The third feature of the modern economy is that firms are increasingly finding that their competitive advantage comes from collaboration with other firms and individuals rather than solely through their own efforts. This is where all the talk about “ecosystems” comes from. But once again, although it may be getting more popular as an approach, it is not something entirely new. Japan has had keiretsu for a long time. What’s more, the fact that companies may obtain competitive advantage through building ecosystems doesn’t change what the competitive advantage is that they obtain from building them: either the ecosystem enables their differentiation or generates a cost advantage.
An excellent essay published in March’s Educational Researcher (1) by Susan Moore Johnson (2) brings the lens of complex systems to bear on the controversial issue of VAM.
Johnson takes to task the hasty moves of policymakers to bring VAM to the forefront of teacher evaluation. She focuses specifically on the problematic assertion by proponents that VAM is an effective measure to isolate and measure individual teachers. Johnson brings what she terms an “organizational perspective” to the issue—in other words, she considers how VAM might play out from the perspective of a school as an ecosystem, rather than as a set of individual, isolated teachers.
Johnson’s perspective is unique in that she explicitly acknowledges the impact of social networks on teacher and student performance. She refers to a 1988 James Coleman analysis, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” which suggests that:
. . . whatever human capital schools acquire through hiring can subsequently be developed by interactions among teachers, principals, and others within the organization through activities within subunits such as grade-level or subject-based teams of teachers, faculty committees, professional development, coaching, evaluation, and informal interactions. In the process, the school organization becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and in this way, the social capital that transforms human capital through collegial activities in schools increases the school’s overall instructional capacity and, arguably, its success.
It probably goes without saying that the recognition of a school organization as “greater than the sum of its parts” is something we’re pretty adamant about here on Schools & Ecosystems.
Johnson asserts that the traditional structure of a school as an “egg crate,” in which teachers are isolated from one another, is a problematic model:
Compartmentalized school structures limit the potential development of individual teachers, who lack direct access to their colleagues’ expertise. However, social capital theory would suggest that if provided systematic opportunities to engage with their peers outside their classroom, the human capital of individuals—in this case, their instructional effectiveness—could be shared and augmented. Given this line of argument, the more robust the teachers’ instructional repertoire and the more opportunities they have to exchange and integrate promising ideas and techniques into their own teaching, the more likely it will be that all students—not only those assigned to the more effective teachers—will experience the benefits of expert teaching. This analysis suggests that teachers are not inherently effective or ineffective but that their development may be stunted when they work alone, without the benefit of ongoing collegial influence.
I’ve personally worked as a teacher in two very different kinds of school environments: one in which I was mostly isolated from my peers (due to divisive internal politics and management), to one in which I meet daily with colleagues to discuss student work and instructional practices. And I can attest to the significant impact that a collaborative and positive organizational environment has had upon my professional development.
Johnson would phrase my experience as an example of “how social capital augments human capital.” She points to the influence of context and peer learning as a factor in professional development:
. . . changing the context in which teachers work could have important benefits for students throughout the school, whereas changing individual teachers without changing the context might not (Lohr, 2012). Given that possibility, it is worth learning more about the components of a teacher’s workplace that promote greater satisfaction and more interdependent work.
. . . both theory and empirical evidence suggest that students and their schools stand to benefit when teachers work closely and collaboratively with colleagues.
Johnson also explores the “unintended consequences” of relying on VAM to evaluate individual teachers, a warning that we’ve echoed here in response to Gov. Cuomo’s misguided push for greater weight on student test scores, and which also echoes similar issues that Dana Goldstein has pointed to in her historical exploration of teacher evaluation.
She concludes that “that expanding the use of VAMS in teacher evaluations (even if it represents no more than 30% of the teacher’s total score) might compromise the school’s potential for improvement.”
Johnson therefore suggests that “reformers should lead the way with efforts to improve the school throughout as an organization that supports effective teaching and rich learning.” She suggests including teachers in the hiring and professional development process in their schools, as well as in recognizing and sharing instructional practices from teacher leaders, such as Peer Assisted Review (PAR) programs.
This is the kind of thinking that I wish we heard more of in education reform circles—not hasty, breathless championing of the latest panacea, but instead reflective approaches that consider schools as whole organizations, complex adaptive systems ripe with social interactions and relationships.
The structure of redundancy can be viewed in the “RNA sequence space”:
First, there are many, many possible sequences that will all serve the same function. If evolution is “searching” for that function by natural selection, it has an awful lot of viable solutions to choose from. Second, the space, while unthinkably vast and multi-dimensional, is navigable: You can change the genotype neutrally, without losing the all-important phenotype. So this is why the RNAs are evolvable at all: not because evolution has the time to sift through the impossibly large number of variations to find the ones that work, but because there are so many that do work, and they’re connected to one another.
This redundant structure can also be viewed, according to the article, in proteins and gene circuits. In fact, evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner of the University of Zurich and “his coworkers have discovered that this “evolvable” (they call it a robust) structure is a common feature of biological complexity.”
