This question has sparked the zeal of civic minded citizens ever since a movement for universal public education and “common schools” arose in the U.S. in the early 19th century. Ever since, perennial tensions between vocational and classical education, public and private governance, unions and management, and between progressive and traditional visions have cycled yearly through our discourse, like influenza.
Public school fervor escalated to a fevered pitch between the 1980s and 2000s, first with the publication of the seminal report, A Nation at Risk, which created a national sense of dire urgency, followed by a bipartisan drive across Bush senior’s and Clinton’s administrations to set moonshot goals, such as, “All children in America will start school ready to learn,” or “The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.” The zenith of federal school reform was George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which paired performance standards to accountability measures.
Needless to say, those ambitious goals from the ‘90s have not yet been achieved, despite a concerted focus of federal funding and private market solutions. There is some debate about whether schools have improved at all as a result of those efforts—I would agree with those who have argued that they have—but a deep sense of disappointment in the results seems to be relatively universal.
Perhaps this is because public education seems to embody our society’s quest for a better future. Standing at a dynamic confluence of policy, politics, law, culture, psychology, geography, and human behavior, schools reify conflicting visions, values, and beliefs about children and what they should be taught, and how. There is a thirst to redress our society’s failures through educating our children, whether teaching them proper conduct, civics, or how to code.
Since public schools were first established, efforts to improve their ability to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse body of students have swung and cycled between competing interests, resulting in the accretion of complex and often contradictory layers of policy and practice. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, in their exploration of the pendulous cycles of education reform over the course of a hundred years, Tinkering Towards Utopia (Tyack and Cuban, 1995), put it thus:
Reforms have rarely replaced what is there; more commonly, they have added complexity. When reforms have come in staccato succession, they often have brought incoherence or uncomfortable tensions.
Yet despite the increasing complexity of schools and school systems, the primary approach of would-be reformers remains primarily linear, as if every school were more or less interchangeable, as if a school were a machine defined solely by the product of its inputs and outputs: students + funding = graduation rates + test scores.
This approach has led to a preponderance of initiatives that seek to impose a set of seemingly logical mandates from afar, such as systems for teacher evaluation, school ratings based on test scores, state-wide standards and assessments, or legal regulations for special populations of students.
Many of these are worthy efforts, and can result in positive change when enacted in tandem with the cultivation of practitioner knowledge through allocated resources and training that are sustained over time. But such reform efforts all suffer from a fundamental error: they conceive of schools as a simple unit of organization. But in reality, schools are far from simple. While the hierarchy of law, policy, and funding that schools operate within may appear orderly, schools are not defined only by how they are governed and funded, nor solely by their inputs and outputs.
Schools are highly complex organizations, and how they respond to external mandates or initiatives rarely plays out as planned.
Schools are defined primarily by the people who lead the school, and by the ever evolving relationships between that leadership and their staff, students, and parents. A school is furthermore defined by the very structure and appearance of its hallways and stairwells and windows, the quality of the air that its children breath, and the manner in which acoustics are shaped by its surfaces. A school is defined by the very place in which it sits, in that particular community, within that particular state and local policy context, in that specific time. And it influences and shapes the children within it in ways that can be nearly indefinable—in ways tremendously positive, or in ways tremendously negative.
In other words, a school could be more accurately described as akin to an ecosystem—as a complex, dynamic system. A community of adults and children interacting within a unique space, time, and place. An interconnected set of social relationships and roles governed as much by unpredictable and unseen forces as by the stable grammar of grade-levels and discrete academic subjects.
When you think of a school as a simple, linear organization, then you think that they can be improved with the alteration of a specific variable or component. But viewing a school as an ecosystem means that you recognize that changing one thing may result in a cascade of unforeseen and perhaps unintended consequences.
While this may seem daunting at first glance, it also opens up opportunities for us to explore a much broader field of study than that of the small, insular world of education, to which it has been primarily confined for too long. We can draw upon interesting principles and concepts from fields as diverse as ecology, organizational theory, and quantum physics, or from such disparate phenomenon as neurons, ant piles, avalanches, and cancer. And it furthermore allows us to be more realistic—and humble—about what results our efforts to reform a school can incur.
We can improve our schools. But in order to do so more effectively and strategically, we must acknowledge the incredible influence of the contexts in which learning occurs, both physical and social. This means looking at a school more fully as a unique ecology, within which ever evolving forces and players interact. It furthermore means looking at the context within which a school operates also as a unique ecology, in which policies and district leaders and politics collide.
What the view of a school as an ecosystem can also equip us with are significant areas for intervention that we have been mostly overlooking in our zeal for what is rational, cheap, or linear. The purely physical and spatial context in which students and teachers interact each day may have a far larger influence on student learning and behavior than has been heretofore recognized. Consider research on acoustics, temperature, greenery, lighting, and architectural and interior design, and examine how we could better (re-)design our schools for safety, well-being, productivity, and learning.
Consider research on the social context of a school, and consider overlooked opportunities for leadership, the criticality of diverse relationships, collaboration, social-psychological interventions, and social networks that enhance positive behaviors, rather than amplify negative ones. Examine the relationship between vectors, viruses, and children, and draw upon parallels from network and organizational theories.
Looking at a school as an ecosystem, once you come around to this way of thinking, can be intoxicating. But it can also provide us with a necessary dose of humility for any endeavor to improve public education. There is no silver bullet, no easy fix, no technological potion that will magically enable all kids to learn the preferred civic, academic, and social wisdom we’d wish them to ingest. Improving schools is hard work, and it plays out on the ground in the minute-by-minute interactions of the key players—our administrators and teachers and students—on the stage of learning.
The least we can do is to design our schools to promote the greatest well-being, positive social interaction, and inspired learning that we can, based on what we know from available research and from what we know we would want for our own children.
“Compared to most of the interventions aimed at relieving stress (e.g. emotional skill building, anger management, positive behavior programs), placing trees and shrubs on the school ground is a modest, low-cost intervention that is likely to have long-lasting effects on generations of students.”
