A Different Kind of Writing

I haven’t posted anything here for a while, but that’s not because I haven’t been writing. Next week, a one-act play of mine titled Ice Cream Man will be opening at Manhattan Repertory Theatre.

The play was written in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson last summer. While Ice Cream Man isn’t about schools or ecosystems, I think its content grapples with some of the problems that Mark and I wrestle with here.

Michael Brown was a student. He was about to start college. I don’t know what his life would have looked like if he hadn’t been killed last summer, but I know that after he died, the story of Michael Brown’s life was often told in the media as if all he’d done had somehow led him to his death. In a way, by reframing his life as a narrative who’s arc ended in his death at the hands of a policeman, the media took Michael Brown’s life a second time. In some tiny way, I hope to offer a counter-narrative in my play.

If you’re interested in seeing the Ice Cream Man, it will be at Manhattan Repertory April 8-9 at 9pm. For tickets, just email mrtreserve@gmail.com and tell them which night you’re coming. If you’d like to support this production, which is entirely artist funded, you can make a donation at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/ice-cream-man–3/x/10085203

I look forward to seeing some of you there, and to getting back into blogging after this production is done.

Cuomo: Build Relationships, Not One-Measure-to-Rule-Them-All

By Codking (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In my last post, I explained why NY Governor Cuomo’s push for greater weight on testing was bad strategy. In a study in the American Journal of Public Health on schools with Zero Tolerance policies, here’s some further confirmation that linear thinking backfires in complex environments:

The authors found that “students attending schools with suspension policies for illicit drug use were 1.6 times more likely than their peers at schools without such policies to use marijuana in the next year.” That result held for the student body as a whole — not just for kids who were suspended.

There was another interesting result discovered in this study: relationships are better medicine.

But they did find one factor that actually did seem to decrease the likelihood of drug use: student-teacher interactions. At some schools, students caught with drugs were sent to their teachers to discuss the consequences of drug use. This was associated with a 50 percent decrease in the odds of later marijuana use.

What’s the lesson here for state policy on education?

Don’t seek to impose brute force policies to cover up poor politics and inadequate funding and the most segregated schools in the country. What will really make a difference in education? How about building meaningful relationships with practitioners and the folks on the ground who work in communities and schools facing the greatest of challenges? How about providing them with real funding that demonstrates that we value them?

In the face of complexity, policies that seek to foster empathy and community will be the ones most likely to sustain change.

Source for quotes in this post:

Christopher Ingraham, “Zero-tolerance school drug policies only make drug use worse, a study finds” on The Washington Post, via link on Twitter from RealClearEducation.

The US Didn’t Commit to Integration

The teacher accountability agenda that has emerged over the last two decades–stricter evaluation systems, merit pay, the weakening of teacher tenure, and the creation of alternative pathways into the classroom, like Teach for America–is often talked about as a sort of next step in school reform, because integration failed. In her 2011 book A Change to Make History, TFA Founder Wendy Kopp wrote, “In the sixties and seventies we committed to desegregate schools in order to ensure that all of our nation’s children have access to an equal education. Unfortunately, though, poor and minority students continued to lag academically.” The conclusion that desegregation did not work is not fair, though–because the United States did not, in fact, commit to integration. In 1974 the Supreme Court ruled in Milliken v. Bradley that majority-white northern school districts had no responsibility to cooperate with inner-city schools toward the goal of integration, even in regions where affluent all-white school districts were just a few minutes away from urban neighborhoods ravaged by poverty. Desegregation was never widely implemented outside the South, and where it was implemented, as in Charlotte or Montgomery County, it often succeeded in raising student achievement to a similar or greater degree than did later teacher accountability reforms. Today there is a demand for integrated schools. . . . So it is unfortunate that these two strains of American education reform, integration and teacher accountability, rarely work in tandem.

–Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

Poverty by Design

“… we like to think that we are making progress, and certainly in some fields we are, but in housing choice and neighborhood opportunity, we are not making any inroads,” Koziol says. “Especially when it comes to the inner city.”

… Richmond is certainly not unique in this regard. It is just another chapter in the book of federal, state and local policies designed to corral the poor, in general, and blacks, in particular, and then systematically deny them opportunity.

“This is the full magnitude of what it means to say that concentrated poverty was by design,” Williamson says. “And it was also designed to be hard to undo.”

Deny people access to stable and safe neighborhoods, quality education, to employment centers, to adequate public transportation and poverty feeds itself.” [Bold added]

–Trina Griego, “Trying to make it in a neighborhood with a 70 percent poverty rate” in The Washington Post

Noise Affects Learning

Noise has also been shown to affect learning ability. In 1975 Bronzaft collaborated on a study of children in a school near an elevated train track that showed how exposure to noise can affect children’s reading ability. Half of the students in the study were in classrooms facing the train track and the other half were in classrooms in the school’s quieter back section. The findings, published in the December 1975 issue of Environment and Behavior, were that students on the quieter side performed better on reading tests, and by sixth grade they were a full grade point ahead of the students in the noisier classrooms.