This helps to explain a puzzling aspect of gene circuits: their robustness. . . . You can obliterate many of their individual genes to no obvious effect. But this is no surprise if there are plenty of similar gene circuits that do much the same job as the original one. Looked at this way, robustness is complementary to innovation: Any network that can evolve new features and forms among a vast array of alternatives must necessarily be robust against small changes, because it almost certainly has an alternative on hand that performs equally well. This realization offers an antidote to an excessively deterministic view of genes: Exactly which genes you have may not matter so much (within reason), because the job they do is more a property of the network in which they are embedded.
As the article notes, this is not solely a feature of biological systems:
Karthik Raman, a former postdoc in Wagner’s lab, now at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, has studied much the same issues of functional equivalence of different circuits not for genes but for electronic components that carry out binary logic functions. By randomly rewiring circuits of 16 components and figuring out which of them will perform particular logic operations, Raman found that they too have this evolvable topology.8But crucially, this property appeared only if the circuits were complex enough—if they had too few components, small changes destroyed their function.“The more complex they are, the more rewiring they tolerate,” says Wagner. Not only does this open up possibilities for electronic circuit design using Darwinian principles, but it suggests that evolvability, and the corollary of creativity or innovability, is a fundamental feature of complex networks like those found in biology. [bold added]
This is an interesting point. If a system is not deeply interconnected, then it is more fragile and susceptible to change. This is a feature, it turns out, of our brains.
Learning—and Playing Music—Makes Our Brains More Resilient
Interestingly enough, in the same issue of Nautilus as the one explored above, there’s an article by Brian Gallagher entitled “Brain Damage Saved His Music,” which also extends this idea. The article refers to jazz guitarist Pat Martino, who had a large chunk of his left temporal lobe removed. To the surprise of neuroscientists and physicians, Pat demonstrated a remarkable recovery when he picked up his guitar again—which somehow restored some of his memory, as well as his gift for virtuoso jazz guitar playing.
Diana Omigie, lead author of the study, and a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute, explained that larger gray matter volumes in motor and auditory regions in musicians than in non-musicians would create a “brain reserve,” which “in turn might be enough to fuel relearning or recovery of a musical function.” . . .
Omigie echoes the point that Martino’s brain, long before it hemorrhaged or Martino even knew about his tangled veins, reorganized itself in a way that might shield it from damage. “In our review,” Omigie said, “we observed that musicians who underwent surgery for early lesion, cerebral malformations, or slow growing tumors, showed a larger likelihood of recovering cognitive function than those who, for instance, had a stroke and therefore suddenly lost a large amount of healthy normally functioning tissue. The reason is that in the case of slow-forming lesions, some reorganization might have occurred such that over time, the musical function was able to transfer to other parts of the brain and leave the damaged portions less necessary.” [bold added]
We can see here the ecological principles of interconnectedness and redundancy.
Learning, especially the sort of learning that occurs when pushing the boundaries of improvisation and creativity such when playing jazz music, builds redundant connections in the brain that creates resiliency and robustness when faced with volatility.
Back to Public Education
So what might be some possible lessons for schools and school systems?
The new space is bright, open, social, and reconfigurable. It’s made up of six smaller, acoustically separate environments, which connect through an open area called the Community Commons, a combination cafeteria, theater, and social space. Everything is open, right down to walls made out of glass, while all of the furniture is designed to be easy to move around and reconfigure.
This idea of configurability, as well as providing a mixture of different types of spaces, is something we’ve discussed here before.
The design was conceived as a village of learning communities that share an open light filled community commons, the heart and soul of the village. This ‘village’ includes both an Activity Center complete with a Fitness Center that will be open to the public; and a Performing Arts Center featuring a 1,000-seat theater designed in collaboration with several community arts groups.
The firm also made a video which provides a view of exterior and interior spaces of the school. What can be seen is that most spaces are well-lit with natural light from large windows, and provide many sight-lines between spaces for safety and transparency.
I just finished reading Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. It has been interesting to learn how cyclical educational mores and politics have been. The romantic ideal of the missionary teacher, for example, has its roots in Catherine Beecher and Horace Mann’s advocacy for troops of underpaid female teachers spurred to teach morality and character. Goldstein also traces the tension in educational philosophy of serving African American students to debates between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker Washington. Washington was a strong proponent of vocational education, while Du Bois advocated for a classical education for the “talented tenth.” “Over the next half century,” Goldstein writes, “vocationalism remained the ascendant education reform ideology among philanthropists and politicians. . . ”
Goldstein’s presentation of the rise of teacher’s unions is balanced–she demonstrates how unions provided much needed advocacy for the rights of women and of labor, while at the same time noting the tension between maintaining worker’s interests and the educational interests of children. Goldstein writes, for example, that “amid increasing political and business pressure on schools during the interwar years, teachers unions in Chicago and beyond often found themselves making unsavory alliances, and engaging in rough-and-tumble politics far afield from education itself.”