—Li & Sullivan, 2016
When Joe walks around his neighborhood, he is surrounded by sepia-toned brick buildings. When he goes to bed at night, he sleeps, fitfully, to the vehicular chorus of the Grand Concourse, a symphony of sirens, revving motors, car alarms, and bass blasting from souped up subwoofers. His access to nature is primarily derived from TV shows and a small city park a few blocks away, scattered with trash-strewn weeds. Joe (not any of my former students’ real name) is a 5th grader living in a dense urban area of the Bronx.
You might be forgiven for assuming this is all so normal for Joe that he has neither any conception nor desire for the vistas his peers raised in lusher landscapes have constant access to. Yet when Joe came to interview at the middle school where I worked (we interviewed our prospective 6th graders) and was asked, “What would you like to improve in your community?”, he replied that he would like to reduce trash and noise, and, furthermore, that he would like to live somewhere with more space and trees.
It wasn’t only Joe who responded in this way. Other students we interviewed voiced similar wishes, though they said it in different ways. For one it was a desire for more flowers, for another less violence, or a bigger bedroom, or a backyard, or no upstairs neighbor who made so much noise. I haven’t surveyed all the kids in the poorest areas of the city, but I’d wager they’d also appreciate a little more peace and quiet or nature, if given half the chance to express it.
Actually, many kids have been asked, and their answers were uncannily similar to Joe’s. In the early 1970s, urban designer Kevin Lynch organized a survey of teenagers in cities across four different countries. “When children were asked to imagine the best place to live in, they often mentioned trees, and as beautiful places, gardens, and parks” (Lynch, 1977, as summarized by Chawla, 2015, p. 436).
A craving for access to a beautiful natural expanse may be an intrinsic aspect of being human. There’s even a term for this, biophilia (introduced by Erich Fromm in 1973 and expanded on by E.O. Wilson in a 1986 book by the same name), which means that we have an innate urge to connect to nature and other living things. This doesn’t mean everyone wants to go camping nor be anywhere near a wilderness. But at the very least, we are all likely sustained by an occasional walk through a stand of whispering trees or an urban garden, just as we are by a visit with a friend.
In fact, even a mere view of living green things out of a window can be vicariously invigorating, as a wide array of studies have shown in a wide variety of settings, from our homes and neighborhoods to institutional settings such as hospitals, prisons, offices and—of course—our schools.
The Impact of A Green View on Student Learning
A Room With a View
The idea that greenery could be rejuvenating was kickstarted by an influential study in 1984 by Roger Ulrich, in which he found that surgical patients in a hospital whose windows looked out onto trees recovered more quickly—and with less pain medication—than patients in rooms facing a drab brick wall.
Prison inmates similarly benefit from glimpses of nature. A study found that prisoners in cells with outward facing views of farmland were sick less often than their counterparts with views of the inner yard (Moore, 1981). Of prison inmates, there are none more deprived than those placed in solitary confinement: they are enclosed in a cell for up to 23 hours a day for days, months—sometimes years—on end. Forget windows. Just showing videos of natural landscapes to prisoners in solitary confinement can help them to remain calm and reduce violent behavior (Nalini, et al., 2017).
Perhaps it is unsurprising people confined, whether to a hospital bed or a prison cell, would benefit from a small peek at something, anything, vibrant and alive. What may be more surprising is how subsequent studies have shown that “views of nature out of an office or factory are associated with increased employee productivity, enhanced feelings of job and life satisfaction, greater psychological and physical well-being, and reduced levels of frustration and stress” (Matsuoka, 2010, p. 274). This suggests that a green vista is not only a spark of life to a desperate inmate or sick patient, but a rejuvenative force for all of us who toil indoors for the majority of our day.
An accumulating stream of studies have shown that views and access to green space can improve the well-being and learning of students in K-12 schools. Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college, with a concomitant decrease in stress and criminal behavior (Matsuoka, 2010; Wu et al., 2014; Dadvend et al., 2015; Li & Sullivan, 2016; Hodsen & Sanders, 2017; Kweon et al., 2017). Furthermore, greenery in a student’s neighborhood can result in an increase in mental health and a decrease in aggression (Alcock et al., 2014; Younan et al., 2016).
Sounds too good to be true? Maybe you think this is fluffy sociological stuff written to assuage the confirmation bias of tree huggers. It certainly sounds fluffy to say greenery is calming. We could say the same sort of thing about aromatherapy, crystals, and listening to whale sounds. But the significant and positive impact of the presence of greenery has been confirmed through randomized controlled trials and longitudinal studies. Fluffy? Maybe not so much.
There’s two theories about why greenery is rejuvenative: one is Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and the other is Stress Reduction Theory (SRT). ART theorizes that green space restores focus and fights fatigue, whereas SRT hypothesizes that nature reduces stress. Both theories have evidence to back them up, so there may be some interplay between reducing stress and restoring focus.
The natural views that seem to wield the greatest restorative and calming effects are from a school’s cafeteria and hallways (Matsuoka, 2010; Li & Sullivan, 2016). Li and Sullivan’s study suggests that “a 10-min break [with a natural view] would suffice in restoring students’ attentional capacities and help them recover from stressful tasks” (p. 156). Another study found even only five minutes of exposure to nature could help to reduce stress (Barton & Pretty, 2010; as cited by Kweon et al., 2017, p. 36). Ensuring that cafeterias, hallways, and other spaces, such as gyms, have a sightline to nature could be an effective way to support students in reducing their stress and restoring their ability to focus when they return to class.
According to one randomized controlled experiment, views of green expanses from a classroom can also support the cognitive performance of students, leading to 13% greater attentiveness than students with views of a parking lot, other buildings, or without any windows (Li & Sullivan, 2016). Another study found that schools with higher levels of nearby tree canopy cover had higher scores on tests of reading comprehension (Hodsen & Sander, 2017). One study even suggests that a mere glance of 40 seconds out of a window onto a green roof rather than a concrete one can serve to sustain attention on a challenging task (Lee et al., 2015).
And we’re still just talking about the presence of greenery outside of a school building. What kind of greenery is most influential? What about greenery within a building? And what about getting kids out of a building to interact with the real thing?
It’s All In the Canopy
Greenery, or green space, could mean a wide variety of things. Are we talking grass? Shrubs? Trees? Astroturf? Let me give you a hint. It’s not lawns. It’s not athletic fields. In fact, those land features, along with parking lots, are associated with reduced academic goals and achievement, and even higher criminal activity (Kweon et al., 2017). Shrubs don’t really do much, either.
