Governor Deal Exchanges Letters with Ed Johnson–Ships Passing in the Night

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Governor Deal exchanges Letters with Ed Johnson–Ships Passing in the Night.

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ed Johnson had a “ships passing in the night” experience sending a letter to Governor Nathan Deal.  Ed wrote a brief letter clearly stating that there is a better way to help Georgia’s struggling schools than imposing a state take over of “chronically failing” schools with the Governor’s Opportunity School District.  He even included examples of community-based programs that are working and could be implemented in Georgia.  Johnson’s letter was personal, and based on years of research on how organizations work.

The Governor’s reply came the same day.  Isn’t  that amazing.  A citizen can write a letter and get an immediate response from the governor?

Even though Ed was waving his hands, jumping up and down, and shining a spotlight on the Governor’s ship, his words were ignored.  He received nothing more than the talking points that the Governor and his office use to brainwash citizens of Georgia that a Louisiana Recovery School District type plan is just what the government ordered.

We simply do not agree with the Governor.  His plan is an overreach of government, and ignores the research on the New Orleans Recovery School District.

I’ve included each letter in this post for you to read and make your own decision.

What do you think?

Ed Johnson’s Letter to the Governor

Dear Governor Deal,

With all due respect, sir, you don’t have to do this. You really don’t. There is a better way.

Cincinnati Public Schools demonstrates a better way. Jack Hassard, Professor Emeritus, Science Education, Georgia State University, writes about the CPS better way on this blog [1].

Iredell-Statesville Schools [2], Statesville, NC, demonstrates a better way. It is important for you to know that Iredell-Statesville holds the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, having earned that privilege in 2008. You do know about Baldrige for Education [3], don’t you?

Iredell-Statesville eagerly shares with others their district’s ongoing journey with continual quality improvement. I am aware, and it is important for you to know, that AdvancED/SACS visited Iredell-Statesville to learn about that district’s journey with continual quality improvement. And you know what? AdvancED/SACS subsequently based much of its new AdvancED Standards for Quality [4] on what was learned from Iredell-Statesville. Imagine that.

Leander Independent School District [5], Leander, TX, very near Austin, demonstrates a better way. Leander has been on their ongoing journey with continual quality improvement for more than a decade. People there talk of the “Leander Way” and of being in “Happyville.” That’s because of their practice in the principles and teachings of the late, world-renowned Dr. W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) [6]. “The Deming Way” remains the basis of “The Leander Way” and that district’s ongoing journey with continual quality improvement. Like Iredell-Statesville, Leader eagerly shares with visitors what they do and why they do it.

I once offered our Atlanta Superintendent and Board of Education a fee-paid initial consultation with a leading, internationally practiced educator in helping schools and school districts onto a journey of continual quality improvement. Well, the APS superintendent and board rejected the offer. Dare guess why? I was informed they rejected the offer because – now get this – because “Deming is not applicable to the ‘Black culture’.”

Gov. Deal, sir, there is but one rational reason you will persist with your intention to impose upon the State of Georgia your “Opportunity School District” designs. And that reason is the same reason Atlanta superintendent and school board rejected being willing to learn about and from Dr. Deming’s principles and teachings. And that, sir, is unforgivable.

It was my pleasure for six years to serve as President, Atlanta Area Deming Study. During that time, the study group’s programming centered on introducing educators throughout Georgia and elsewhere and especially Atlanta Public School educators to the “Deming Way.” Only once did we have APS participation. Though no longer active, the study group met monthly or quarterly on the Georgia Tech Campus. Our Deming Study Group was honored to have as guest presenters such persons that ranged from Dr. Stephen Porch, then-Chancellor, University System of Georgia, and two Atlanta Therrell High School students who had stood to teach that Atlanta Superintendent’s and Board of Education’s decision to “reconstitute” their school would come to naught. The students were right, reconstituting Therrell High School did indeed come to naught.

Sir, your “Opportunity School District” will also come to naught. If you would genuinely and honestly care to learn why your OSD will come to naught, it will be my pleasure to meet to talk about it.