I especially appreciated Goldstein’s presentation of efforts at desegregation, as this has been a topic of study here at Schools & Ecosystems. She notes the promising results of districts which did make substantive efforts to integrate, while also noting the challenges and complications, such as “Where integration led to staff redundancies and school closings, black schools were disproportionately closed and black teachers disproportionately dismissed or demoted, regardless of their seniority, qualifications, or success in the classroom.” She also spends time digging into the Black Power and community control movement in NYC and the warfare that erupted against a Shanker-led UFT. “This seemingly local event triggered not only the most infamous and largest teachers’ strike in American history, but also a political and racial crisis of national proportions, which continues to reverberate in almost every debate about contemporary school reform.”
One insight that really struck me here was how teacher’s unions are in reality more closely allied to a strong, central administration, rather than community control. Goldstein attributes this insight to historian Marjorie Murphy’s Blackboard Unions, and she states, “Under collective bargaining, it was easier for unions to negotiate with one strong administrative body, such as a city superintendent, board of education, or mayor, than with a plethora of neighborhood school boards or principals, each with their own set of demands.”
I was also interested by Goldstein’s tracing of the the lineage of the community control movement to present-day “no excuses” schools, a correlation which I’ve sensed when exploring the issue of segregation with my students. Goldstein writes that “Though the rhetoric of black separatist politics has all but disappeared, in many ways today’s “no-excuses” school reform movement has inherited the mantle of community control by aligning low-income parents with elite school reformers and philanthropists from outside their neighborhoods.” She points out that such schools, however, tend to be “deeply segregated,” and not necessarily high performing. What she also brings to the fore is how the critique of teacher’s unions which arose from the Black Power movement has been co-opted by reformers since the “Reagan Revolution”: “These new centrist critics rejected Black Power, but, more powerfully than ever before, they promoted a view of career public school teachers as professionally incompetent and insufficiently committed to closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.”
The Teacher Wars explores various reform efforts, such as merit pay and value added. On the latter, she points to the detrimental effect of tying individual scores to evaluation systems, and notes that the repercussions of this can be to increase competition, and reduce collaboration. Her presentation of the fall-out from past evaluation schemes is especially salient right now, given NY Governor Cuomo’s push for heavier weight on value-added measures in an individual teacher’s evaluation. “If the key to systemwide improvement is not through mass firings or union busting, than what remains is to turn the existing average teacher into an expert practitioner . . . [which] will require a shared vision of what excellent teaching looks like, and the mentorship and training to get teachers there.”
Goldstein advocates for a bottom-up efforts that seek to “replicate the practices of the best.” “These practices conceive of veteran teachers as assets, not liabilities. As history has taught us,” Goldstein writes, “that is a pragmatic stance crucial to sustaining any reform program, which teachers must carry out on the ground.” She points to programs that provide in-classroom professional development and coaching, such as The Children’s Literacy Initiative, as actions that hold much greater promise than typical reform efforts like merit pay, charter schools, and evaluation. She also points to the promise of urban teacher residency programs beyond TFA, which can boost longer term teacher retention, such as the Memphis Teacher Residency and Boston Teacher Residency.
Unlike many out there who try to tell us that teachers shouldn’t be developing curriculum, Goldstein advocates for increased professionalization of teachers: “reform programs that combine high-stakes standardized tests with scripted lesson plans and a limited arsenal of pedagogical strategies may make teaching a less attractive job for exactly the sort of ambitious, creative, high-achieving people we most want to attract.” She provides an example of a former TFA teacher, Alex Caputo-Pearl, and his efforts with teachers at Crenshaw High School to create an “Extended Learning Cultural Model,” in which “teachers worked together to create interdisciplinary units built around neighborhood problem solving.” This model reminded me of an Australian model of a Global Learning Village we once discussed on this blog.
In the Epilogue of her book, Goldstein presents some conclusions from her research which are all tenets that I can get behind:
Teacher pay matters
Create communities of practice (she gives NYC’s Relay School and San Diego’s High Tech High shout outs here)
Return tests to their rightful role as diagnostic tools
Recruit more men and people of color
And many other lessons worth considering. Her final suggestion is to “be real about the limitations of our system.” She points out that the US system of education is decentralized in nature, and that as a result, we put unrealistic expectations upon the federal government and upon individual teachers, leading to the volatile political battles at the heart of “the teacher wars.” She hopes that “sustainable and transformative education reforms” can be “seeded from the group up. . . built upon the expertise of the best teachers.”
This is certainly a recommendation that a recognition of schools and school systems as ecosystems also supports.
I recommend reading The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. History has much to teach those of us who work in the educational minefield. It’s remarkable how many of the debates that are ongoing in our field can be traced consistently over the course of these last two hundred years, like motifs in a novel.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.