Bronzaft and the school principal persuaded the school board to have acoustical tile installed in the classrooms adjacent to the tracks. The Transit Authority also treated the tracks near the school to make them less noisy. A follow-up study published in the September 1981 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that children’s reading scores improved after these interventions were put in place. “After we did the study, more than twenty-five other studies were done examining the effect of noise on children’s learning ability,” Bronzaft says. “They have all found the same thing to be true: noise can affect children’s learning.”

–Ron Chepesiuk, “Decibel Hell: The Effect of Living in a Noisy World” on Environmental Health Perspectives 113.1 (2005): A34–A41.

Video Games as Models of Complex Systems

By Xardox at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s another way to think about games. What if games’ role in representation and identity lies not in offering familiar characters for us to embody, but in helping wrest us from the temptation of personal identification entirely? What if the real fight against monocultural bias and blinkeredness does not involve the accelerated indulgence of identification, but the abdication of our own selfish, individual desires in the interest of participating in systems larger than ourselves? What if the thing games most have to show us is the higher-order domains to which we might belong, including families, neighborhoods, cities, nations, social systems, and even formal structures and patterns? What if replacing militarized male brutes with everyone’s favorite alternative identity just results in Balkanization rather than inclusion?

–“Video Games Are Better Without Characters” by Ian Bogost on The Atlantic

Provide Scaffolding, Not Lowered Expectations, for Students with Disabilities

What can be done from a child’s earliest educational experience, either at home or at school, to promote what’s possible for all children?

One is people not assuming that disability means inability to access education. We see this in national studies, that people are very, very quick to modify curriculum for kids and not as quick to provide accommodations. It should be the other way around. It should be accommodate first, and modification should only be done if the child is not intellectually able to handle the content due to an intellectual disability. And, even with many kids with intellectual disabilities, modification is not necessarily required, depending upon the course. Modification of curriculum should be a suspect practice, but it starts with attitude. It starts with the notion that, from the beginning, many people look at kids like Daniel and they assume he’s incapable because he’s got so much neurological stuff going on, because that’s the nature of cerebral palsy. He couldn’t speak for many years. He speaks quite well now because he’s been given good speech therapy. In Daniel’s case, he was very fortunate as a preschooler to have a teacher who recognized his intellectual capability, even though he couldn’t speak. He also had supportive parents. Daniel’s case is one where there were many adults in his life that made a big difference.

Interview with Harvard Professor Thomas Hehir on Usable Knowledge

Cuomo Doubles Down on Linear Thinking

“The dunes here are linear, thought to be due to shifting wind directions.”

New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has decided to double down on a misguided effort to increase the weight of state assessments in a teacher’s evaluation from 20% to 50%.

I’m going to spare you the “corporate reform” and “hedge fund buddies” angle on this; instead, I contend that this single-minded focus on test scores is simply bad strategy.

The focus of this blog has been on teasing out the metaphor of a school as an ecosystem, and elaborating on the theme that managing complex systems requires moving beyond linear thinking.

Here’s a relevant quote from Steve Denning (which we’ve examined before) on the principle of obliquity:

Efforts to impose linear thinking on complex situations have often led have the opposite of what was intended. As a result, the principle of obliquity becomes relevant. Where explicit articulation of a goal will result in the complex environment pushing back in the opposite direction, oblique goals will often be more effective, e.g. the goal of delighting customers may make more money than an explicit goal of making money.

What would be the opposite of what was intended in this situation (if Cuomo gets his way)? Well, if every teacher in the state is conscious that their evaluation is heavily determined by their student’s performance on that state test — then the problems of focusing mostly on ELA and math and shallow skills-driven test-prep will most likely be exacerbated. And kids that most need access to rich literature and knowledge across the domains of history, music, arts, science, and technology will instead continue to be given drivel. And teachers and schools may be more likely to engage in cheating.

I generally assume best intent when assessing the decisions of others. So to be fair to Cuomo, he is pushing for a simplified accountability system because the current system of 20% state, 20% local, and 60% principal observation may lead to the problems of over-testing and inflated scores.

But moving to increase the weight of the state test scores as a leverage over teachers is not the right move to resolve these issues. Instead, this maneuver is much more likely to compound deeper issues, rather than achieve the goal of increasing student and teacher performance.

It would be great if our elected representatives could move beyond linear models when making critical decisions on how to improve our system of education.

The C.I.A. to Adopt Model of Mayoral Control

“[John Brennan, the director of the C.I.A.] said that the Defense Department’s structure of having a single military commander in charge of all operations in a particular region— the way a four-star commander runs United States Central Command— was an efficient structure that led to better accountability.”

–Mark Mazzetti, “C.I.A. to Be Overhauled To Fight Modern Threats” on the N.Y. Times

The Connective Tissue of a Community

The connective tissue of those efforts is a communitywide focus on development. “Healthy development in school occurs when children form positive relationships with adults,” explained Dr. James P. Comer, who founded the Yale program more than 40 years ago. “For meaningful change to be sustainable, you need a work force of professionals that really understands child development, and you need policies that incentivize the behaviors that rely on that sort of expertise. Poverty is a disease that affects a community, and we can’t heal a community in isolation. We have to heal the whole thing by creating an ecosystem of folks on the ground.”

–Sam Chaltain, “A Town Where a School Bus Is More Than a Bus” in the NY Times