School Closings in Our Cities: A Deep Ecological Problem

In this post I am going to argue that it is a mistake for large school districts such as Chicago, New York, and Atlanta to close schools on the basis of achievement and cost effectiveness.  The Chicago School District announced that they plan to close 61 schools which is 13% of the total schools in the district.  This will be the largest mass school closings in U.S. history.  If you map these schools and their communities, the Chicago school board acts as if these schools are unimportant, and indeed the children and youth that attend these schools, because they are poor, and failing state mandated tests, can be moved about at their whim.  According to the president of Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, the decision to close more than 50 schools has been done with no planning.

Deep Ecological Considerations

In their research on what they call “green governance” Burns Weston and David Bollier (2013) offer an insightful analysis of the consequences of the way business enterprises in partnership with government are “fiercely commercializing” many resources that were protected or beyond the reach of such shenanigans.  Bollier (2002) calls this a scandal, and refers to it as a “silent theft” and “the private plunder of our common wealth.”  The closing of schools in the urban environment needs to be considered in the context of ecological issues that are plaguing the world today.  All environments are subject to our understanding of the biosphere, ecosystems, ecology and environmental science.  We often fail to realize that the economic systems that are in place are not separate, but have consequences in the real world.  Weston and Bollier  (2013) call our attention to the effects of the “State and Market” pathways to development and profits.  They write:

The results include pollution and waste in the form of acid rain, hydrocarbon emissions, poisoned waterways, and toxic waste dumps; short-term overuse and destruction of natural resources such as forests, waterways, and fisheries, along with the roads, bridges, harbors, and other material infrastructure needed for their exploitation; and the devaluation of urban and other human settlements, exemplified by “brownfields” and suburban sprawl, which especially affect the poor and racial and other minorities. The policies and practices responsible for this state of affairs are morally and economically unacceptable; they are also environmentally unsustainable (emphasis mine).

The drive to close schools in the urban and inner city environments is clearly the result of policies that lack any understanding and empathy for a world-view that is sustainable, and humane.  I am not suggesting that the human species is any more important than other species of animals and plants.  I am suggesting that as one of many species sharing the earth at this time, we need to recognize how we are connected to other living things and the biosphere.  Without this kind of knowledge, it is very easy for the rich and for those in power to deal with others less fortunate in extreme inhumane ways.

School Closings in the U.S.
School Closings in the U.S.

In their research book entitled Ecology of Wisdom (2010), Alan Drengson and Bill Devall explore the works of Arne Naess, “mountaineer, Gandhian boxer, professor, activist and a student of life’s philosophy.”  Naess’s work has direct implications for the school closures in Chicago, and other urban districts around the country.

Arne Naess, as early as 1965 critiqued the short-term shallow ecology movement (Drengson & Devall, 2010), and compared it to his own thinking which was the long-range deep ecology movement.  Naess citied Rachel Carson as a major influence on his thinking or view of ecology (deep ecology), and joined this view with Gandhian nonviolence, to become an environmental activist.  The Chicago Teachers Union, which resisted peacefully the Chicago school board’s actions last year, is pushing back against the proposed school closings.

Naess realized that it was crucial to have a “whole view of the world and life” to have meaningful dialogue about the environment.  He also believed deeply in the Gandhian belief of respecting the humanity of others.  According to Drengson & Devall, Naess was an interdisciplinary thinker, and was interested in studying grassroots movements to realize the main principles and values of the movement.  The teacher’s union in Chicago, in my view, is a grassroots movement of educators who are willing to act on principles of equity and fairness, and a deep understanding of the ecology of neighborhoods and significance of schools.

Urban schools are important, and they are part of communities and neighborhoods that bring meaning and value to the people who live there.  Naess would most likely join with the Chicago Teachers Union to support their activism.

Schools are Part of, not Separate from their Communities

Mr. Ed Johnson, an education advocate in Atlanta, and a student of W. Edwards Deming, has worked for at least a decade to raise questions about the kind of education that is being put upon the children and youth of Atlanta, and the district’s policy of closing schools in poor neighborhoods.

In an interview posted on YouTube in 2012, Mr. Johnson discussed the Atlanta Public School (APS) closing proposed by Superintendent Dr. Errol Davis.  Ed Johnson opposes the closing of any of the schools in the system.  His interest is in how to improve Atlanta schools, rather than the effort to turn the schools over to private charter organizations.

