Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Creative Stability: A Better Plan for Public Schools

Education reformers love the concept of "creative disruption." Applying a business model to public education, they argue that the way to improve schools is through disrupting the system by closing under-performing schools, firing under-performing teachers and introducing competition for students in the form of charter schools and school vouchers. Only by disrupting the system and exposing it to market forces can we hope to improve teaching and learning, or so the reformer narrative goes.

Let's set aside for a moment that all this "creative disruption" ignores the root cause for the struggles of public education - poverty. Leave aside also that the only way reformers seem to be able to identify "failing schools" and "failing teachers" is through standardized tests. Let's focus on the fatal flaw in the concept of "creative disruption." That fatal flaw is that disruption does not further student learning, indeed it interferes with learning on every level. Turmoil is anathema to learning. The turmoil created by closing public schools, high staff turnover (read TFA recruits), the opening and closing of charter schools will all only exacerbate the learning challenges of urban children.

What we need is not creative disruption, but creative stability. Creative stability would focus on providing children with an adequately financed, well-resourced, professionally-staffed, local neighborhood school.

Every teacher knows that children learn best in a stable environment. That is why teachers spend the first several days of school establishing routines and norms for the smooth functioning of the classroom. I like to think of it as setting the children up for success. Children are learning machines. The first job of the teacher then, is to establish rituals in the classroom that help the children get out of their own way to learn.

Literacy educator Lucy Calkins at Columbia Teachers College put it this way:

 I have finally realized that the most creative environments in our society are not the kaleidoscopic environments in which everything is always changing and complex.They are instead the predictable and consistent ones – the scholar’s library, the researcher’s laboratory, the artist’s studio. Each of these environments is deliberately kept predictable and simple because the work at hand is so unpredictable and complex.

The creative work of learning is indeed complex. All of us establish routines that assist us in getting the creative work of the day done. The teacher establishes a classroom routine that allows the students to get their work done. Their work is creative and challenging - we call it learning.

The stark contrast between creative disruption and creative stability is being played out at this moment in Newark, New Jersey. State appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson's One Newark plan, borrows directly from the education reformers' disruption playbook. This is not surprising. Anderson is a former leader of Teach for America and worked in uber-reformer Joel Klein's education office in New York City. She was handpicked by fellow reformer and former New Jersey Education Commissioner, Chris Cerf, to disrupt schools in Newark.

One Newark calls for closing schools, turning other schools over to charter operators, forcing teachers to re-apply for jobs, and busing students around the city so that they can attend a school of their parents "choice." 

The plan has not been received well by many of the people in Newark. This is in large part because the community had so little input into the plan and perhaps also because of Anderson's autocratic style. The plan has been thoroughly critiqued by Mark Weber and Bruce Baker of Rutgers University here. Weber and Baker found that the schools targeted for closing actually performed better than the charter schools they were being turned over to. They conclude:

[T]he choice, based on arbitrary and capricious classification, to subject disproportionate shares of low income and minority children to substantial disruption to their schooling, shifting many to schools under private governance, may substantially alter the rights of these children, their parents and local taxpayers[emphasis mine].

In part because of the unpopularity of the One Newark plan, Ras Baraka, a vocal opponent of the plan and also a Newark high school principal on leave from his job, was elected mayor in an election earlier this month. Baraka has endorsed a very different kind of plan for the Newark schools. This plan is called the Newark Promise and has been designed by a coalition of community groups and labor unions calling themselves The Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools. This plan, as I read it, is an attempt at creative stability.

The Newark Promise plan calls for a "comprehensive, multi-year strategy" that includes dealing with out of school factors that impact children's learning, improved facilities and tech structure, modernizing instructional materials, providing a comprehensive curriculum including arts and physical education, accountability through holistic measures of school quality, responsiveness to the community, and local political control. You can read about the full plan here.

In other words, the Newark Promise plan is focused on stable, well-resourced, neighborhood public schools. 

We know that one reason children in the inner city have difficulty learning is the constant disruption that is a major consequence of living in poverty. To think, as the education reformers do, that further disrupting these children's lives is going to lead to better learning is foolhardy at best, and criminal at worst. 

Creative stability is not a call for the status quo in education. It is, rather, a call for the kind of creativity needed to solve complex problems. It is a plea to look beyond just the school, the classroom and the teacher in a search for solving learning problems. It is, finally,  a call for the kind of incremental change that is likely to have lasting effects on schooling. 

Inner-city children, like all children, deserve a school, a classroom and a teacher that are focused on creative stability. In a stable neighborhood, school and classroom children can meet their true potential as learners.