It’s those trees, man. It’s that breathing green canopy cover that is the most focusing, calming, and restorative.
This isn’t so strange, when you think about it. Dallying under the dappled shade of trees is the hallmark of the good life. That soothing sound of breeze moving through leaves. The way sunlight shimmers across a variegated green marquee. There’s just something about trees. Something magical and magisterial. They buffer us from wind and rain. They enrich and entrench the soil and bear us fruit. They even communicate to one another through their root systems (Wohlleben, 2015). Some live on a timespan so protracted it’s unfathomable to our puny human minds. Trees bestow us with a sense, however subconscious, of flourishing ethereality that we may only most appreciate in their absence.
More practically, trees also help to reduce air and noise pollution, and help get people to exercise more (Dadvand et al., 2015). Trees can do much to not only “soak up fine particle pollution from cars, power plants, and factories” but furthermore “cool down neighborhoods anywhere from 0.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius on the hottest summer days” (Plumer, 2016). Pleasing on the eyes? Check. Providing ecosystem services for the public health and well-being of mankind? Check.
It is possible that trees only have a restorative visual impact within a certain range of density. For example, one study suggests somewhere between 24-34% tree cover* is a sweet spot (Jiang et al., 2014). Intriguingly, this may reflect an evolutionary preference for savannah-like landscapes and acacia-like—or thin trunk, large canopy—tree forms (Falk & Balling, 2010). Another study suggests that it’s not simply about the quantity of trees, but the quality of those trees, such as how well maintained, varied, and orderly they are (De Vries, van Dillen, Groenewegen, & Spreeuwenberg, 2013). This makes more sense. You could meet any quantitative quota with a sickly or monotonous row of trees, but a healthy, diverse copse will do much more for both your health and your soul.
I suspect there’s something about the just-right visual complexity and dimensionality of a healthy tree canopy that is especially pleasing to our mind’s eye—there’s just enough subtle unpredictable movement, variation, and depth to stimulate, while just enough light and green shade to soothe. In fact, there is the possibility that it is the fractal nature of tree canopy that makes it so pleasing to the eye and the brain (Cepelewicz, 2017).
In barren environments, like the flat expanses of the interstate highway in Kansas or like most school playgrounds, our minds grow desperate for distraction. And indeed, one study found that if a school has a barren playground, children with ADHD have greater difficulty concentrating after recess (Taylor & Kuo, 2001).
Man-made visual complexity, such as urban landscapes, can certainly inspire their own form of awe and appreciation, but as of yet, our architecture can hardly replicate—in a cost effective manner—the gentle scintillations of leaves nor the myriad other environmental benefits, like air filtration, that trees provide.
I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think we need trees not only to feel most fully alive, but in order to truly live.
*Having trouble visualizing what 24-34% tree cover looks like? I was, too. Fortunately, MIT offers a nifty tool that provides percentages for the density of tree cover in cities across the world. Head to senseable.mit.edu/treepedia to take a peek. You can zoom in on a specific spot in a city that has a density within that range, then pull up Google Streetview to get a ground-level visual. Compare between spots with a large percentage of tree cover, such as 50%, to ones with barely any, such as 2%. That disparity will give you an idea why there may be a sweet spot for restorative effects, at least from a visual standpoint.
Trees and Green Spaces Combat Inequality
Here’s a riddle for you: how can you tell the difference between a poor and affluent urban neighborhood from outer space?
Yep. It’s that mass of green.
One longitudinal study found just moving to a greener urban area not only immediately improves mental health, but sustains positive psychological benefits for at least three years (Alcock et al., 2014). That’s all well and good, but there’s another compelling reason to get more trees into your ‘hood: they help raise the property value (Mullaney, Lucke, & Trueman, 2015). Even better yet, “planting 10 or more trees per city block is equivalent to increasing the income of every household in that city block by more than $10,000” by improving perceptions of health, while decreasing “cardio-metabolic” conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease (Kardan et al., 2015).
Not many can afford to move to a greener area, but even small injections of green into dense urban neighborhoods, like replacing vacant lots with gardens, can reduce symptoms of depression in local residents (South et al., 2018). A longitudinal study in 2016 by Diana Younan and her colleagues furthermore found that green space in urban neighborhoods in Southern California reduced aggressive behavior in teens. The researchers found no evidence that this effect was strongly influenced by either sociodemographics nor the quality of the neighborhood, which suggests “the universal benefits of neighborhood greenspace” (p. 9). This corresponds with research showing that “building areas with high levels of vegetation can have approximately 50% lower crime levels than areas with low levels of vegetation (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001), and a 10% increase in the amount of tree cover has been associated with a 12% decrease in crime (Troy, Grove, & O’Neil-Dunne, 2012)” (as cited by Mullaney, Lucke, and Trueman, 2015, p. 159).
Joe and many other children in our densest urban areas crave natural environments with green space and restorative shade. One of the most sustainable and cost-effective interventions we can take to support future generations of children is simply to plant more trees—most especially near homes and schools.
Bringing Greenery Into Schools
Here’s the reality, though. Most schools are already built, and whether or not they are so lucky as to have any windows, let alone views of trees, is entirely outside the realm of their direct and immediate control. We may not be able to plant trees in classrooms, but is there any way we could bring some of that green juju indoors?
Some research suggests that the presence of plants in a hospital room can increase tolerance for pain (Grinde & Patil, 2009), while indoor plants in an office may reduce fatigue and health complaints (Grinde & Patil, 2009; Ranaas et al., 2011). But most of the research on the impact of indoor plants on classroom well-being, performance, or stress reduction, while suggestive, remains mostly inconclusive (Doxey, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2009; Han, 2009, 2018; Berg et al., 2016).
I’ve been grappling with this, given the more robust effects for outdoor greenery. Is it because potted plants in most studies are not selected and situated primarily for visual complexity? If there were more plants or greenwalls with a diversity of size, form, and color placed around a classroom, could these have greater restorative effects?
There may be a sweet spot between quantity and quality which has not yet been discovered for indoor plants. Each study uses different variations and configurations of plants. As one reviewer put it, “although the evidence suggests indoor plants can provide psychological benefits, the heterogeneity amongst the methods and results may imply the benefits are contingent on the context of the encounter with indoor plants and the participants in the experiment” (Burnard & Kutnar, 2015, p. 972).