Public schools should be sustained and improved, not closed.  Simply closing schools to save money (and Mr. Johnson agrees that the APS is in financial need) is a shallow way of thinking about school improvement.  Johnson, from his work professionally as a student of Deming explains that a school is part of a community, and to simply cut or close schools will result in consequences to the entire community.  Closing a school disrupts a community to such an extent that even though the district might save $5 million over a ten-year period, the real effect will be losing money.  Not only do parents depend on the neighborhood school as a public place to educate their children, but the school itself, being part of a community, is connected to many entities that make up the community.  Johnson recommends that instead operating a school at full capacity, we might consider a variable capacity school that makes adjustments to the student population.  By keeping the schools intact, and reducing the overall costs to run the school based on enrollment, a schools remains as a vibrant part of the community, and with community leadership can begin to rebuild and improve the school.

Johnson explains that s system (such as a community) is more than a sum of its parts.  He says that if we get the parts (of a school & its community) working together, it will result in much more than the sum of the parts.  Narrow thinking will lead to the closing of schools because the central office looks only at short-term savings of money, where the kind of deep thinking that Johnson is advocating might create an environment for school improvement, rather than closure.

And one more thing.  Mr. Johnson tasks the school board with telling us what they think is the purpose of schooling in Atlanta.  As he points out, asking nine school board members this question several years ago resulted in nine different answers. As Johnson says, if they can’t agree on the purpose of schools, how can they function to improve the district.  Why do have public schools?  What is the purpose of school?  If we can not answer such a basic question, how can we possibly make serious decisions about people’s lives such as shutting down their children’s schools.  And indeed Mr. Johnson’s ideas about purpose of schooling are in sync with Edward Deming’s ideas when he says:

People are asking for better schools, with no clear idea how to improve education, nor even how to define improvement of education (Deming 1994).

I think you might find it valuable to watch Mr. Johnson’s interview which appears in this video.  View the second part of his video interview here.

Why is that school boards and superintendents of some of America’s largest cities think that the quality of life for citizens living in poor neighborhoods is not as important as to those living away from these neighborhoods?  Instead of trying to foster leadership at the local school and neighborhood level, boards and superintendents are either closing schools or turning schools over to corporate run charter schools whose interest may not be in fostering learning beyond what it takes to pass a multiple choice test, and to staff these schools with outsiders who are un-certified and inexperienced.  As Deming, and in the case of Mr. Johnson, believe, our present thinking about schools lacks purpose, and is shallow and short-term.  The emphasis is on immediate results, and comparisons from one year to the next.  In the case of schools, student achievement test scores are used to make these evaluations, and because this is the bottom line for the state department of education, teachers are teaching for the test.  The Atlanta cheating scandal is a direct result of this policy.

We need new goals for schooling.  The goals need to be in the service of students and their families, not the broad economic interests of governments and corporations.  We need to think differently about schools, and we need to realize that they are not corporations, and they do not have the same purposes of corporations.

As Deming (1994a) points out, beware of common sense when we think about such issues as ranking children by grades, ranking schools and teachers by test scores, and rewards and punishments.  Deming believes that grades should be abolished, and that the ranking of people and schools should not occur.  And significant to the issue of school closure, Deming suggests that taking action (such as closing a school today) may produce more problems in the future, and that a better remedy would be investigate why children in poor neighborhoods are not doing well on state mandated tests, and then do something about it.

Why are we closing schools?  We are doing this because our thinking is shallow.  We use numerical goals as if they were real goals (90% of students will graduate by the year 2050), and in the end, we end up punishing those people and schools that couldn’t live up the expectations of people who know very little about schooling, curriculum, learning and teaching.  All goals are reduced to a report card, that in some states is as simple as A,B,C!

In a report by the Pew Charitable Trust on the effects of 193 school closures in six large cities (Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City, in addition to Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC), it was found that the money saved has been relatively small, its been difficult to sell the vacant school buildings, and when closing announcements are made, academic performance of students falls.  But perhaps more importantly, the study found that it was important for the school boards and superintendents to make a strong case for downsizing, and be willing to listen to parents and community leaders about alternatives and to make adjustments.  This does not seem to be happening in Chicago.

Is the policy of closing schools for cost effectiveness a way to improve education in that district?


D. Bollier, 2003. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge.

W. E. Deming, 1994. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, Second Edition. Cambridge, The MIT Press.

W. Edwards Deming, 1994a. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (Kindle Location 349). Kindle Edition.

A. Drengson & B. Devall, 2010. Ecology of Wisdom: Writings of Arne Naess. Berkeley: Counterpoint.

B. H. Weston & D. Bollier, 2013.  Green Governance (Kindle Locations 190-194). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Part II: Will the Debate over Evolution End Soon?

