Incremental Change

“Silvia Abbato, the district’s superintendent, said she could not pinpoint any one action that had led to the better scores. . . . 

“It’s not something you can do overnight,” Ms. Abbato said. “We have been taking incremental steps everywhere.”

—Motoko Rich, Amanda Cox, and Matthew Bloch, “Money, Race, and Success: How Your District Compares” in The NY Times

Words are Important: Notes from an improved ‘gapper’

This post is brought to you via Louisiana professor and education-improver, Dr. Michael Hicks, continuing the exploration of the language that we use to describe education.

“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”

This quote from John Dewey is how I introduced myself to the students in my fall semester Intro to Education course.

The quote served as a challenge to students to think deeply about the word “education” and what it really means to them, to their families, and to the perspective schools, communities and students that they will ultimately serve.

It challenged me, too. Always has.

But (pardon the opening preposition) it challenged me to think about other words and their relevance in my everyday use. Words like reformer, which I know makes me feel a certain way when I am described as such, has a different meaning when I embrace the introspection of it. Reform, which by most accounts means to make changes in a particular structure of things (typically a social, economic, or political institution or practice) in order to improve it, has evolved to take on new meanings. Not everyone feels the noble tinge that I do here in Louisiana when I hear the word.

To me, education reformers are engaged in the not-so-popular work of calling things not as they are, but as they could be. They are engaged in uncovering the completely obvious—but seldom articulated—educational plights of poor and underserved students. They are the Sally Field-type whistle-blowers of practices and people within our own profession of public education who embrace the status quo and blame lack of school progress on the demographics of the students. They are brave, intelligent, and have the best interest of all students at heart. They are educators – public, virtual and online, private and parochial. Yes, some are politicians and preachers, but most are principals and parents whose connection to what happens in the classroom is real and unescapably personal.

But, this is my definition.

Within and without the great state of Louisiana, education reform has several meanings and connotations. Whitney Tilson, Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein and many, many others have formed their own variant of the word which has lead to many other strains, producing diverse meanings and equally diverse feelings and followers. This is life itself, and like life, education is personal and intertwined with our own distinct interpretations of humanity.

I now prefer education improver over education reformer. Some of the improvements that I advocate align me with the more modern meanings of the word reformer, but some do not. Some of the improvements that I advocate are pro charter schools, and some are not.

Some of the improvements I will fight for are Louisiana-centered, and some are not. Some of the improvements that make sense to me address refocusing the purpose and viability of traditional neighborhood schools, and some address the technology and structure that students might require in the next century. The word “reformer” limits me, and I want to know no bounds in my advocacy for students.

This conversation that I’m having with myself (of which you are now a guest) reminds me of when I stopped being a gapper. Early in my educational career, I became a poster child for calling out and trying to decrease the achievement gap between Black and White students. I studied authors who helped me articulate the statistics. I wrote blog articles on how to fix the inequalities. When the achievement gap fire began to wane, I jumped to the opportunity gap, then to the exposure gap and next the expectation gap. Gaps, gaps everywhere, and not a spot to think! I was gap obsessed.

Words are important. Real discrepancies do exist in public education, private education, pre-K, K-12, higher ed, and in everything, when you look deep enough. This is life itself. The deficit language I once employed in order to address and “fix” these discrepancies was weakening my efforts and limiting my effectiveness.

I now prefer strength based educator over achievement gap specialist. When I’m invited to speak to or engage faculties in school climate and high expectation culture topics, I rarely mention the gaps I once waved the flag for.

At times, I wish I were a bird paleontologist – I’m intrigued with their research methodologies and their findings about our winged friends; but I am not. I am a professor of education and my words are important. When I ask my students how they will improve education, I get robust visions of the future of schooling from sharp young minds. When I ask who will be an education reformer, I’m met with blank stares. When I speak about the uniqueness of Black and Brown students and how to address underserved communities, I see excitement. When I talk about the gaps between certain NCLB groups, I get confused glances. It’s not what ideology you agree with more that I’m interested in, it’s much more personal than that. It is who will you serve as an educator, why will you serve them, and what will you do when you are blessed with the opportunity to do so.

I want my students to be engaged in the current happenings of American and global education. I want them to be informed. I want them to have very strong opinions. I also want them to know that words are important and that education, which per Dewey is also life itself, should constantly challenge them to examine the words they use to describe themselves and their very noble work of teaching other people’s children.

Social Relationships, Ecology, and Schools

Social service icon from The Noun Project

You may have noticed that I changed the subtitle of this site to “Socio-ecological perspectives on education.” I’d like to explain what that means and why I changed it.

It used to read something like “holistic, ecological, and student-centered perspectives on education reform,” but I’ve noticed that words and phrases like “holistic,” “student-centered,” or “reform” can carry a lot of baggage, dependent on the reader’s frame. Furthermore, when I do get around to posting, I’ve been straying from those themes at times and needed to find another way to capture what this blog is really about. Socio-ecological perspectives sounds perhaps more academic and clinical, but it succinctly states what threads consistently through most posts here.