Furthermore, no study (to my knowledge) has yet examined the two areas where green views are most likely to have the greatest restorative impact: school cafeterias and hallways. Clearly, we need further research (while we’re waiting on the research, to add some dimensionality to your own indoor plant collection, try placing plants at different heights, such as on stools, boxes, or crates, as “garden stylist” Satoshi Kawamoto suggests (Gordon, 2015)). But here’s a short quiz that may help you to determine whether or not you want to bring plants into your classroom or school:
Do you prefer a few plants near where you work or relax? Do you liven up your workspace or living room with a flower or succulent?
If so, why, and if not, why not?
Let your answer to this be your guide.
Indoor Plants for Air Filtration?
Even if they may not have the fully restorative or stress reducing impacts that views of outside tree canopy can provide, could they filter and reduce indoor air pollution? If they could, this would be huge because poor indoor air quality impacts learning. Effects reported by various studies have been a reduction in cognitive performance and the ability to make complex decisions, and an increase in sleepiness (Carrer, 2018). In other words, everything you don’t want in a classroom.
A widely cited NASA study in 1989 (Wolverton, Johnson, & Bounds) found that a wide variety of plants filtered volatile organic compounds (VOCs) often present in indoor environments, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and ammonia. Some later studies support this initial finding (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), but unfortunately, it seems that outside of a lab setting and in the much larger, real-world spaces of offices and schools, plants do very little to filter indoor air (Meyer, 2019). Well, OK, maybe they don’t filter pollution much, but another side benefit of indoor plants is that through the process of transpiration, they can add moisture to the air, which is good for dry skin (Horton, 2015).
Overall, unfortunately, it appears that indoor plants do not provide the same benefits that outside greenery does.
Keeping plants in a school requires careful consideration, such as how much daylight, if any, is available in a given space, as well as who will be responsible for watering and upkeep, not to mention the issue of safety. Ideally, the plants you select should require little sunlight and watering, provide air filtration benefits, be visually appealing, and highly durable.
Through a survey of friends and online sources, I drew up a shortlist of promising plants for school use, most of which are within the $15-30 range if you buy them pre-potted:
Variegated Snake Plant
Cast Iron Plant
If you are fortunate enough to have access to some sunlight in your school or classroom, then look also into the following:
Succulents, such as aloe
Spider Plant (hang these from the ceiling and they can also help absorb noise!)
If you are even more fortunate and can secure funds, you could also consider the installation of greenwalls. While further research is required, there is potential in the biofiltration potential of a greenwall (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), as well as possible restorative effects (Berg et al., 2017).
Bringing Schools Into Greenery
So far we’ve focused primarily on the mere presence of trees and greenery, which even passively can be powerful for learning and health by reducing stress and increasing attention, in addition to reducing pollution. But given our focus on education, the logical next question is: does interacting with nature amplify and deepen these effects?
The answer thus far, at least according to research on playgrounds and gardens, is “Yes.” School gardens help to increase physical activity (Wells, Myers, & Henderson, 2014), while playgrounds that are surrounded by greenery promote better cognitive functioning (Kuo, 2010), “concentration and relief from stress,” in addition to more imaginative, explorative, and socially cooperative play (Chalwa, 2015, p. 445). It should also be recognized that just spending time in nature can support the development of stronger immune systems. One study found that walking in a forest boosted anti-cancer cells by 50% or more, which remained elevated even a month after returning to everyday urban existence, while also decreasing inflammation (Li, 2010, Mao et al., 2012, as cited by Kuo, 2015, p. 4).
But there is much more to interacting with nature than the solely utilitarian benefits to health and well-being. Access to nature provides opportunities to build greater self and world knowledge. How can you truly understand how food grows, or how plants utilize photosynthesis, or what it means to cultivate microbial soil life, unless you get your hands dirty? How can you truly develop resilience, fortitude, and patience without having experienced the alternating awe and weariness of spending a day walking through the woods or up a mountain? Some studies have suggested that simply playing in nature increases the likelihood of environmental stewardship later in life (Wells & Lekies, 2006; Thompson et al. 2008). Imagine having a curriculum that includes not only reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but moreover a scientific and aesthetic engagement with real plots of land?
Hosting school outside may sound radical at first, but ‘forest kindergartens’ are a thing in Germany, Finland, Switzerland, and . . . Vermont (Gregory, 2017; Schoolsoutfilm.com, 2012; Walker, 2016; Hanford, 2015). Given the research we’ve just reviewed, such seemingly hippie-dippy programs now seem eminently sensible. The key hurdle is whether you happen to have a forest handy nearby. But what about schools in local parks? Actually, I wrote that sentence, then poked around on the web for a minute, and lo and behold, there’s classes called Tinkergarten at a park near me that promotes learning through play in local outdoor spaces (and maybe one near you; check it out at tinkergarten.com).
Humanity now faces repercussions from the incredible stress we have placed on the natural world. The great diversity of microbes, habitats, plants, and animals our earth once carried is swiftly ebbing. Traditional ways of living and knowing are preserved primarily for entertainment, rather than as respected sources of wisdom. If developing an appreciation of nature, both scientific and aesthetic, means getting children outside into whatever local park, water feature, grassy knoll, garden, flower box, or forest you may be fortunate enough to have near to your home or school, then let’s do it. If it means bringing plants into a school via hydroponics, as teacher Stephen Ritz does at CS 55 in the Bronx (Check out Ritz’ website greenbronxmachine.org or read his book, The Power of a Plant, to learn more about his work), or via potted plants or greenwalls, or lining playgrounds, starting rooftop gardens, or even just gazing out at a natural landscape from windows or in videos . . . then, hey. We’ve got to start somewhere.
What We Can Do
Trees take a long time to grow. Unfortunately, leaders in education tend to focus on shallower, shorter-term initiatives, like tablets or teacher evaluations.
There has been a growing recognition of the general importance of greenery in our communities, and many trees have been planted in areas that were once urban deserts. Here in NYC, organizations like GrowNYC, Bronx Green-Up, Learning Gardens, and many others are available to help get kids get their hands dirty in a garden. And city-wide initiatives like Greenstreets and MillionTreesNYC have brought street trees to nearly every block.
