration: the culture of their everyday business.

Similarly, in public schools across the nation, children and adults every day enter buildings where they succumb to a sense of drudgery, fear, paranoia, and even just plain chaos. The reasons for this reality are myriad, but one of the things you will hear frequently referred to when you talk about problems in education is the whole test-taking and accountability movement. You’ll hear the horror stories from teachers about having to “teach to the test”. In public education, the tests are to schools what the bottom line is to a business. All decisions are made based on the tests, more or less. Such is the nature of things, currently. I’m a centrist on such matters, and believe that at some point you have to measure something.

But as the teachers and their unions are so angrily pointing out, there is much more to teaching and to students than what shows up on a standardized test. And I would argue that what does show up on a standardized test has a lot to do with factors that are contextual, not simply a matter of an individual teacher and an individual student. Just as the company I was speaking about enhanced their bottom line and profited from addressing the “intangibles” directly, so too could a school raise the test scores of their students if they spent more attention to factors within the school that have nothing to do directly with the test.

Now let’s be careful here. We all know that there are things going on in students’ lives that delimit their capabilities academically. A school can’t do much except perform consistent outreach efforts to the community to address such matters. But what we’re talking about here are the intangibles that are under a school’s control.

We’re talking about the feeling that you get before you even walk in the front door. And we’re not just talking about the signs, the display cases, the bulletin boards, the colors–although all of those things factor into it. We’re not just talking about whether the school follows some program of anti-bullying or anti-drugs or a social skills or life skills program.

We’re talking about how the students talk to each other. How the adults talk to each other. How the adults talk to the students. The everyday interactions, relationships, and rituals that foster and nurture a community. These are things that are perhaps largely intangible and not easily quantified (unless one is trained to quantify such things), but certainly worth investing attention in.

I would be willing to place a bet that if research were conducted that attempted to quantify the presence of a school culture, they would discover that school culture correlates highly with student performance on tests. In other words, they would find that something so fuzzy as how happy or accepted students and adults feel overall would result in stronger performance on state tests. It would also most likely correlate with greater retention of effective teachers.

In my next post on this topic, I will explore the concept of applying the open source model of development to public education.

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Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

6 thoughts on “Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part II”

  1. The culture needed is a culture of trust. In a predominantly middle-class system run by White people, typically the students who don’t do well are either non-White or are low-income. Why? Because we’re trained to distrust those who are different than us.

    How do we gain the trust of our students? We can do all we can in the classroom but the fact is that they go home to parents that very well may not trust us, so where do we go from there? It’s easy to blame the parents because they don’t trust us, and it’s easy to assume that they don’t take their child’s education seriously. But we have to understand our own biases- we are also taught to not trust those who are different than us. We can’t begin to expect trust from those who are different than us unless we work really hard at extending our hands and proving, proving, proving, that we are trustworthy.

    So now what? Do we go from door to door? Impossible. But as a school system I think one thing that has worked consistently is breaking up schools into smaller “communities.” Meaning, each “house” (a high school I’m currently researching calls them houses) has 125 or so students, and four teachers. One teacher for science, one for math, one for English, and one for history. Depending on the standards there are more/fewer/different teachers. Because of this small community, teachers really know their students. If a student doesn’t get along with his science teacher but confides in his English teacher, the science teacher can learn more and try to understand and connect with his student. Doing this and having three other colleagues that can help you with each student you have- colleagues that personally know each student you have- makes it easier to connect with these students’ families and gain the trust they need to engage these students. These students take classes together and know each other- instant school family. And the 9th grade house all go into the same 10th grade house, as long as things stay the same (meaning kids pass the classes and stay on the same track).

    I’ve seen it in a couple of schools I’ve dealt with and it has worked really well, and I’ve read a lot about what Debbie Meier has done. The book that got me started on this path is “In schools we trust” written by Debbie Meier. The small communities seem like a perfect opportunity to create this culture we so desperately need without the cost we desperately lack.

    1. Micah, I doubt you’ll come back and see this comment as some time has passed since the original post, but I’ve just started reading the book by Deborah Meier you recommended, and I have to say–this is exactly what I was going for! Great advice

  2. Thank you for commenting. Yes, I like that idea of trust very much. Another idea that forwards that notion of community in a professional sense is the “Professional Learning Community” model. If teachers were really collaborating professionally, with time allocated for them to do so, they would have that opportunity to discuss their students and plan together to create consistent curriculum and interventions.

    I also like how you pointed out that a school culture is all too often one that is oppositional or just simply unintelligible to students that aren’t coming into school with middle class values, and that’s a very salient point. I believe that it’s the duty of a school to be explicit about those values and seek to include–not reject–all students. And it does take a conscious and committed effort to breach those divides. I’m focusing on this idea of a school as an ecosystem for that very reason–if we are excluding or isolating students, then we are weakening and unraveling our future society!

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