A New Approach to Sustainable School Reform


Will and I co-wrote the following essay a few months ago and submitted it to the Goldman Sachs Essay Contest for Innovation in US Education. It didn’t make the cut, so we are sharing it here with our readers. We would like to thank the various teachers who read over our essay and shared their insight and feedback on it with us during the process of revision. My thanks especially to Wade, Freeda, Barbara, Richard, and Jesse.

Schools as Ecosystems: A New Approach to Sustainable School Reform 

Many efforts at education reform, though well intentioned, have demonstrated little in terms of substantive, sustained, and scalable student achievement at a national level. We believe that the reason for this failure is not a lack of effort, but a limitation in vision.

Reformers have focused largely on short-term, piecemeal improvements, but schools are not machines made of easily disassembled parts. In fact, schools are far more like ecosystems, defined by dynamic, interdependent relationships and interactions grounded in unique local circumstances. Positive, sustained change cannot be brought to such complex systems by focusing on any one component. School ecosystems must be addressed as a whole. This can only be achieved through an approach that combines field-based expertise with policy-level understanding.

Our “schools as ecosystems” framework offers a way forward for school reform. Rather than simply concentrate on quantitative measures such as student test scores, we propose focusing on qualitative measures of a school’s environment, curriculum, and culture. We recognize that these factors are critical not just for student learning and well-being, but also for teacher retention and school stability.

Whole School Accreditation 

Transforming school environments is difficult work. We should begin by establishing a national standard for schools to aspire to, much as National Board Certification serves as a prestigious professional achievement for teachers. In other industries, certifications such as LEED (in construction) and organic (in agriculture) signal to consumers that products are manufactured according to rigorous, socially responsible standards. An independent, voluntary national certification process could incentivize school change by offering an authoritative verification of school quality.

This national agency would use a variety of measurements to assess school excellence. Indicators would include: school infrastructure and design; academic curriculum and extracurricular offerings; and school leadership and culture. When schools are successful, these factors interact and reinforce each other, forming healthy school environments conducive to positive academic, social, and emotional development.

Beyond assessing schools, this national agency would support schools and communities that seek certification by connecting them to resources, experts, and funding. Local and state branches (affiliated with the national agency) composed of teachers, parents, administrators, and community leaders would work to connect schools to the resources needed to achieve certification. These same branches would also assess and monitor school quality, based on the following three assessment areas.

Physical Infrastructure

Most educational reforms have ignored the need for physical environments that promote student learning. This disregard for school infrastructure ignores a growing body of research demonstrating the impact of physical environments on learning, productivity, and well-being.

If our goal is to create a first-class nationwide public school system, we must treat our children as first-class citizens. This begins by providing them with well-designed learning spaces. Incorporating greenery, harnessing an abundance of natural light, providing access to outdoor spaces and fresh air, and coordinating tranquil lighting and color schemes should be primary design considerations in public schools. Therefore, when evaluating school environments, these factors would take precedence.

We propose building new schools and retrofitting existing infrastructure based on creating sustainable environments with the health and development of children at the forefront of design. While this requires up-front investment, economic projections from the Economic Policy Institute demonstrate that such school construction will ultimately reduce school districts’ operating costs over the long-term.

Content & Curriculum 

Within a school ecosystem, curriculum provides nourishment for student growth. Yet in all too many schools, the content delivered is anemic and haphazard. Students need a curriculum that provides an enriching depth of knowledge. They also require exposure to diverse experiences and opportunities to pursue their interests.

We know that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. School districts must incorporate the desired outcomes and unique needs of their local communities as they design their curricula. We propose assessing school content not only through test results, but also by how sequentially curricula builds knowledge, aligns topics across content areas and grade levels, incorporates rich and rigorous texts and materials, and provides diverse extracurricular opportunities and experiences.

School Leadership 

While many recent reforms have focused on teacher effectiveness, we believe that a school’s culture has a tremendous effect on both teacher and student performance, in addition to teacher retention. School cultures are determined primarily by school leadership.

A school’s leadership, moreover, is not composed solely of one person. Given the complex ecosystem of a school, cultivating distributed leadership is paramount. A matrix of parent, teacher, and student leaders collaborating and engaging in decision-making processes strengthens a school community and provides opportunities for developing resilience and social networking.

State or local branches would assess school leadership by observing and measuring factors such as: parental involvement; the quality and quantity of collaboration between teachers; teacher retention rates; and distributed decision-making processes among faculty, staff and students.

Summary and Implementation 

By setting a recognized, respected, and rigorous national standard for schools to aspire to, and cultivating state and local branches that can best connect individual schools to the resources they require to achieve those standards, we wish to focus school reform where it needs to be: on diverse schools with vibrant and dynamic social interactions and focused academic learning.

Such schools cannot be mandated from afar; they must be cultivated, built, and redesigned from the ground up with the support and collaboration of the local community. For this reason, we believe the most effective way to address whole school transformation is to create a prestigious and voluntary certification process. As parental and community demand grows for schools that have gained certification, the incentive for schools to obtain accreditation will similarly increase. This ensures that a school is motivated as a collective, and must collaborate both internally and with external agencies.

Viewing schools as living, complex environments rather than static, mechanical systems requires that we shift our focus and approach to reform. Ultimately, student outcomes will benefit from sustainable, resilient, and responsive schools that not only adapt to their local community to meet its needs, but also strive for a recognized standard of academic rigor in a caring environment.

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