Seeing the Trees, and the Forest


I always find it refreshing to hear perspectives that are willing to breach boundaries and avoid deprecating opposing perspectives. We are all too familiar with polarized rhetoric, most especially in the narrow world of education commentary. So it was with great appreciation that I read Andy Smarick’s recent piece on Fordham’s Education Gadfly, Can bad schools be good for neighborhoods?

He thoughtfully addresses the issue of school closure,  providing evidence for why school closures can be warranted, but taking into deep consideration the idea that even “bad” schools can be positive forces in their communities.

He states that a school “acts as an important strand in the invisible web of social connectivity that helps to hold a community together despite all the malign forces trying to pull it apart. Those who cleared Chicago’s “slums” to make way for new high-rise public-housing towers didn’t realize that they were severing intricate, generations-old social bonds” (Bold added).
It is precisely this aspect of interdependency and interconnection that underlies the use of our metaphor of viewing a school as an ecosystem. Smarick’s point about the razing of existing housing to erect new structures also echoes the ecological caution that hysteresis provides–in some cases, we may be causing damage that will be irreversible.
Smarick outlines ecological comparisons to demonstrate this connectivity: 

Environmental parallels are numerous: misbegotten projects that cleared eyesore swamps and walls of mangroves to make way for highways, waterfront condos, and more. We found out too late that these “messy” wetlands actually served as massive water filters, flood preventers, wildlife protectors, fish incubators, and much more. Profound environmental degradation was the consequence of well-intentioned, if naïve, attempts at progress. (Bold added)

Viewing a school and community as an ecosystem requires acknowledging and valuing unique local contexts and resources, which is precisely what Smarick articulates when he states that “maybe all urban public schools—perhaps even all schools—deserve a greater degree of deference because of characteristics associated with their ‘local-ness.'”

As he notes, acknowledging complexity and the value of local resources does not always necessitate that school closure should not be done. I have written before (“Turning Schools Around”) about the reality that–in certain cases–drastic action must be undertaken. I suggested in that post that when a school closure must be made, ensure the process of building a new one incorporates the input of those most vocal in their opposition, and turn the process of rebuilding into a collaborative community effort.

Having examined the ecological aspects of Smarick’s post, I would like to return to its political dimension. Smarick professes to be politically conservative. I generally fall on the liberal end of the political spectrum. But in a post I wrote back in June, Beyond Ideology, I proposed that the conceptual framework of Schools as Ecosystems offers a potential avenue for bridging conservative and liberal perspectives, in the form of the following convergences:
  1. The idea of minimizing top down control with a goal towards community self-governance, and a restoration of human dignity
  2. A focus on a methodology demonstrated to be effective
Smarick’s post, one focusing on what he terms the “communitarian tendencies of my brand of conservatism,” demonstrates this great potential for responsible, mature, sustainable, balanced, and pragmatic collaboration in education policy.

It is my hope that squabbles over political ideology can be reduced in favor of balanced and mature approaches to public education that value local context and eschew reductionism in the name of either ideology or efficiency. I believe that we can see both the individual trees, and bear in the mind the big picture of the forest entire. 

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