School Reform as a Forest Fire

As a small nonprofit working its tail off to start a school we at the Workshop have had to have our fingers on the political pulse of schooling and school reform in the city, state and nation.  More than once we have grimaced at a misguided political or policy initiative to fix schools, only to then realize that things that might hurt public schooling might actually help us get our school up and running.  After a few of these instances, I have come to wonder if the opportunities opened for new initiatives like ours by school reforms might come at the expense of the sustained efforts already going on in schools.  In other words, I wonder if the unknowns (known and unknown) created by shifting political and policy agendas around schooling foment a kind of chaos that favors particular kinds of initiatives at the expense of others.

Being a man of endless metaphors, I turn to my ecology background for one about forest fires, which serve an important purpose in an ecosystem in the sense that they clear out old timber (think dead wood).  The scorched earth is then populated by a succession of plants- small ones giving way to bushes and finally trees- that over the course of time regenerate into a mature and healthy forest.  Ok, with this pseudoscientific idea let us now make the metaphorical leap from forest fires to school reform.

School reforms do a similar thing in many ways, clearing out dead wood (I think of this in terms of ideas rather than people) in order to allow different ideas (notice I did not say new or better) to take root.  Over time these ideas can be tested and through a kind of thoughtful and reflective succession yield better schools.  So school reforms might be thought of as a “controlled burn,” an intentionally set fire meant to accomplish specific goals.  The fire is the first and easiest part of the process, as the real work lies in cultivating the land (schooling) towards a desired outcome.

Here lies the problem. Fire is quick and highly visible while the succession of the land is slow to the point of being almost invisible.  Try watching a plant grow.  So it goes with school reforms, which are often heavy on the fire and light on what comes after.  They play to the appearance of change, and there is no faster way to change a forest than with a match.  Unfortunately reform fires often burn indiscriminately, creating a red hot chaos that fries innovative programs and teachers.   I have seen this firsthand.

And yet by clearing out space and creating chaos the reforms open up opportunity.   We at the Workshop know this intimately, as this chaos might just get us a school.  But will we be able to keep it?  Will we, as we try to develop and grow, find ourselves smelling smoke and taste the bitter irony of having the very same chaos that got us in the door usher us back out?  I worry that the perpetual present created by school reform caters to initiatives with a short half-life, such as one-offs and the like that like fire are highly visible.  These programs are effectively ineffective in the sense that while they don’t work to improve education do work to make education look like it has improved.  Deeper, more sustained efforts, that take real time to yield their educational fruit find themselves being lit on fire every one, two or four years by political and policy agendas bent on change.

Right now we are benefiting from this change. We are change.  I worry that three years into our school that very same impetus for change might work against us.