We introduced this topic yesterday and referred to an Associated Press story, in which Richard Leakey suggests that the debate over evolution will end sometime over the next 15 to 30 years.  Leakey’s thesis was:

If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it’s solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive,” Leakey says, “then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.

We also introduced research completed at the University of Michigan entitled When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions by researchers Brendan Nyhan, School of Public Health, University of Michigan, and Jason Reifler, Department of Political Science, Georgia State University. This study, although in the realm of political behavior, has strong implications for science education, especially in the teaching of science-related social issues—-namely the evolution debate, and climate change.

As these researchers reported, pre-existing beliefs are preserved even with contrary information. The first mechanism that they shine a light on is that individuals may “engage in a biased search process, seeking out information that supports their preconceptions and avoiding evidence that undercuts their beliefs. A second mechanism is called the “backfire effect.” In this case, individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly—i.e.–the backfire effect.

So when Dr. Leakey suggests that with knowledge and a persuasive argument, people may come around to believe that evolutionary theory is a valid explanation for the creation and development of life on the earth, we have to wonder how Nyhan and Reifler’s research findings play into this prediction.

For example, the Figure 1 shows views people belonging to different political parties have on climate change and evolution.  The study was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in the Fall of 2011.  In their study they found that 57% of Americans believe that humans and other living things have evolved over time, compared to 38% who say humans and other living things have existed in their present form since creation.  Nearly 70% of Americans believe there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, compared to only 26% that disagree.

Figure 1. Views on Climate Change and Evolution. Source: Public Religion Research Institute, Extracted 5/28/2012

Since we are interested in why people have a particular view, we looked at the results by people’s political party affiliation.  According to this survey, there are differences in views of these two issues based on party affiliation and religious group affiliation. The majority of Republican and Tea Party members disagree with Democrats and Independents that the earth is warming up, and that evolution is due to natural selection.  Less than 20% of Republicans and Tea Party members think that human activity has caused earth warming.

White evangelical Protestant (33%) were more likely than other religious groups to believe that created within the last 10,000 years.  And they are significantly less likely to believe the earth is getting warmer because of human activity, while mainline Protestants (43%), catholics (50%), or the unaffiliated (52%).

One’s world view is influenced by many factors including political party affiliation or not, and religious identity or not.  Republicans, Tea Party and White evangelical Protestants were more likely to disagree with the science that supports evolution and climate change.  Why do these three groups hold these views, when Democrats, Independents and mainstream Protestants and Catholics have clearly different views?

Conservative and Progressive World Views

We might be able to gain some insight into why political party and religious affiliation might affect people’s believes in various issues such as climate change, evolution, by comparing progressive world view to conservative world views.

In order to understand how world-views can be used to examine these issues, we are using the cognitive modeling and cognitive theory of metaphor by George Lakoff. Lakoff in his book Thinking Points:

formulated the nation-as-family metaphor as a precise mapping between the nation and the family: the homeland as home, the citizens as siblings, the government (or the head of government) as parent. The government’s duty is to citizens as a parent’s is to children: provide security (protect us); make laws (tell us what we can and cannot do); run the economy (make sure we have enough money and supplies); provide public schools (educate us).

In Lakoff’s research he has shown that this conceptual metaphor produces two very different models of families: a “strict father” family and a “nurturant parent” family. In his view this creates two fundamentally different ideologies about how the nation should be governed. I am suggesting that these two views can teach us why people would have such different views on controversial issues such as evolution and climate change.

Progressive View.  In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturant parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturant parents are authoritative but with out being authoritarian.

If we apply the nurturant parent model to politics, Lakoff suggests that what we get is a “progressive moral and political philosophy. The progressive world-view then is based on these two ideas:

  • Empathy: the capacity to connect with other people, to feel what others feel, to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others.
  • Responsibility: acting on that empathy—responsibility for yourself and for others. (Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Locations 827-830). Macmillan. Kindle Edition)

Conservative View. The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family. Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”.

In the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by Rockbridge, the conservative family can be characterized as follows (from Brewer, Conservative Morality):

  • The Strict Father Family is the traditional family with a father and mother
  • The father is the head of the house
  • The mother is supportive and upholds the authority of the father
  • A hierarchy exists and is never to be questioned
  • Children are weak and lack self-control
  • Parents know what is best
  • Children learn right and wrong when punished by doing wrong
  • When children become self-discipline, respect authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the world.