For students like Joe living in dense urban neighborhoods, this means a lot. But having a row of street trees is not enough. We need more vacant lots converted to green space, more green roofs, more parks, and far, far greater access and opportunities to interact with nature on a frequent basis.
It may be that growing a green thumb may be one of the most beneficial things you could do to support the learning of future generations.
Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college
Greenery in a neighborhood decreases stress, aggression, and criminal behavior
Views of trees can both soothe (reduce stress) and stimulate (refocus attention)
Views of trees from school cafeterias and hallways seem to have the greatest restorative and calming effects
Views of greenery from a classroom can also lead to 13% greater attentiveness
Trees help to reduce air and noise pollution, and support an increase in exercise and property value
It’s less about quantity and more about the quality of the trees and tree canopy
Indoor plants don’t seem to provide the same benefits as external greenery
Moving school playgrounds and classrooms outdoors can provide a range of benefits to health and learning, in addition to building a greater sense of environmental stewardship
Extra Credit: The Ecology of Greenery
Clearly, it’s not within any individual school’s purview alone to increase the greenery within a neighborhood, and nor is one dedicated community organization that receives some grant funding enough. It takes a coordinated effort between local businesses, governmental agencies at different levels, nonprofits, and civically engaged citizens to make it happen. It truly takes a community to plant, sustain, and scale the kind of quality tree canopy our children need.
Caring for plants—and for animals—can not only strengthen a community, but also provide therapeutic benefits for individuals.
Bill Thomas, a NY professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, has come up with a model of elderly care he calls the “Eden Alternative” (Bahrampour, 2016). Instead of cold, clinical institutions, he creates environments that are more akin to gardens. He stocks nursing homes with cats, dogs, rabbits, and birds in addition to an array of plants. The effect is reduced need for medication, lower death rates, raised spirits, and greater autonomy.
In Baltimore, one volunteer, Gene DeSantis, has planted over 15,000 trees, overcoming a childhood of trauma while contributing to the long-term health and well-being of his community (Zaleski, 2019).
In D.C., a former drug dealer’s love of birds helps him to discover his better self. He now works with children, introducing them to the beauty of raptors, to help them learn to engage with the natural world, and in the process, also discover their better selves (Daniel, 2016).
In schools across our nation, our children are struggling to cope with chronic and acute stress, trauma, and poverty while attempting to learn in environments that offer little rejuvenation nor tranquility.
It’s not only the immediate adults around them who need to build lattices and networks of love, resilience, and calm, but furthermore the sustaining canopies and anchored roots of trees in the land that surrounds them, planted and nurtured by the many diverse people, groups, and organizations of their community.
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Bringslimark, T., Hartig, T. and Patil, G. G. (2009) ‘The psychological benefits of indoor plants: A critical review of the experimental literature’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(4), pp. 422–433. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2009.05.001.
Burnard, M. D. and Kutnar, A. (2015) ‘Wood and human stress in the built indoor environment: a review’, Wood Science and Technology, 49(5), pp. 969–986. doi: 10.1007/s00226-015-0747-3.
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You might assume I know something about teaching kids to read. I studied English at UCLA and obtained my master’s in education at The City College of NY. I taught special education grades 5-8 for 7 years, and I’ve supported schools and teachers throughout the Bronx with K-8 ELA instruction over the past 3 years.
Yet you’d be wrong. I’ve come to realize I know next to nothing.
In case you haven’t been aware, there’s been a firestorm of educators on platforms like Twitter gaining newfound awareness of the science of reading, with an urgent bellows inflamed by the ace reporting of Emily Hanford. For a great background on this movement, with links, refer to this post by Karen Vaites. And make sure you check out Hanford’s most recent podcast (as of today!!! It’s amazing!) outlining how current classroom practice is misaligned to research.
Impelled by this burgeoning national and international conversation, I’ve sought to educate myself about the science of reading. I began with Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight, took a linguistics course, and have just completed David Kilpatrick’s Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Seidenberg is not only pithy, but furthermore impassioned, while Kilpatrick is deeply versed in both the research and application in practice as a former school psychologist. Both experts provide an incendiary takedown of more than a few sacred cows in the educational establishment.
It’s been fascinating to learn more about the science of reading while simultaneously working with a school where I could see problems elucidated by reading researchers and advocates play out in real-time. It has made what I’m learning gain an even greater sense of urgency. I would read pages critiquing the “three-cueing system” and balanced literacy approaches on the bus in the morning, then walk into classrooms where I saw teachers instructing students, when uncertain about a word, to use guessing strategies such as “look at the picture” and the “first letter of the word,” rather than stress the need to be able to decode the entire word (for more on the problems with current classroom practice, listen to Hanford’s podcast).
There’s so much to digest and apply from all of this. This post is my attempt to begin synthesizing the information I’ve read. I’ll start general and then focus on the word-level reading aspect of the research in this post. And there’s so much more I want to cover, but I’ll be leaving tons of stuff out that I would love to explore further. Someday . . .
Reading Can Be Simple
First off, though reading is complicated, it can be outlined by a simple model, known aptly enough as The Simple View of Reading. It can even be put into the form of an equation. The theory was first developed in 1986 by researchers Gough and Tunmer. The original formulation was D (decoding) X LC (linguistic or language comprehension) = Reading Comprehension.
After years of further research, this distinction has mostly held up, though it has become greatly expanded, especially in our understanding of what constitutes language comprehension.
Decoding has been clarified as one umbrella aspect of word-level reading, which is composed of many sub-skills. A more updated formula, courtesy of Kilpatrick, is:
Word Recognition X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension.
If you struggle with word recognition (such as with dyslexia), or if you struggle with language comprehension (English language learner), then you have difficulty reading.
Protip: if you are an educator in NY, know that this distinction can be framed around the language from Advanced Literacy as code-based (word recognition) and meaning-based (language comprehension) skills. And if you are a NYC educator, you can furthermore align this to the Instructional Leadership Framework. Bonus points for alignment to state and city initiatives! Yay!
