Pressing for Reform: What Ecology Can Teach Us About School Reform

On September 21, 1998, Hurricane George struck the island of Puerto Rico as a Category 3 hurricane. It caused $2 billion in property damage. It also caused immense devastation to the El Yunque rainforest, which is one Puerto Rico’s most popular attractions and has been designated as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve. The picture on the left below shows the devastation that remained to one section of the public trail 6 weeks after the hurricane. The picture on the right shows the rapid growth along the same stretch of trail 9 months later. The forest floor was teeming with plant life under the bright sunlight. By three years after the hurricane, the trees had reestablished the canopy and within ten years, it became hard to discern the differences between the forest before and after Hurricane Georges. Nature is quite resilient even in the face of a devastating disturbance like a hurricane. Once the disturbance is over, nature has a way of returning very close to its pre-disturbance state. 

Likewise, I think schools are very resilient. Last month, I discussed a variety of school reform efforts that seemed to have changed very little about the core of teaching and learning as well as done very little to close the achievement gap between high and low income students. One of the models that was discussed was school turnaround in which the principal and all of the teachers are terminated and a new principal and teaching corps are hired (some of whom are rehired from the incumbent teaching corps). Now think about school turnaround like Hurricane Georges. The disturbance is abrupt and complete. The school looks like a blank canvas with a few hearty stems remaining. Yet, upon return 5-10 years later, it looks awfully similar to what the school was like before the turnaround (if it hasn’t been closed).  
Ecologists call this kind of disturbance a “pulse” disturbance. The disturbance comes from outside of the ecosystem, is intensely destructive, but short-lived. Once the disturbance is over, a robust ecosystem returns very close to its pre-disturbance state. This sounds very consistent with the 4 to 8-year election cycle reform model. It also gives insight into teachers’ feelings of “This too shall pass,” whenever administrators or reformers introduce new ideas in schools. 
Other types of disturbances do lead to drastic permanent changes to ecosystems. For example, coral reefs are disappearing all over the world. Ecologists are not sure why some reefs are resilient while others are not. Some of the factors that have been linked to coral reef destruction include, warmer ocean temperatures, sedimentation, invasive species, and over fishing. All of these factors are also outside of the ecosystem, but they are mulit-faceted, gradual and long-term. Ecologists refer to these kinds of disturbances as “press” disturbances.  They are unrelated, gradual changes that occur over a long period of time and eventually converge to create a tipping point that dramatically changes the ecosystem. 
Here are two examples of press disturbances in education. Thirty years ago, U.S. News and World Report published it’s first rankings of colleges. One-fourth of the ranking score is based on the selectivity of the admissions process and the quality of the student body as measured by test scores and class rank. Many universities actively manage their position within the rankings and some publicly state rankings targets. Over these past three decades, the importance of test scores in the admissions process has increased as the importance of the rankings has increased. Over this same time period, the college admissions gap between high income and low income students has increased. The codification of test scores that privilege the privilege has entrenched the advantage that the wealthy have in gaining access to the “best” universities. Many believe that the K12 test craze began with the enactment of No Child Left Behind. I contend that No Child Left Behind represents the tipping point for the press disturbance brought about by U.S. News. The No Child Left Behind legislation was possible only because the idea that SAT and ACT scores define college readiness was codified by U.S. News. 
The Race to the Top program at the U.S. Department of Education represents another tipping point in a long-term press disturbance. In 1988, the most typical teacher was a 15-year veteran. Twenty years later, the most typical teacher was a 1st year teacher. Around one-fourth of America’s teachers have less than 5 years of experience. In 1990, Teach for America began its mission to support urban districts that found it difficult to staff low performing schools. The vast majority of Teach for America teachers fulfill their two-year teaching commitment and then move on. Over the last 25 years, it has become hip to teach for a couple of years and then move on to one’s real career whether leading reform efforts or going on to grad school or the world of finance. While Teach for America represents a very small percentage of first year teachers, it has been the most vocal vanguard in this movement away from teaching as career. With the majority of new teachers not being career minded, it is no wonder that the strength of teacher unions is crumbling and the emergence of Race to the Top accountability efforts have strengthened. Teachers who see teaching as a stepping stone do not care about long-term pensions or tenure protections. In addition, the depleting corps of experienced teachers have greater control over their own destiny as schools must vie for fewer numbers of veterans. The more attractive and wealthier school settings will successfully recruit the experienced teachers. The least attractive and neediest schools will continue to struggle with recruiting and retaining teachers. Every effort to increase accountability on teachers and to provide band-aids through temporary teachers continues the downward spiral of our neediest schools.

I applaud the motivation of reformers like U.S. News and Teach for America that saw a need in education and created a long-term plan to address that particular need. However, a myopic focus on one aspect of education can have devastating effects on the system as a whole. We are in need of new visionaries who can look beyond the 4-year election cycle and can look beyond single issues. We need visionaries with a holistic, long-term view of our systems of education. Arthur Roy Clapham revolutionized the field of biology in the 1930s when he introduced the term “ecosystem” to focus attention on the long-term and large spatial scales that affect the health of particular biological locations. We need a similar revolution in education to shift away from short-term, localized pulse disturbances towards long-term and systemic press reform. Only with a focus on education as an ecosystem can we open up opportunities for all youth.