Suspensions Disrupt Student Communities

“As Perry and Morris argue, removing a student from the school context may not be the individual act that it might seem. Rather, it occurs within an existing web of social relations and, as such, it affects student networks and the messages and meanings that are shared through these relationships.

The researchers point to two underlying mechanisms that may explain these results. First, at the individual level, a high suspension environment can create a heightened sense of anxiety. Second, at the school level, suspensions disrupt student communities, creating unstable, socially fragmented environments, which undermine the social bonds that undergird positive outcomes.”

–Esther Quintero, “New Research On School Discipline” on Shanker Blog

Our Choices are Constrained by Context

“A lot of education policy is focused on what we can do to get people to make better choices — how we can spur them to be more gritty, or how we can incentivize them. But all the choices people make — even if they’re properly incentivized, even if they’re extra gritty — are constrained in some way by context. It turns out that when you look at differences across individuals, what best explains the variation is context. People in one context tend to think and do things a certain way, and very differently than people in another context.”

Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell, as quoted in an article by Bari Walsh, “Principals and Problem-Solving: How Context and Interpretation Shape Decisions for Educational Leaders” on Usable Knowledge

On Segregation: The Good and the Ugly

By John Vachon for U.S. Farm Security Administration (Library of Congress[1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In my last post, I delved into a more sensitive topic – race – acknowledging that I was probably going to stick my foot in my mouth. Race is a sensitive topic for me to discuss because 1) our society has a long and sordid history of prejudiced treatment of people of color, and  2) I’m white.

But if our concern here at Schools & Ecosystems is to promote socio-­ecological perspectives on public education, then the topics of race, class, and diversity are central to that mission. The specific context of US history and education demands it. So I’m going to keep on sticking my foot in my mouth. Apologies in advance.

Let me acknowledge that in my last post, I presented a pretty simplistic and idealistic vision, stemming from a need to desperately say something in response to Ferguson (and now, Eric Garner). The topic of segregation is much more complex than simply stating that our government needs to force white people to integrate more with black people. But that is my penultimate position, and I’d like to get more into the nuance behind how I’ve come to that position, so I can untangle some of the thorns wound up all around in it.

There’s a simplistic and dominant progressive narrative on segregation, which is that “segregation is bad, so we need to desegregate.” This was the narrative born out of Brown v. Board of Ed. I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s easy to say segregation is bad, but it’s much harder to say why it’s problematic, and even harder to say what we should do about it. There’s also a possibly racist connotation that can lie behind that narrative, which is the implication that black institutions are inferior, and so integration with white institutions is necessary. To uncover this mindset, you can ask, “Can a predominantly black institution (such as a business or school) be one of the highest performing in our nation?” If you’re white, chew on that for a minute.

Someone might then continue to ask, “But why aren’t there more successful black institutions?” It is your answer to that question that determines where you stand. The fact that many people rarely ever get to that point of thought, but rather make the unsaid assumption that there is a failure in black communities and culture, is why we are nowhere near to living in a “post­racial” society.

My own answer to the first question is that a predominantly black institution can be one of the highest performing in our nation. And schools that are not only predominantly black, but furthermore predominantly high poverty, could blow predominantly white and wealthier schools out of the water, if given half a chance.

And I furthermore believe that successful, predominantly black institutions are necessary for the well­-being of black communities. (“Wait, what? I thought you said you wanted integration?!” I’ll return to this in a later post.)

But we need to acknowledge the incredible barriers to that success which have been erected, historically, consistently and systematically, by our (once) predominantly white society. I don’t feel the need to get into the details and history of this – there’s been plenty of ink spilled making this case elsewhere. But any cursory glance at the course of US history and policy makes it clear that black communities have been starved of access to critical resources and left to fester.

So when some people confidently point their fingers at black communities and say, “This is a failure of culture,” we know that sort of reductionism completely ignores the wider context and impact of history, and the continued—daily—impact of white prejudice.

Yes, I know, this is old hat to most of you who might be reading this. But I need to be clear about where I stand so that when I arrive at my conclusion – that white communities should be forced to integrate with black communities – then you’ll understand how I arrived at that seemingly radical pronouncement.

I’m going to leave it there for now. In my next post, I want to continue to explore the impact of segregation, and I’m going to bring in another sensitive topic – class – into the discussion.

School Reform and the Borg Complex

I had never heard of the Borg Complex until I stumbled across it on The Frailest Thing, a fascinating blog that focuses on people and technology. According to this blog, the Borg Complex “is exhibited by writers and pundits who explicitly assert or implicitly assume that resistance to technology is futile.” The blog goes on to define eight symptoms of the Borg Complex:

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate

7. Expresses contemptuous disregard for past cultural achievements

8. Refers to historical antecedents solely to dismiss present concerns

Right away, I was struck by how closely these symptoms match the public behavior of advocates of corporate school reformers. From points 1 (advocating reform with grandiose, unsupported claims) and 2 (ridiculing anyone who argues that many community schools function quite well) all the way to point 8 (referencing historical context only to suggest that the community school model is antiquated), the Borg Complex appears to be at epidemic levels in the world of corporate reform.