Respectfully,

Ed Johnson
Advocate for Quality in Public Education
(404) 505-8176 | edwjohnson@aol.com

[1] http://www.artofteachingscience.org/dear-governor-deal-here-is-an-ahttpwww-cps-k12-orgcommunityclclternative-to-your-opportunity-school-district/
[2] http://www.iss.k12.nc.us/
[3] http://www.baldrigeforeducation.org/
[4] http://www.advanc-ed.org/services/advanced-standards-quality
[5] http://www.leanderisd.org/
[6] https://deming.org/theman/overview

The Governor’s Letter to Mr. Johnson

STATE OF GEORGIA
OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR
ATLANTA 30334-0900
Nathan Deal
GOVERNOR

Dear Mr. Johnson:

Thank you for taking the time to write my office and share your thoughts about the Opportunity School District with me. I appreciate the chance to hear your opinion and consider your point of view.

As the governor of Georgia, I am committed to giving our students access to a world-class education that will train them for the jobs of tomorrow. The education of Georgia’s children is my top priority, and I take very seriously the need to improve education opportunities for all students. The Opportunity School District that I am proposing will provide a safety-net for Georgia’s children who are assigned to attend chronically failing schools. The economic health of these schools and communities suffers when the students and parents have limited or no choice in their education.

My proposal defines chronically failing schools as those earning an “F” on the Georgia Department of Education’s College and Career Performance Index (CCRPI) for three consecutive years. There will be no more than 20 schools added to the Opportunity School District (OSD) per year and no more than 100 schools in the OSD at any given time. This will allow the district to be effective in providing support to the students for their success. Unless their performance improves significantly for three consecutive years, the selected schools will remain in the state-wide district for a minimum of five years and a maximum of ten years before returning to the authority of the local school district or continuing to operate as an independent public charter school. I will appoint the Opportunity School District superintendent, who will report directly to me.

In every potential OSD school, parents, teachers, education leaders, business leaders, faith leaders, and other school community stakeholders will have opportunities to provide feedback and suggestions during the decision-making processes to select schools to include in the OSD and to select the intervention model that will provide the greatest improvement and success for that school. The interventions to be considered when meeting with stakeholders in each school will include direct management by the OSD, management by contract between the OSD and the local school board that requires certain changes and improvements, becoming an OSD charter school with a non-profit governing board of community members, and school closure, which would be a last resort likely used only in a select few situations. The final decision, after receiving and carefully considering all stakeholder input, will be made by the OSD superintendent.

Currently, 96 percent of the districts that have Opportunity School District-eligible schools spend at or above the state average of $8,400 per student each year. While all of the schools currently identified as potentially eligible for the Opportunity School District have high rates of poverty among the student bodies, this level of per pupil funding directed to the school is expected to provide adequate funding for effective operation.  Schools in the Opportunity School District would receive a per student share of all local, state, and federal funds coming into the school districts in which the OSD schools are located. It is also important for you to know that there are quite a number of schools in Georgia that consist of 80% or more students of poverty and 80% or more minority students that have earned a CCRPI score of 80 or more for the last three years, and there are even more schools with the same demographics that earned a CCRPI score greater than or equal to the state average of 74 for the last three years. 74% of these schools are located in school districts that spent less than the state average per pupil amount in 2014 – a telling statistic.

A few more important facts about the schools in the Opportunity School District are below.

OSD schools will have the same attendance zones and student populations as they had under the local board of education.
OSD schools will be operated in the existing school buildings, with arrangements made between the OSD and the local board of education for facilities use and other services such as transportation, food service, and broadband capability.
Student records for OSD school students will be transferred from the local board of education to the OSD school so that student education is not interrupted.
OSD schools that choose to become charter schools will operate with non-profit governing boards made up of community members with specific skills and abilities needed to support a successful charter.

In preparing for this initiative, I have studied similar efforts in Louisiana and Tennessee. In Louisiana, the Recovery School District (RSD) was implemented first in New Orleans in 2005. The percentage of students performing at or above grade level increased by 34 percentage points between 2005 and 2013, while the state average increase was only nine percentage points during that same time period. During that same time period, the graduation rate increased by 19 percentage points for students in the New Orleans RSD. The percentage of failing schools in the Recovery School District has decreased by 45 percent from 2008 to 2013. Student and parent surveys also yielded positive ratings for school culture and effectiveness after implementation.

Schools that are successful in preparing students for postsecondary opportunities and the work force are critical to the future of Georgia’s children and the communities in which they live. I view the Opportunity School District as a strategy to fulfill the obligation of the state to provide hope for the families, students, and communities where schools have historically struggled.

The educational success of every child is important to me. Thank you again for writing. If my office can be of any further assistance to you, please let me know.

