This is the first in a three-part (maybe more?) series that applies economic theory to aspects of education. I was not inspired to do this by anyone or anything. I am not “forcing” the connections either. Instead, this series recognizes the fact that when I think of issues in education I often think in terms of economics. Perhaps this just shows how applicable the study of economics is to education, schools and teaching (indeed, there are many questions about resource constraints in the ed world: do we put our money into more teachers, teacher training, textbooks, supplies, or technology, cash-for-grades? As a teacher, how do I allocate my most valuable resource—time—across my various responsibilities?). Or, perhaps, it just shows that economics can be universally applied to issues. I don’t know.
Each post will begin with a quick introductory explanation of the economic concept that helped me think of an education-related issue. Then, naturally, I will discuss this issue and how I think it plays out in our schools (and particularly in DC Public Schools). These “comparisons” are by no means precise or accurate. But, at the end of the day, these analogies helped me conceptualize some of the thoughts I’ve had about education.
Today’s Topic: Deflationary Spirals and School Culture.
If there is one economic situation that a country does not want to find itself in, it is the deflationary spiral. Deflation is simply the decrease in the overall price of goods and services. Deflation itself is worrisome. But a deflationary spiral is dangerous. In a deflationary spiral, the decline in prices sets off a vicious cycle that debilitates the economy. How? When prices decline, people rationally decide to defer spending because they know that the longer they wait, the cheaper they can buy the same good (why would I buy an 8-ounce bottle of Purell for my students at $4.99 today if I knew that tomorrow it would only cost $4.00?). When everyone puts off spending, however, the overall economy is severely weakened, and prices decline even more. The cycle repeats. The result? A downward spiral that depresses an economy. More importantly, because of the reinforcing mechanism, it is difficult to break the downward spiral (look at Japan during its Lost Decade of the 1990s). Economists warn that deflation is one of the deadliest economic phenomena and should be avoided at all costs.
I think we can treat a school as a country and the overall price level as the level of school culture. I can’t really define school culture or what it explicitly means for a school culture to be “weak,” but, as Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” In fact, my school is a good example. Having spent three full days with a dozen of my robotics team students at the 2010 FIRST Robotics Competition DC Regional, I had plenty of time to talk about our school with students of the school.
The conversations in our pit area and during our lunch break revealed that my students are just as aware as I am of our weak culture. RW began by telling us that how “crazy” it was that, at our school, students could “cuss out” their teachers or principals and suffer no consequences. Another RW remarked that “at any other school, you would get expelled for hallwalking as much as our students do.” JW and DP reminisced about one teacher during their freshman year who had books thrown at her (resembling this story). She quit that year and was replaced. Things got better (for a short while, of course).
A school that descends into this culture of negativity–whether it was “caused” by the students, the teachers, the adminstrators, the community, or an Act of God–can scarcely get out of this trap.
One of the biggest factors that sucks a school into this deflationary trap is peer pressure. Even the “good” get corrupted in an environment where distractions are the norm. A simple text message from one of my students updating me on the state of my classroom during my robotics-induced absence reveals just what I am talking about. MA, a hard-working ELL student, sent the following update: “What is not good is that other student who dont belong in the classroom come and then some other students like R been crazy together,then some of us try to read and we cant consentrate or something like that (MJ 43VER)” For MA, the culture prevents her from learning. With many others, the culture pressures others to conform. It’s not cool to be smart at my school. Being the first to enter the classroom? Not cool. Doing homework? That’s for losers. Carrying around a backpack—or even a notebook? Forget about it. Peer pressure opens up a black hole that sucks a school into an inescapable deflationary spiral.
If deflationary spirals are so dangerous, and a country has found itself stuck in one, how does it get out? There is really only one way out of a deflationary trap: stimulus. Someone with a lot of power (the central bank, a consortium of rich folks) needs to come in and inject a boatload of money or create a serious level of demand that will reverse the price decline. There is no halfway method to dig oneself out.
Translated to education, schools with poor cultures need a shock. When I say shock, I mean a real shock—one that is dumbfounding as much as it is revolutionary. A “turnaround” involving the replacement of a principal or the firing and hiring of a few teachers can’t change much. Nor can a decision to tack on a few more resources at the school. Nor can adding an extra security guard to patrol the hallways change the culture of hallwalking.
This is why I generally agree with Andy Smarick about the “turnaround fallacy.” Essentially, when we are looking at failing schools, minor interventions will not work. There just isn’t enough critical mass to reverse the declining or stagnating school culture. While we should be careful about making the decision to close a school, we must also recognize that gradual change is no change.
In our school’s case, at numerous points in our history, things have changed, supposedly for the better. We were “restructured” under NCLB a few years ago. The administrators were recently installed. That teacher that my students claimed was letting so many bad behaviors go is no longer among the teaching staff. All of these represent change, but we are speaking of minor change. And minor change isn’t enough.
At some point, we need to let failing schools fail. This doesn’t mean that we ignore them completely. But this means allowing them to collapse so that a new school with a new administration and a new culture can be formed in its place. This process of creative destruction is politically challenging. But I think it is necessary.