Within each of these two domains lie the various sub-skills and knowledge that make reading so very complicated. Here’s a chart I made to visualize the “Expanded” Simple View:
Protip: Most educators are already familiar with the “five pillars” or “Big 5” of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, so it can be helpful to build a bridge between that knowledge and the Simple View. At a recent session I facilitated, I asked teachers to consider the Big 5, introduced the notion that they are composed of subskills, then asked them to sort those subskills into code-based or meaning-based groups. Here’s a print-out you could use to create the sorting strips.
Note that word recognition skills are mostly mastery-based. And a key point experts like Seidenberg and Kilpatrick make about word recognition is that word recognition can be acquired by all children. IQ discrepancy is not a factor.
“For children who are poor readers, IQ is not a strong predictor of intervention responses or longer-term outcomes. Moreover, the behavioral characteristics of poor readers are very similar across a wide IQ range. . . Within this broad range of IQs, poor readers struggle in the same ways, need help in the same areas, and respond similarly to interventions. In short, the skills that pose difficulties for children are not closely related to the skills that IQ tests measure. The primary question is about children’s reading—whether it is below age-expected levels—not their intelligence.”
“Discrepancies between IQ and achievement do not cause word-reading problems. Rather, deficits in the skills that underlie word-level reading cause those problems. The component skills of word reading can be strong or weak, independently of IQ test performance.”
“A common belief that continues to be recommended is that some students with severe reading disabilities simply cannot learn phonics and they should be shifted to a whole-word type of approach. This recommendation is inconsistent with the accumulated research on the nature of reading development and reading disabilities
“The simple view of reading applies to poor readers with IDEA disabilities (SLD, SLI, ID, ED/BD, TBI) and poor readers not considered disabled. Thus, when asked the question, ‘Why is this child struggling in reading?’ we would no longer answer, ‘because the child has an intellectual disability (or SLI or ED/BD or whatever).’ Those disability categories do not cause reading difficulties—specific reading-related skill deficits cause reading difficulties.”
What this means for educators: there is simply no excuse for any student to graduate from any of our schools without the ability to decode words in print. As Kilpatrick stated in a presentation (thanks to Tania James for her wonderful notes), “If a child can speak, they can learn phonics.”
Language comprehension, on the other hand, may be a tougher beast to tackle. Linguistic skills and knowledge are cumulative and on-going. Most importantly, a core component of language comprehension is background and topical knowledge, in addition to grammatical and syntactical knowledge — both which are inadequately taught in most schools due to the lack of a strong and coherent core curriculum.
I should note that Siedenberg doesn’t seem to fully subscribe to the Simple View, and that by no means should we begin to think any one model can adequately describe something so complex as reading. In his endnotes he states, “The main weakness in Gough’s theory is that it did not make sufficient room for the ways that the components influence each other. Vocabulary, for example, is jointly determined by spoken language and reading. Vocabulary can also be considered a component of both basic skills and comprehension.”
Kilpatrick contradicts this view when he states, “In the context of the simple view of reading, it appears that vocabulary belongs primarily on the language comprehension side of the simple view equation, not necessarily on the word-reading side.”
Seidenberg proposes his own model, based on computational simulations, which looks something like this (Figure 6.2 from Chapter 6):
I think this model is useful for conveying why reading is complicated and can be hard to learn, but maybe not quite as useful for guiding school-based assessment and instruction.
Why is The Simple View of Reading important?
Having a clear model for reading comprehension means we have a guide for aligned assessment, prevention, and intervention. Unfortunately, many schools base ELA instruction primarily on state assessments, which tell you very little about a student’s reading needs. People seem to forget that the function of a state assessment is for school, district, and state level accountability, not to direct classroom instruction.
Protip: One “research snapshot” I found useful from Nonie Lesaux and Emily Galloway’s Advanced Literacy framework is the distinction they make between “literacy performances” and “specific skills and competencies.”
“There is a tendency to examine the results of outcome assessments at the item level—to figure out the types of items groups of students struggled with and then go back and teach to support this understanding. Perhaps the most universal example is ‘finding the main idea’ in a passage . . . the problem is that finding the main idea—among many other similar performances or exercises—is just that—a reading performance. It is not a specific skill. That is, to perform the task at hand, in this case to find the main idea, the reader draws on many component skills and composite competencies and initiates those in concert with one another. In turn, when a student is not able to find the main idea, we still do not know why.”
In order to know why, we need assessments that can better pinpoint where the breakdown occurs, whether in word recognition or in language comprehension, or both. And then we need to do something about it. This is where it gets hard.
Reading is Hard
Though we can draw on a simple model to explain it, in actuality reading is complicated.
First of all, it’s completely unnatural. While we acquire spoken language organically, reading requires the imposition of an abstract system onto that language, a grafting of a fragmented alphabet onto a river of sound. Writing is something our species invented, an ingenious mechanism to convey information across space and time. While the first writing appeared around 3,200 BC, humans have been speaking for anywhere between 50,000 to 2 million years prior (we don’t know for sure because we couldn’t record anything yet, duh).
There are many irregular words in the English language, which would appear to make the teaching of something like phonics a daunting endeavor. We assume that kids need to be taught the rules, and then memorize the exceptions (these are known as “sight words.”) Makes sense, right?
Yet research has made it clear we don’t acquire most sight words through memorization. Instead, we draw upon our letter-sound knowledge and phonological analysis skills to recognize new written words and unconsciously add them to our “orthographic lexicon.”
What’s interesting on this point is there appears to be some disagreement between the models Seidenberg and Kilpatrick use to explain this process. Seidenberg calls it statistical learning, meaning that we learn to recognize patterns in common words, from which we then can recognize many others, including ones with irregularities. Kilpatrick, on the other hand, terms it orthographic mapping, which is the process of instantaneously pulling apart and putting back together the sounds in words, drawing upon letter-sound knowledge and phonemic awareness. In either model, what is acknowledged is that children learn to recognize a large volume of new words primarily on their own, but that such an ability is founded upon a strong understanding of sounds (phonology) and their correspondences in written form (orthography).
Honestly, I find both concepts—statistical learning and orthographic mapping—hard to wrap my head around.
It’s also possible they describe different things. Seidenberg’s term seems more global, explaining how we acquire vocabulary, while orthographic mapping refers more specifically to the relationship between decoding and acquiring vocabulary. I should note here that Kilpatrick did not come up with the term, “orthographic mapping,” but rather draws on the research of Linnea Ehri.