 

In Spite of the “System,” Urban Teachers Have a Record of Success

In spite of the “System” the evidence is that urban teachers have a record of success, not one that is spiraling down.  The present state of reform of American education is based on the idea that American students are doing poorly, and this will lead to disastrous economic consequences, and the loss of American’s place in the global economic competition.

But, education (for our students) should not be a competition.  There is no need to have winners and losers as outcomes of the school experience.  Education is about learning, and in an environment that has as its core belief that learning is the fundamental goal of schooling.  Students are living in the present, and their school experience should be based on their lives now, and should not be based on furthering the economic prosperity of society.  Schooling should not be based on job training, career readiness or college entry.  It should be based on fostering the creative and innovative aspects of youth, and create school as a learning environment designed to help students learn to collaborate, work with others to solve problems, and engage in content from the arts and the sciences that has personal meaning.

We’ve been told that urban education in America needs to be saved by pouring advise and money from the élite and influential corporations and philanthropic groups.  The problem is that these groups are focused on only one set of outcomes that all come down to increasing student academic performance measured by high-stakes examinations.

I want to show here that urban teachers have held their own for the past decade and half in spite of the problems they face in their schools day-to-day.  They not only have held their own, but the evidence shows that academic performance of their students (in mathematics at the 8th grade) in the example below has slowly but surly increased as shown in Figure 1.  As you can see, in Atlanta, students at the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile increased performance on NAEP tests given from 2003 through 2013.

Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 - 2013.
Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 – 2013.

Reading and Math in Urban Schools

Take a look at the next four figures (Figures 2 – 5).  They were compiled by Mr. Ed Johnson in his study of the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA).  Johnson, who is a student W. Edwards Deming, examined the TUDA results through a Deming Lens.  A Deming Lens means that to understand the behavior of a system, one must look at the system.  Breaking down a system into its parts (goals, policies, finances, curriculum, teachers, administrators, parents, directors) loses one’s ability to understand the system.

Each of the graphs below shows the behavior of these four systems over ten years.  You will notice that there is variation in the achievement scores of students in reading (grades 4 and 8) and mathematics (grades 4 and 8) from one testing period to the next.  But the variation is within upper and lower limits that would be expected in each system.

Causes of Variation in Scores

According to W. Edwards Deming 94% of the variation is due to the nature of the system, not the people who work in or make the system work.  Only 6% are attributable to special causes.  (W. Edwards Deming. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (p. 33). Kindle Edition).

As you look over the graphs you will see ONLY FOUR instances where the variation in scores lies outside the Upper Control Limit (UCL), and then only in 4th grade reading  Examples include: Charlotte, 2009, Austin, 2011, Charlotte, 2011, and Hillsborough, 2011.  Except for these four instances, all the variation is due to the nature of the system.

Figure 2. Location of Cities in the Trial Urban District Assessment; Gold triangle-higher than large city; Circle--not different; Blue triangle-lower than large city. Source: Nations Report Card
Figure 2. Location of Cities in the Trial Urban District Assessment; Gold triangle-higher than large city; Circle–not different; Blue triangle-lower than large city. Source: Nations Report Card.  Click on Map for more details.

The graphs below plot reading and math scores for 21 school urban school districts.  Mr. Johnson highlighted Atlanta (in red) and DC Public Schools (purple).  As you can note in the following graphs, achievement scores in reading and math for Atlanta and DC Public Schools fell within the Upper and Lower Control limits.  There is no radical change in scores, either up or down.  It appears that the teachers in these urban schools are doing the job they were hired to do and that is help their students learn how to read, and do mathematics.  And they’ve done this in spite of all the issues that surround schools in urban communities.

In systems thinking, as Mr. Johnson would tell us, there are two types of causes of variation in any system.  The most important cause of variation in any system is what we call “common causes” of variation that is really a function of the system itself.  Examples of common cause variation will fall within control limits on a graph (as shown below in Figures 2 – 5). Examples of common causes that influence variation (scores on tests, for example, or graduation rates) include 

  • High percentage of children from low SES groups.
  • Where the school is located. It’s zip code.
  • Age of the school building.
  • Size of the school system.
  • Underpinning policies, practices, procedures of the school which determines it’s culture.
  • Inadequate resources.

According to Deming, nearly all outputs of schooling are the result of common cause variation, and these would include drop out rates, achievement test scores, violence, bullying, gang activity, low self esteem, attitudes, under performance and literacy skills.