This list of characteristics helps us understand a conservative family’s world-view. As we look around us, and especially when we examine schooling today, we see the influence of the conservative world-view. Indeed, the fundamental values of the conservative world-view shape most aspects of public schools today.

In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute, the core conservative values are:

Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (therefore it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)

How do these two world views helps us understand people’s views on evolution and climate change.

Beliefs about Evolution & Climate Change

In the conservative world view, hierarchical rules are established abiding by the notion of a strict father family, and children would be brought up to accept with out questioning views that the “father” held, with no questions asked.  In conservative religions, there is little acceptance of a questioning attitude, and people’s views are often limited to what they have been told, and over time, come to believe.  This is not to say that people’s ideas can not change as they get older.  But the important point is that authority and discipline are core values in a conservative view.

In the progressive world view, ones political views would emerge from a nurturing parent family model in two-way communication is respected, in a context of building open relationships.  In the progressive view inquiry would be seen as a fundamental way to acquire knowledge of science, and religion, and thus views on issues would be different than views from an authoritarian source or background.

Beliefs, however, can change.  Winslow, Staver and Scharmann (JRST, 2011) report that in a mid-Western Christian university biology course for undergraduates, students, who had been raised to believe in creationism, came to accept evolution through evaluating evidence for evolution, discussing the literalness of Genesis, and understanding that evolution was not a salvation issue.  They were also influenced by their Christian professors as role models who accept evolution.

Beliefs about evolution and climate change have become highly charged in recent years with these two issues being entwined with each other as politically motivated groups work to effect the teaching of these topics in K-12 public schools.  Conservative groups such as the Discovery Institute, and the Heritage Foundation have worked with state legislatures around the country to influence the way science is taught by insisting that topics like evolution, climate change, and global warming be treated differently than other scientific ideas such as gravity, plate tectonics, and light.

Although conservative right-wing overtures have been pushed back by the courts, the latest wedge of slipping legislation into the books has been making progress in quite a few states such as Louisiana and Tennessee.

We return to Dr. Leakey’s view that the debate about evolution will end over the next 30 years.  Because scientific ideas such as evolution and climate change have become politicized, its difficult to see that more knowledge and data will change the debate.  There has been veracious attempt to influence the public’s thinking about issues such as evolution and climate change.  We only need to think back to 1962 when a famous book was published by a woman who had spent years studying the effects of pesticides on the environment.  And then we should be reminded of what the tobacco industry did to claim that the science on the risks associated with tobacco use was not settled, and indeed much of the research was simply junk science.

What do you think?  How do you see people’s views being influenced by the type of family that were raised in, as well as their religion, culture and race?  Let us hear from you.


Part I. Will the Debate over Evolution End Soon?


Richard Leakey says that looking at the past the way paleontologists and anthropologist do can teach us much about the future.  He points out that extinction is one of the most common types of phenomena observed in nature, and that extinctions are related to environmental change.  He suggests that environmental change is controlled by climate change, and now, humans are at the center of accelerating, indeed creating the kind of changes in climate that we see on Earth today.



His concern, which is shared by many scientists and science educators, is that fewer and fewer people, especially in the U.S. accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the development of life on Earth.  Leakey goes as far to say that some groups are spreading the word that science is nonsense.  And as he puts it, how can we really solve the great problems we have today without looking to science for reliable and truthful knowledge?

A recent poll reported that very few people in the US accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the creation of life on Earth. According to the National Center for Science Education, in a 24-country poll, 41% of the respondents identified themselves as “evolutionists” and 28% as “creationists”, and 31% indicating they don’t know what to believe. In the US, 28% were “evolutionists”, with the “creationist” view held by 40%.  The evolution view was most popular in Sweden, with the U.S. ranking 18.

In the most recent polling on evolution, only a bare majority of New Jersey residents (51%) believed in evolution.  Democrats and independents, males, college graduates were likely to answer yes; Republicans, females, those with only a high school education or less were more likely to answer no.

Leakey’s point of course is deeper than peoples’ belief in evolution, but peoples’ view of the nature of science.  Do people understand science in a way that they can evaluate information and use it to make decisions on problems such as climate change?  Do people understand how science works enough to interpret findings and reports by science writers, and scientists themselves.

This is not a simple matter.  Science teachers, who work to provide a bridge between the world of science, and the world of youth, have had to grapple with the meaning of what is the kind of scientific literacy that is most beneficial for citizens today.  For some scientists, and science educators, the orthodoxy of science is what should be taught in schools, while for others, science literacy should be entwined with the lived world of students.