In future posts, I’ll examine manifestations of the Borg Complex in the world of education. For now, I’ll quote the original post on the dangers that Borg rhetoric– which aggressively promotes a very narrow vision of progress as if there were no alternatives–  poses to discussions about schools, or about anything:

Marshall McLuhan once said, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” The handwaving rhetoric that I’ve called a Borg Complex is resolutely opposed to just such contemplation when it comes to technology and its consequences. We need more thinking, not less, and Borg Complex rhetoric is typically deployed to stop rather than advance discussion. What’s more, Borg Complex rhetoric also amounts to a refusal of responsibility. We cannot, after all, be held responsible for what is inevitable.

Race Relations in the United States: A Call for Integration

By Chicago Commission on Race Relations. (1922) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about #Ferguson (not just the place, you see, but the happening—like Vietnam the war, not just the country) and Tamir Rice, and how these tragedies join an uninterrupted thematic patterning of race relations in our country. I think it’s easier for white people to process (or ignore) these as isolated events, rather than disturbing motifs.
So I’m going to put my thoughts out there, however malformed and incoherent they might be, because I think it’s better that we talk about this, rather than ignore it. This is a bit different than the norm on this blog, but I think it has everything to do with public education.

There are wounds in this country we can’t pretend away. Wounds so deep they surface visible in the skin.

White people may only know this subconsciously, flinching when a black male crosses their radar. Black people probably can’t forget it, saddled to an everpresent self­-awareness. How one comports oneself in mixed company, when around the presence of a policeman, when in a downtown department store.

So it’s important to bring this to the fore. To hash it out, however convoluted, via blog posts, protests, and media feeds. To experience that discomfort, and contemplate how it relates to the deepseated longsuffering of a community.

But I have the sense that so long as white and black people live wholly segregated lives, both culturally and geographically, then the problems of skin will remain perennial. It’s hard to empathize with someone when you lack any context beyond what’s portrayed on a screen.

I respect the inclination of some in the black community to choose to remain separate from white people.

But I do not respect the inclination of white people to self-segregate.

I believe that our society has an obligation to promote inclusion and diversity, both racial and economic. And by promote, I mean by the force of law.

Let me rephrase that in yet more stark terms: I believe that white people should be forced to live and work alongside black and brown people. And I believe that wealthier people should be forced to live and work alongside poorer people.

Some will say that we tried that out already with federally mandated busing to diversify schools, and look how that turned out? Except we didn’t really try it. Not for long enough to have any kind of impact.

It’s the natural tendency of human beings for like to congregate with like, and for the rich to get richer. So in the absence of any regulation, economic and racial segregation will only increase.

When Ta­-Nehisi Coates wrote in June about a case for reparations, this made sense to me in terms of a “moral reckoning” for our nation. We can only begin to square up with our sordid history of race relations when we take concrete action in the form of policies that create inclusive housing, schools, and businesses.

It’s convenient for white people to either pretend blackness, as a concept and as a representation of the divisive history of the United States, doesn’t exist at all, or to pretend that the problems that stem from that blackness are something that they can swoop in and fix, like a superhero.

I don’t think any problems will be fixed until they become all of our problems. And they won’t become all of our problems until we live and work together.

That’s my take on this. Let me know what you think.

If a Vietnam vet can kick a heroin habit, then a student can get his homework done

By Zigomitros Athanasios – Thor4bp (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Schools are hotbeds of dynamic relationships shaped by physical environment, community circumstances, leadership (or abdication of leadership) of adults, and the given set of policy, economic, and political contexts the school is embedded within (just to name a few).

While we tend to view schools primarily from a lens of academics, when we really get down to the tough work occurring in the trenches, we’re often (rather quixotically, I might add) attempting to instill and shift habits. Students stay up late on social media instead of completing homework, may lack motivation in achieving long term goals, play video games in lieu of studying, don’t exercise, eat junk, ad nauseam. It can be hard to get at academics when students have bad habits.

Maybe we can learn something from Vietnam War veterans and heroin addiction that could apply to schools.

In an article by James Clear on The Next Web, “Breaking Bad Habits: What we can learn from Vietnam War veterans and their heroin addictions,” we learn of a startling statistic on veterans who had been addicted to heroin in Vietnam: “when the soldiers returned to the United States only 5 percent of them became re-addicted to heroin. In other words, 95 percent eliminated their addiction nearly overnight.”

Heroin, in case you’ve been living in a hole, is an extremely addictive opioid. How did the soldiers manage to overcome their addictions? It has everything to do with environment and social relationships:

“Here is what happened in Vietnam: soldiers spent all day surrounded by a certain environment. They were inundated with the stress of war. They built friendships with fellow soldiers who were heroin users.

… Once each soldier returned to the United States, however, they found themselves in a completely different environment. Not only that, they found themselves in an environment devoid of the stimuli that triggered their heroin use in the first place. Without the stress, the fellow heroin users, and the environmental factors to trigger their addiction, many soldiers found it easier to quit.”

The moral of the story?

