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Jack Hassard: School Closings in Our Cities: A Deep Ecological Problem

Guest post by Jack Hassard.

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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).

[See a recent interview with David Bollier on the application of the concept of the commons to public education here.]

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.

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) closings 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.

What do you think? 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.

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. His most recent book is Science as Inquiry, 2nd Edition.

This post originally appeared here at his blog, The Art of Teaching Science.

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