Socio” stands for “social” or “society.” When we talk about a school as an ecosystem, we’re pointing to the fundamental importance of relationships. And when we extend that social, societal dimension to include “ecological,” we’re grounding those relationships in a physical space, time, and place. Relationships are shaped by their environments; when we discuss a school as an ecosystem, we’re acknowledging the importance of contexts and content, physical infrastructure and curriculum.

But if you really wanted to geek out and get technical on the definition of “socio-ecological,” here’s a wonderful articulation from

A socio-ecological system can be defined as:

  • A coherent system of biophysical and social factors that regularly interact in a resilient, sustained manner;
  • A system that is defined at several spatial, temporal, and organisational scales, which may be hierarchically linked;
  • A set of critical resources (natural, socioeconomic, and cultural) whose flow and use is regulated by a combination of ecological and social systems; and
  • A perpetually dynamic, and complex system with continuous adaptation.

Yes, all of that.

I’d like to focus this post on the “socio” part of things, drawing from a great post by Kara Finnegan and Alan Daly on Shanker Blog put up just today that very neatly makes the case for the importance of relationships in education.

Let me begin by stating the obvious, in case you don’t work in a school yourself. Relationships are everything in a classroom and school. I work in a middle school, and if there’s something happening with one of my student’s relationships with each other, or with their family, you bet it shows up in my classroom. Middle school kids, especially, are notorious for their focus on the social realm. But it’s just as important to the adults in a school. If there’s something happening between teachers, or a teacher’s relationship with the administration has shifted, you bet it shows up in the hallways, classrooms, and team meetings. It pervades.

Relationships determine the culture of a school.

But they determine much more than that, as Finnegan and Daly point out in their post—they also determine whether policies, instructional practices, and other forms of practice and knowledge are transmitted successfully or left withering at the door. You may think the problem of a failed reform is the information, “but relationships will trump even the best information.”

We wonder whether the current [reform] movement, based upon many of the same premises of standards and accountability that drove off prior reforms, has now created a thousand and one ways for schools to fail rather than changing the course of action and leading to the difficult work of changing the informal structure, norms, and culture described above – i.e., to build the capacity of these systems to bring about change.  Given the limited success of these efforts in most settings, particularly in large urban districts, it is time to shift the policy and reform attention from the school site as the unit of change to zooming out and exploring the systemwide context of reform: the horizontal and vertical social ‘ties’ between and among central offices and site leaders in a district enacting reform. In other words, it’s time to focus at the relational level.

Focus on the contexts and relationships. This is what I mean when I talk about the socio-ecological perspective of a school. If we simply view “fixing” schools as a technical problem, we’re bound to encounter the very same obstacles encountered by any prior reform. Without a shift in the culture and relationships in which any elegant technical fixes and knowledge are proffered, little will change. It’s about how things work together as a system.

Finnegan and Daly then use social network analysis to examine district relationships and sharing of knowledge. They discovered that central office administrators, unsurprisingly, had the most sharing of expertise. Then, interestingly, they found “district and site leaders” over on the other side of the map, which they termed “isolates”:

This means that no one seeks them for expertise, nor do they seek anyone. We see this as lost social capital in the organization, which in the current climate no district can afford. [bold added]

In other words, waste. I’ve written about this sort of waste in education before, when I wrote about why I left my last school on Chalkbeat NY. I said, “I want to be clear about one aspect of that struggling school: It is not struggling because teachers were ineffective or incompetent. In fact, in that school there lies dormant a vast human, social, and even physical capital entirely untapped, and that is what is the greatest of crimes” [bold added].

There’s a wealth of knowledge and expertise that lies untapped and wasted in schools across our nation. The good news is that by focusing on collaboration and building relationships, this network of social and human capital can expand. The social network analysis Finnegan and Daly conducted over time demonstrated that ties increased “when administrators realized information was not being promulgated effectively, [and] they decided to address that problem . . . they succeeded.” However, Finnegan and Daly point to a caveat:

Perhaps most critically, and unfortunately, during the same time period when these educational leaders increased work related ties, they also had a reduction in more affective relationships (e.g. trust).  These more “emotionally” laden relationships are important as they indicate something about the “quality” of the ties. Our own work as well as others suggests that these types of relationships are critical in supporting change. Absent these ties, in which individuals can engage in risk taking and exposing vulnerabilities, deeper work and the changes in practice may be inhibited.

We’ve discussed the importance of connections on this blog before, and we uncovered a relevant ecological principle from Bill Mollison: it is not simply the quantity of connections that matters, it’s the quality of those connections.

Wrapping up, Finnegan and Daly conclude that while talking about quality relationships sounds simple enough, it’s much more difficult to put into practice:

. . . in the current climate of pressure and distrust, educational leaders and practitioners at all levels of the system have formidable challenges ahead if complex and authentic reform – and not just political rhetoric – is really desired in our educational system.