Here’s Seidenberg on statistical learning:
“…learning vocabulary is a Big Data problem solved with a small amount of timely instruction and a lot of statistical learning. The beauty part is that statistical learning incorporates a mechanism for expanding vocabulary without explicit instruction or deliberate practice. The mechanism relies on the fact that words that are similar in meaning tend to occur in similar linguistic environments.”
Here’s Kilpatrick on orthographic mapping:
“Roughly speaking, think of phonic decoding as going from text to brain and orthographic mapping as going from brain to text. This is, however, an oversimplification because orthographic mapping involves an interactive back and forth between the letters and sounds. However, it is important that we do not confuse orthographic mapping with phonic decoding. They use some of the same raw materials (i.e., letter-sound knowledge and phonological long-term memory), but they use different aspects of phonological awareness, and the actual process is different. Phonic decoding uses phonological blending, which goes from “part to whole” (i.e., phonemes to words) while orthographic mapping requires the efficient use of phonological awareness/analysis, which goes from “whole to part” (i.e., oral words to their constituent phonemes).”
Kilpatrick notes that “The vast majority of exception words have only a single irregular letter-sound relationship.” This means that if a reader knows their letter-sound relationships well, they will be able to negotiate the majority of words with exceptions and irregularities.
What this means is that students need to be provided with sufficient practice to master phonological awareness and phonics skills. And we can not blame the failure of a student to learn to decode on the irregularity of the English language.
Phonology: What We Can Hear and Speak is the Root of Written Language
In Seidenberg’s book, he argues that phonemes are the first abstraction on the road to the written word. A phoneme is the individual sound that a letter can represent (e.g. the sound of “p”). While we learn many such sounds as we acquire spoken language, the need to disaggregate a single component sound into a phoneme only becomes necessary in the translation of speech into the written form. As Seidenberg puts it:
“Phonemes are abstractions because they are discrete, whereas the speech signal is continuous. . . The invaluable illusion that speech consists of phonemes is only completed with further exposure to print, often starting with learning to spell and write one’s name.”
No wonder “phonemic awareness” is central to learning to read! The ability to know and discern individual sounds, and then to be able to play with them and put them back together, is the core skill of reading. In other words, if you struggle with blending and manipulating the sounds in words, you struggle with reading.
And indeed, this is why far too many of our kids have problems with reading. As Kilpatrick puts it, “The phonological-core deficit is far and away the most common reason why children struggle in word-level reading.”
Once I grasped this deceptively simple idea—that fluent reading is dependent on the ability to hear and speak the sounds of letters within words—prevention and intervention began to make more sense to me. Before, my understanding of the distinction between phonological awareness and phonics and what this meant for instruction was muddy. Now, I know that before even looking at a letter or a word, a student needs to practice hearing and speaking the sounds. This is how the student develops phonemic awareness. Phonics, on the other hand, is taught when those sounds are then applied to letters.
Protip: “A good way to remember the difference…is that phonemic awareness can be done with your eyes closed, while phonics cannot” (Kilpatrick, 2015a, p. 15).
The Importance of Advanced Phonemic Awareness
That may sound straightforward (no pun intended), but one of the key understandings I gained from Kilpatrick is that we too often stop at basic phonological awareness, both in our assessments and in our intervention. While sound instruction in grades K-1 in phonological awareness and phonics should help to prevent most word reading difficulties (“Intervention researchers estimate that if the best prevention and intervention approaches were widely used, the percentage of elementary school students reading below a basic level would be about 5% rather than the current 30% to 34%”), there are some students who will present with more severe difficulties. And those difficulties often stem from lacking more advanced phonemic awareness. He also points out that these advanced phonemic skills continue to typically develop in grades 3 and 4, well past the point that most schools provide systematic phonemic and phonics instruction.
Kilpatrick stresses that intervention and remediation for such students requires explicitly teaching advanced phonological skills.
So What Can We Do?
The great thing about Kilpatrick’s book—and why you should buy it—is that unlike many writers in the field of education, he actually goes through what assessments you can use and what you can do instructionally, both for prevention (K-1) and for intervention (grades 2 and up), to address reading needs. He calls out programs by name and praises or critiques them based on key understandings from the research, and some of it was pretty surprising to me.
But I’m going to stop here for this post before it gets overlong. When I can find time to post again (it’s seriously hard with a 2 year old and 9 month old and the school year is about to begin), I’ll share some of the assessments and programs that I think are most accessible from Kilpatrick, as well as dig into some of the sacred cows that Kilpatrick, Seidenberg, and Hanford have slayed.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention what I learned from my linguistics course, which was just an online series. It was fine, but I only found it useful insofar as it equipped me with some terms like lexicon, morphology, semantics, or pragmatics. If you have any recommendations for further learning in linguistics, please let me know.
Also, if I’ve demonstrated any misconceptions in this piece or you would like to challenge or add to anything I wrote, please share!
I spent some time this summer drafting a policy proposal for the P2Tomorrow competition, mostly as an exercise to sharpen my own thinking around issues I’ve seen with literacy. Thanks to some great feedback from some very smart people (if you are reading this and you are one of them: thank you!), I am proud of the final result. I didn’t win, but I don’t feel so bad about that since the winners are a truly diverse and amazing collection of ideas (see the list of winners and their ideas here).
So I’m sharing my proposal with you. Please share if you find these ideas useful.
Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools
The Problem with Literacy: It’s Not Just ELA
Is literacy a subject, or a whole school endeavor?
While defining “literacy” is tricky, especially in a rapidly changing society, most would include in their definition the ability to read and think critically and to communicate effectively. Such literacy is not developed haphazardly nor solely within one subject. It requires a school to work cohesively across classrooms to develop shared expectations, content, and practices.
Yet states label Grade 3-8 literacy assessments as “English Language Arts,” and accountability thus falls primarily on the shoulders of one content area: the ELA department. In effect, ELA is reduced to the practice of generic and shallow reading and writing skills as preparation for state assessments. Results on both national (NAEP) and international (PISA) scores for reading have flatlined for two decades. One reason is that most students receive only scattered exposure to the academic language and conceptual understandings gained from a school-wide engagement in a coherent set of literacy practices.