Defying Gravity

When we examine a school system from a systems thinking view, these outputs are causes by the day to day effects of common causes of variation.  As Deming and other systems thinkers, such as Ed Johnson would say, trying to seek achievement scores beyond what see in the graphs (Figures 2 – 5) is to “defy gravity.”  Reformers have charged ahead as if they can “defy gravity” and have put the blame of not improving test scores in the wrong place.

Managers (administrators) and workers (teachers) are not “common cause” variables.  However, since schools are based on a linear factory model, “reformers” ignore common causes, and instead claim that teachers and administrators can overcome the challenges posed by common causes.  When reformers insist on market reforms, and they don’t work, they blame the teachers and principles.  And to make matters worse, they use student test scores (which are the result of common causes) to evaluate teachers on the basis of false assumptions about schooling.

We think that the present system of reading and mathematics is fairly stable.  The output in reading and math (as measured by a test score) vary little, and one can make predictions about future reading and math output.

reading 4th

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We will explore systems thinking in future posts.  But for now, what do think about the analysis of the NAEP TUDA data as compiled by Ed Johnson?

A Systems Thinker Reviews The Atlanta Public Schools’ Performance in Reading & Math

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People are asking for better schools, with no clear idea how to improve eduction, or even how to define improvement of education (except to increase test performance on high-stakes tests).

Most people are in favor of improving education.  But when asked how would they improve education, the suggestions are insufficient, and in some cases, even negative (See W. Edwards Deming. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (p. 8). Kindle Edition.)

Instead of reporting the details of how people and organizations want to improve education, such as corporate chiefs, philanthropists, and the U.S. Department of Education, I want to report on the work of Mr. Ed Johnson, an advocate for quality education, and has for more than a decade devoted himself to writing and talking about improving education in the Atlanta Public Schools.

Systems Thinking

Ed Johnson consults as Quality Information Solutions, Inc., with a commitment to human social and cultural systems to receive quality information from information systems for the continual improvement of life, work, and play. His commitment extends to advocating the transformation of K-12 public education systems to humanistic paradigms from prevailing mechanistic paradigms. Ed also is former president of Atlanta Area Deming Study Group.

Ed Johnson is a systems thinker.

In this regard, he believes schools can not be improved by trying to improve the parts separately.  It is a sure path to failure.  For example, some advocates of educational reform believe that student achievement can be improved by weeding out the bad teachers.  Millions of dollars have been invested in using student high-stakes test scores to check teacher performance using a technique called Value Added Measure (VAM).  Teachers whose VAM scores are low can be identified, and according to these experts, teachers with low scores must be bad teachers.  Getting rid of “defects” in any system will not improve the system or the part that was identified.  Instead, a better investment would be to ask how can we improve the quality of teaching, and what can be done to improve the teaching of all educators.

The above example highlights the current approach to reform.  Identify a part of the system, and fix it. Bad teachers, get rid of them.  Low achievement scores?  Write “rigorous” standards, raise the bar, and give high-stakes tests.  It’s that simple.  We’ve had rigorous and not so rigorous standards in place for more than a decade, and as you will see ahead, changing standards doesn’t have any effect on student performance.

Systems thinking means that all parts of a school system are interdependent and must be taken as a whole.  The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) is a system of interconnected and interdependent parts, and to improve the quality of the APS, it is critical to look at the APS as a whole.  For example, closing schools (removing so-called underperforming schools), does not have an effect of improving the APS, or indeed saving money (as some would tell you).  Fundamental questions about APS need to be asked, but in the context of the APS being a system, not a collection of  schools, students, teachers, administrators, parents, curriculum, textbooks, technology.

Ed Johnson has contributed to my understanding of quality education, and it is my great honor to share his work on this blog, and in particular to look at teaching in urban schools, and in particular the Atlanta Public Schools.

Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA)

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) created the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) in 2002 to assess student achievement in the nation’s large urban districts.  Reading results were first reported in 2002 for six districts, and math results were reported in 2003 for 10 districts.

The NAEP provides data from 2002 through 2012 on math and reading and are comparable to NAEP national and state results because the same assessments are used.

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 7.00.56 PMUsing data from all of the Trial Urban Districts Assessments (2002 – 2013), available online at The Nations Report Card, Ed Johnson analyzed and created a presentation that is a series of systemic stories told by the data collected in the urban district studies.

Each story is about a system.  In TUDA (Trial Urban District Assessment), there are particular TUD’s each as a system.  So, Reading is a system.  Mathematics is a system.  4th grades is a system.  8th grades is a system.

