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. 

Beyond Ideology

Following a link the other day on Twitter from John Hagel, I was inspired by an article by Andrew Romano on The Daily Beast about a unique collaboration on the issue of criminal justice between unlikely compatriots. Aptly entitled Liberal Academic, Tea Party Leader Rethinking Crime Policy, the article tells how common ground between liberal and conservative perspectives was found, centered on pragmatic outcomes versus ideological debates.

At the center of this story is the “liberal academic,” David Kennedy, a criminologist who has researched a method of crime reduction that moves beyond the ineffective and expensive–not to mention dehumanizing–criminalization wrought by the War on Drugs, and a “Tea Party leader,” Mark Meckler, who Romano paints as ready to move on from the shallow political debates engendered by the Tea Party.

When he had discovered Kennedy’s methods, “Meckler was energized. This was exactly the sort of second act he had in mind—a proven, nonideological way to remove ‘the heavy hand of the state,’ he tells Newsweek, ‘and give these communities the freedom to govern themselves.'” . . . 

On the right, we always talk about self-governance,” Meckler explains. “So I thought, why haven’t we been applying those ideas to the criminal-justice system?” . . .

Kennedy’s program didn’t hew to liberal orthodoxy, placing the blame on society rather than the criminals themselves. Nor did it reflect conservative dogma. It just worked.” [Bold added]

There seems to be two points of convergence between liberal and conservative perspectives presented here:*

  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

I believe these two points have great bearing on the “ed reform” debate, as all too often ideology seems to cloud our better judgement and prevent meaningful collaboration from occurring.

Here’s how I’d like to incorporate these two potential bridges between liberal and conservative on Schools as Ecosystems:

My goal in developing the perspective of the school as an ecosystem is to promote sustainable and resilient learning communities. This goal can serve as a potential bridge for those interested in the goal of self-governing communities, whether left or right.

My goal in further developing the framework of a school as an ecosystem is to create a methodology that can lead to the design of healthier, more effective school environments that promote student well-being and meaningful learning. In other words, I’m less interested in debating vouchers or LIFO, and more interested in developing metrics for evaluating and designing positive school cultures. In short: I want something that works.

Ultimately, I conceive of ideology as a form of intellectual laziness. Cheap points for pundits and politicians. And I expect my readers to help keep me honest and let me know when I slip.

*. [Yes, I know I’m way over simplifying the political continuum, so feel free to correct me in the comments]