Though the Common Core Standards attempted to address this disconnect through promotion of literacy standards for ELA and History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects, a misconception remains in the field that the recommendation for a “balance between informational and literary reading” should be solely driven by ELA, rather than across those other content areas. This has led some educators to believe literature should now rarely be taught, a misreading reinforced by state ELA assessments skewed towards nonfiction passages.
This narrowing of the curriculum has been widely recognized since 2001. ESSA sought to rectify this by redefining what is meant by a “well-rounded education,” and including more subjects beyond the “core academic subjects” of the original ESEA legislation. ESSA also allows Title II funding to be used to help teachers “integrate comprehensive literacy instruction in a well-rounded education.”
Yet thus far states have been largely unable to clarify what it means to teach literacy coherently and effectively at the ground-level. Some school leaders and teachers continue to remain misinformed about the key shifts of their own state standards, and confusion about the meaning of literacy and its relationship to ELA and other subjects has led to a wide variety of pedagogical approaches and curricula of variable quality, complicated by layers of often contradictory state and district policies and initiatives.
A growingrecognition of the importance of curriculum and the need for more effective resources is promising, but solutions must go far beyond the evaluation and adoption of higher quality curriculum. A school may adopt standards-aligned, high quality curriculum for various subjects but remain completely incoherent. What is needed are consistent and ongoing processes for collaborative planning and reflection on curriculum and literacy practices across a school.
What State and District Leaders Can Do
How can state and district leaders support school teams in developing, reflecting on, and sustaining processes that will promote literacy coherently across a school?
There are four moves that policy leaders can make:
Clarify expectations for school-wide processes for collaborative planning and reflection on literacy content and practices
Create a process for surveying educators and the wider public on what texts should be selected for literacy assessments, and publish that list in advance of each school year
Promote team — rather than individual — accountability for results on literacy assessments
Step 1 We have to begin with a redefinition of what we mean by literacy. The ESEA, since updated under NCLB and ESSA, requires states to assess “reading or language arts” annually in grades 3-8. Despite ESSA’s expansion on a “well-rounded education,” states continue to narrowly label their assessments as subject-specific ELA(46 out of 50, according to my count). Only 6 states mention the word “literacy” in their assessment title.
It may seem like a small thing, but relabeling state assessments as literacy assessments, rather than ELA, would send a clear signal that literacy is not confined to a single subject. This could initiate a state-wide dialogue about what literacy means as a whole school endeavor.
Step 2 As a part of that dialogue, expectations should be developed for what school-level processes will support the development of shared, high-quality literacy content and practices. As a model, the International Baccalaureate standards for curriculum provide guidance for the collaboration and discussion expected between all teachers within a school. By establishing clear criteria for ongoing school-based reflection and curriculum alignment, state and district leaders can promote the idea that curriculum is dynamic and constantly in development, rather than a static item that is purchased and put in place.
Step 3 To further foster an innovative school-wide focus on literacy improvement, the state could engage multiple stakeholders in the cross-curricular selection of texts that would be on assessments the following year. By involving educators and the wider public in this process in partnership with the assessment vendor, greater focus, clarity, and transparency for what is taught and assessed would be cultivated. Furthermore, this could help level the playing field for students that need more exposure to the academic vocabulary and background knowledge required for comprehension of the selected texts and topics.
Step 4 Accountability for literacy assessments could then shift from resting solely on ELA departments to include other subjects, resisting the narrowing of curriculum that is so pervasive. One state, Louisiana, has already taken a bold step towards this by piloting assessments that blend social studies and ELA, and which assesses books that kids have actually studied, rather than random passages.
Such measures signal to schools that teaching literacy is the responsibility of a team, and can do much to counteract the prevailing headwinds of narrow and shallow test prep.
What could we expect as a result of these moves?
Let’s consider a school representative of our current situation.
MS 900 is a public middle school in an urban district. The school has an alternating schedule for reading and writing, using two separate and unaligned ELA curriculum. The ELA teachers complain about the complexity of the writing program and the lack of professional development. Students complain about boring instruction. Grade-level ELA and math teams meet two times per week, and the social studies and science teams meet once per week. According to the state’s teacher evaluation system and testing data, the instructional quality varies widely across the school, with a few effective teachers, two highly effective teachers, and the rest developing.
Step 1 At a district meeting, the MS 900 staff learned about a new state initiative where the expectation would be that a whole school should work together to teach literacy, and that tests will reflect this. The administrators and teachers considered how schedules would need to change to provide opportunities for cross-curricular teams to meet regularly to discuss and plan for this new conception of literacy.
Step 2 Grade-level teams at MS 900 were rescheduled to meet 3 times a week, and each departmental team 1 time a week. The school’s support organization introduced protocols for teams to share and discuss the content and practices currently used across different classrooms. Grade-level teams also examined student work and discussed common approaches to targeting student literacy needs. Meanwhile, the ELA department determined that reading literature and writing narratives and poetry had been too long neglected, and discussed with their grade-level teams how strategies for reading and writing informational texts could be shared across the grade. The SS and science departments highlighted strategies specific to their subjects, while sharing topics and themes that could be developed across the the grade. The teachers who had more effective practices began to be recognized by their colleagues for their expertise, and other teachers requested to visit their classrooms to learn.
Step 3 When the new state survey for text selection opened up in the next year, both grade-level and departmental teams discussed which texts and topics were critical for meeting state standards, for teaching their students about the world, and for providing texts and topics that were relevant and engaging. Each team came to a consensus and submitted their selections. When the state published the texts, teachers were excited to see some of their choices reflected on the list, as well as to be introduced to new literary and nonfiction texts they hadn’t read yet but that were highly rated. Teams began planning how they would incorporate study of the selected texts into their shared curriculum.
Step 4 After two years of this process, when the state introduced new accountability measures for schools based on literacy results that bear shared weighting by ELA, social studies, and science teachers, MS 900 teachers felt prepared for the challenge, and were even eager to view the results and item analysis so they could figure out how they could work together to improve their students’ literacy abilities. Imagine that.
Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?
Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.
Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.
What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.
There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)
Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction
Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).
Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.
This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.
Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.
Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.
Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.
The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.
If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.
In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.