Johnson’s research is a longitudinal study of performance in reading and mathematics from 2002 – 2013.  Using scores on reading and mathematics obtained from the National Center for Educational Statistics, he investigated the nature of a number of systems derived from the data.  Some of these particular systems include:

  • Reading as a System
  • Mathematics as a System
  • 4th Grades as a System
  • 8th Grades as a System

Since these systems are part of the APS system, we know that each of these systems is interdependent with other systems, not just the ones identified here, but including parents (as a system), teachers (as a system), and so forth.

There were 21 urban school districts in the study.  However, Ed has managed to make our work easier by highlighting with color coding just two systems, Atlanta Public Schools (Red) and District of Columbia (Purple).

Overall

Figure 1. Trial Urban District, Bottom Line.  Source: Ed Johnson edwjonhson@aol.com
Figure 1. Trial Urban District, Bottom Line. Source: Ed Johnson edwjonhson@aol.com

Ed starts his study by giving us the “bottom line.”  How did these systems (reading, math, 4th grade, 8th grade) do?  Figure 1, is a summary of systemic TUD student performance in reading and math at the 4th and 8th grade from 2002 – 2011, and predictions for 2013 (all the predictions were accurate forecasts of student performance in 2013).

Only 4th grade reading showed some improvement over the period 2002 – 2011, and the improvement was slight and noticed only in Austin, Charlotte, and Hillsborough.  In all other systems, no improvement was observed, meaning that the common causes that influence the system of math, or reading, or 4th or 8th grade inhibited improvement.

Student Improvement in Mathematics and Reading

In the TUDA study, a sample of students in each urban district was tested in reading and mathematics at the 4th and 8th grade level.  To help us understand how to interpret data collected over the past dozen or so years, Mr. Johnson has produced a series of graphs (control charts) showing the natural variation of scores to be expected in each system (reading, math, 4th grade, 8th grade).

Figure 2 shows a control chart for  reading, 4th grade.  Figure 3 shows a control chart for mathematics, grade 4.  Upper control limits and lower control limits were calculated for 2002, and then projected forward.  Changes in scores from one test period to the next are shown in the Figure 2.  If there is systemic change in reading at the 4th grade level, then scores would fall “outside” the upper or lower control limits.  You’ll notice that all the variation, except for four points (Charlotte, 2009 and 2011, Austin, 2011, and Hillsborough, 211), was within the variation expected.  In systems thinking, we mean that the variation for the most part was random, but there is evidence that some special causes were at work in the three districts mentioned here.

Figure 2.  NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th Grade, All students prepared by edwjohnson@aol.com
Figure 2. NAEP TUDA, Reading, 4th Grade, All students prepared by edwjohnson@aol.com

Mathematics is another story.  As Mr. Johnson puts it in his study, “all districts have been on the same boat continuously since 2003 in mathematics at the 4th grade level.  What means is that the variation shown in the graph is random, and not due to any special cause.

Figure 3. NAEP TUDA, Mathematics, 4th Grade, All Students prepared by edwjohnson@aol.com
Figure 3. NAEP TUDA, Mathematics, 4th Grade, All Students prepared by edwjohnson@aol.com

There is very little student improvement in reading or mathematics at the 4th grade level as shown in Figures 2 and 3.

As long as we continue to ignore the common causes of variation that exist in the system then we can expect very little to no improvement.

But as Mr. Johnson has said in other letters and reports, if fundamental questions about the purpose of schooling are not addressed and if we can not agree on these purposes, very little will change in the system.  In the two systems explored here, reading at the 4th grade and math at the fourth grade, we need to ask: What is purpose of teaching reading in the elementary school?  Why do we teach reading in the elementary school?  What is goal of teaching mathematics in the elementary school?  Why do we teach mathematics?

As Mr. Johnson has shown, why are these districts on the same boat for the teaching of mathematics?  How can we used systems theory to look at mathematics teaching as a system and answer questions about how to improve mathematics learning?  How can help students develop a love affair with mathematics?

Ed Johnson has examined a lot of data from the standpoint of systems thinking based in part of his work with Edward Deming, and other scholars in the field of systems thinking.

I highly recommend that you check his study which you can get access to as a PDF file here: NAEP TUDA 2002-2011 Views through a Deming Lens.

In the days ahead, I’ll revisit Mr. Johnson’s study, and report on his analysis of the “performance gap” variation that he has depicted as a series of images as shown in Figures 2 and 3.  I’ll also explore systems thinking and school in more detail.

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?

References

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.