Whether we teach science from a traditional or a progressive paradigm, students come to our class with scientific perceptions that have been built up and learned over time.  Students arriving in 9th grade biology have constructed ideas about inheritance, genes, cells, traits, and the relationship between natural selection and environment.  Because these ideas overlap with their religious beliefs and their family’s political beliefs, there is often a conflict for them about evolution, and other controversial ideas in science.  The important notion is that students enter courses in science with beliefs about evolution, climate change, and global warming, and each of these ideas has become politicized by various advocacy groups, and of course the press.

So when we do polling in the U.S. on evolution beliefs, and beliefs about whether global warming is associated with human industrial and growth activity, we have to consider the context.  In many cases, the science that has led to the theory (or law) of evolution, or the theory of climate change (there are several) has been subject to derision by groups in whose interest it is to negate the scientists and their work.  Ever since Darwin published his 1859 work on evolution, he and his ideas about natural selection have been front and center in science education, especially beginning with the famous Scopes Trial.  There are lots of folks that would like to give equal time to religious beliefs about origins.

Climate change has also hit the buttons of what appears to be the same groups of people that don’t “believe in evolution.”  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading network of climate change scientists, has clearly shown that the Earth’s average temperature is on the rise, and it is due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.  And of course we’ve all heard of “climategate,” which to some proves that climate change is nothing more than a scam made up by scientists.  I still do not know why leading scientists, who publish their work in established and vetted journals, would want to perpetuate such misleading ideas, but there are lots of people who think they are doing just that.  And the world is flat; astronauts did not go to the moon; and the Earth is 10,000 years old.

But here is the thing.

Scientific Perceptions Persist Even with Facts & Teaching

There was a very interesting study completed at the University of Michigan entitled When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions by researchers Brendan Nyhan, School of Public Health, University of Michigan, and Jason Reifler, Department of Political Science, Georgia State University. This study, although in the realm of political behavior, has strong implications for science education, especially in the teaching of science-related social issues—-namely the evolution debate, and climate change.

In their abstract (which follows), Nyhan and Reifler point out that even when individuals are provided with corrective knowledge about a particular issue, some respondents actually increase their misperceptions:

An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

One of the key aspects of this study for me is the authors discussion of why pre-existing beliefs are preserved even with contrary information. The first mechanism that they shine a light on is that individuals may “engage in a biased search process, seeking out information that supports their preconceptions and avoiding evidence that undercuts their beliefs. A second mechanism is called the “backfire effect.” In this case, individuals who receive unwelcome information may not simply resist challenges to their views, they may come to support their original opinion even more strongly—i.e.–the backfire effect.

So when Dr. Leakey suggests that with knowledge and a persuasive argument, people may come around to believe that evolutionary theory is a valid explanation for the creation and development of life on the earth, we have to wonder how Nyhan and Reifler’s research findings play into this prediction.

Simply laying out the “facts” will not change people’s views of controversial ideas like the origin of life, or whether humans are contributing to changing the Earth’s climate.

For example, it may be that ones world view may play a more important role in determining how one accepts new information and uses that information to construct ideas that might be different than when one began discussing or learning about them.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss world view, and how it might help us with Dr. Leakey’s prediction that the evolution debates will fade away in the next 30 year.

In the meantime, what do you think?  Will the debate on evolution fade away soon?


Sir Isaac Newton’s Notebooks and Papers

Trinity College Notebook by Isaac Newton

At Cambridge University you can access original copies of Sir Isaac Newton’s works including his college notebook (1664 – 1665), Early Papers, Notebook on Hydrostatics, Optics, Sound and Heat (1672 – 1706), his own copy of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687).

Although not all of Newton’s papers are housed at Cambridge University, the collection there is important.  Newton was a student at Cambridge from 1661 – 1665, and held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics from 1669 – 1701.

Here are images and links to some of his notebooks, papers and books.

Early Papers, Isaac Newton
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton

10 Hall of Fame Teachers

Lori Kobelan emailed me linking me to Education Hall of Fame: 10 Teachers who made history.

Throughout our experience as a student, we all had at least one “hall of fame” teacher, a teacher that inspired us, believed in us, and showed us the way out of the woods.

Here is the list and a link to the post where you can read about each teacher on this hall of fame.  From there you can link to a website for each hall of fame teacher.

  • Socrates
  • Confucius
  • Anne Sullivan
  • Elizabeth Blackwell
  • Randy Pausch
  • Allan Bloom
  • Christa McAuliffe
  • Jaime Escalante
  • Erin Gruwell
  • Mary Duncan

Who would you add to the list? Add your choice to the comments section for all of us to see.

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