Educating for the Long Haul

I’m still savoring the bravery of Will’s excellent piece in the NY Times, “Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher.” If you haven’t read it yet, go read it now. I’m not the only one who relates strongly to what he has written. He vividly portrays the reality of what teaching special education in a high needs urban school can be, and I applaud him for his honesty. I might be his colleague and fellow blogger here on Schools as Ecosystems, but I’m also a big fan.

Will pulls out an ecological thread from his article here when he draws a connection to “planting seeds,” a process that Will views as “mysterious . . . A new idea or concept can lie dormant for a very long time, creating the appearance of barren intellectual ground. Then, suddenly, a green shoot emerges and the student has learned something.”

That some learning might not bear immediate fruit is something education reformers and educators alike should bear in mind. Learning, like gardening, can sometimes be messy work. The payoff for weeks or months of labor might not always show up on immediately quantifiable measurements. Some of the greatest of yields (or at the very least, an appreciation of them) don’t show up for years, as Will realized through his lessons from Ms. Leonard.

But this long-term perspective is not something that only applies to individual learning, or classroom learning. It also applies to systemic changes. When a change is made to dynamic systems, the impact might not be immediately visible. When the scale of change is vast and complex, it can be hard to wrap our heads around it, especially when that change is incremental. (Just look at how much senseless debate climate change has generated. While we’re busy debating, we’re wasting time and resources we could be investing in prevention and mediation.)

When public leaders make changes to systems in public education, such as accountability systems, or personnel systems, they await with bated breath some immediate spike in test scores that will then validate their chosen plan of action. This data can then be whipped out in election years. If no immediate gratification is seen, then the prior change is in danger of being left ignored while some new initiative is undertaken and given prestige and funding.

This also occurs at the school level. District and school leaders are sold on some program or intervention touted to dramatically accelerate the reading skills of all their students. They give it a year, maybe two, and nothing amazing is seen, so next year it’s onto something new. (I suspect that funding cycles feed into this process, but I don’t know much about this. I would appreciate any links to further information on this topic).

I’m going to suggest something that will seem radical, given the (understandable) sense of urgency that seems to pervade all education reform efforts. We need to take the time to observe local school communities and conditions and assess what action will best serve their unique needs. Then, once we take action, we must allow at least 3-5 years of ongoing implementation before we can assess the impact of that action.

You read that correctly: 3-5 years. Realistically, I would say 5 at a minimum, but I know just how shockingly regressive that would seem.

I know what you’re going to say. We don’t have time to wait. We must take corrective action now to make our schools better for kids today. And I wouldn’t disagree. But I would advise that when we are to take action now, we must do so with the vision and values of what lies closest to the heart of what education is about: providing a nurturing, positive environment that motivates children to tackle challenging and enriching curriculum. If education reform leaders would like some direction on this, it’s pretty simple. Ask and involve those most deeply involved in the process of education: teachers and students.

Unless we can discipline ourselves to take the long-term view on public education, our efforts will be in vain. It’s akin to an endless pouring of fertilizer onto fallow land, rather than investing time in building up the soil. And with no end in sight for budget cuts in public education, those external infusions of federal and state funded “fertilizer” are going to keep on drying up, leaving already struggling schools flopping like fish in the desert sun.

Taking the long-term perspective leads to greater future rewards. I tell my own 5th grade students all the time “not to eat the marshmallow” (referring to Mischel’s infamous test at Stanford) when I want to remind them to defer their gratification for future rewards. This is advice we all need to bear in mind as we salivate over quick fixes and silver bullets.

2 thoughts on “Educating for the Long Haul

  1. I can't agree strongly enough. It's not just planting seeds, but managing the water, air, climate, nutrients and nurturing the biodiversity that allows trees to grow to their full potential and have healthy offspring themselves. We must see education as a multigenerational endeavor.


  2. Thanks for your insight, Mr. Cantor. I love your idea of education as a “multigenerational endeavor.” This made me think immediately of the ecological principle of succession, which recognizes that ecosystems necessarily progress through developmental stages, which can be accelerated with thoughtful cultivation.


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