The people we connect with and the places we live in often determine our behavior and habits as much as we do ourselves. [Bold added]”

A school should be an oasis providing the cool waters that can quench a child’s thirst for knowledge, hunger for companionship, and craving for novelty and fulfillment. I believe that schools should be buildings that you would want to spend a lifetime within, with natural light flooding through large windows, expanses of cool greenery and spaces designed to inspire thought and social interaction. If we want to break students away from bad habits, we need to provide the environment in which better habits can flourish.

Clear suggests that in the absence of controlling the physical environment, however, that we should focus on designing for “laziness” and make “default options healthier or more productive”

In another post that he links to, Clear gives a neat 2-step prescription for this:

  1. To stick with a good habit, reduce the number of steps required to perform the behavior.

  2. To break a bad habit, increase the number of steps required to perform the behavior.

In a school, we need to consider how we can make it easier to achieve success, rather than easier to fail. And part of this is considering how we can leverage the relationships that we have with one another in the building. How can we make learning “cool”? How can students support one another in cultivating academic success, rather than in social distraction?

If 95% of the veterans of a horrific war can come home and kick a heroin habit, then any teenager failing his or her classes can become a model student.

It just might take an entirely new kind of school.

Support the Call for Open Educational Resources

By Jonathasmello, Hamish_Darby [CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that curriculum, materials, textbooks, and other resources that are utilized in delivering a public education should be made available publicly under a GPL style (“open source”) license.

So I was excited to see that K-12 OER Collaborative is making a request for proposals for development of Creative Commons 4.0 licensed curriculum aligned to the Common Core. Check it out and support this effort. The major textbook publishing companies have dominated the field with sundry weak materials for far too long.

Guilds and Diversity in Schools & Ecosystems

By Nhobgood Nick Hobgood (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

I did a small interview a while back that I’d randomly discovered was posted when I did a search for schools and ecosystems. The interviewer had been especially interested in an idea I’d brought up a while back, based on an idea from Permaculture: guilds.

To review, a guild can be explained as “a group of animals and plants that co-evolve in a mutually beneficial (or “symbiotic“) manner. Such examples of guilds can be found in nature, but also can be developed intentionally by humans. A traditional example is the Three Sisters, squash, maize, and beans, cultivated successfully in Mesoamerica for thousands of years.”

In the interview, I give an example of how this could apply to a school:

“I think this applies to schools, because we magnify differences too much,” Anderson said. That fact keeps students from learning about the real communities they will live and work in, where people have authentic differences from one another.

“Traditionally, we are looking [sic] at special education as excluding, but it is also denying,” Anderson said. “We should be trying to seek to include these students in average classes.”

“It’s not about being stupid or not being able to do things,” he said. “Kids have a good understanding of these things: That we all have strengths and weaknesses.”

Human beings, of course, don’t fall into such easily definable categories as squash, maize, and beans, but when you have students on the spectrum of autism, students with a language processing delay, and so on . . . well, you have students that act and learn just a tad bit differently. But like I said, I think we magnify these differences overmuch. At the end of the day, some of us are good at some things, and others not so good, but we all get better by working together with one another.

The Real Big News: Incremental Progress

… we tend to assume that innovation and progress come from big technology breakthroughs, from new gadgets and communications technologies, most of them created by the private sector. But the positive trends in our social health are coming from a more complex network of forces: from government intervention, public service announcements, demographic changes, the shared wisdom of life experiences passed along through generations and the positive effects of rising affluence. The emphasis on private sector progress is no accident; it is the specific outcome of the way public opinion is shaped within the current media landscape.

The public sector doesn’t have billions of dollars to spend on marketing campaigns to trumpet its successes. A multinational corporation invents a slightly better detergent, and it will spend a legitimate fortune to alert the world that the product is now “new and improved.” But no one takes out a prime-time ad campaign to tout the remarkable decrease in air pollution that we have seen over the past few decades, even thought that success story is far more important than a trivial improvement in laundry soap.

That blind spot is compounded by the deeper lack of interest in stories of incremental progress. Curmudgeons, doomsayers, utopians and declinists all have an easier time getting our attention than opinion leaders who want to celebrate slow and steady improvement.

–Steven Johnson, “We’re living the dream; we just don’t realize it” on CNN Opinion

What We Talk About When We Talk About School

I have an article in Jacobin this week about the impact of jargon on our understanding of public education. One of the key points Mark and I have made in this blog since the very beginning is that schools are physical environments. When we use jargon, or any language that is unnecessarily technical or unclear, to discuss schools, we make that physical environment seem like an abstraction. As I argue in the article:

“Beyond confusing and misleading the public, jargon obscures the fact that when we talk about schools, we’re talking about places where children live and grow for seven to nine hours a day, ten months out of the year. If they’re poor, these children spend their days in overcrowded classrooms that are poorly lit and poorly ventilated.

My first two years teaching in the public schools, I worked at a high school where students spent their entire school day, five days a week, without ever leaving the building. These teenagers received a single thirty-minute break each day for lunch and recess combined. Their recess consisted of milling about the school cafeteria after eating. Jargon reduces these pent-up children to abstractions and effaces the brutality of this type of captivity.”

The more direct and clear our language is, the less it will obscure the physical reality of school environments.