A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 26 2010

A Follow-Up On Economics and Education, Part 1: Deflationary Spirals and School Culture

This is a follow-up to my first “Economics and Education” post (available here).  In it, I compared the weak school culture that many poor schools exhibit to the deflationary spirals that countries in economic crisis often experience.  One of the major points I made was that schools could get “stuck in a rut” of poor culture (read: low expectations)–one not conducive to learning.  My argument was that, like deflationary spirals, when the level of school culture descends below a certain threshold, it becomes impossible to restore any sense of order.  While a great school may not always stay great (since there is not necessarily as strong of a self-reinforcing cycle, though one exists to some degree), a bad school may always stay bad.

I bring this up because, coincidentally, a recent Brookings Institution report conducted by Tom Loveless supports my theory.  The report examined school districts in California and analyzed the change in NAEP performance for each school from 1989-2009.  The report’s conclusion was a little more nuanced than mine.  Schools (as measured by performance) rarely change:

Of schools in the bottom quartile in 1989—the state’s lowest performers—nearly two-thirds (63.4 percent) scored in the bottom quartile again in 2009. The odds of a bottom quartile school’s rising to the top quartile were about one in seventy (1.4 percent). The reverse was true as well, with similar percentages of top quartile schools staying among the top performers (63.0 percent) or falling to the bottom quartile (2.4 percent). Changes in a school’s socioeconomic status had only a marginal statistical relationship with test score changes.

This is interesting–and supports my half-baked economics analogy.  Schools are affected by inertia.  And they are heavy.  I tend to think that the inertia affects schools at the bottom more than it does anywhere else.  Loveless examined schools both at the top and at the bottom and discovered that most schools change very little over time.

Jay Mathews–my favorite commenter on education–picked up on the Brookings report and offered his own view as to why schools don’t change much:

So why don’t schools change? It appears to be, for want of another word, the persistence of a school culture of low-expectations and low-performance that outlasts all over changes. “Some of it may be due to how school populations change, with teachers and administrators–and kids and their parents–slowly transitioning in and out of schools. The newcomers learn about the culture of the school from those who have been there and are preparing to leave,” Loveless said.

I tend to agree.  Once a school culture of low expectations and performance establishes itself, change comes slowly.

The interesting question, then, is this: how do you prevent a school from descending below the critical threshold?  Economists spend little time thinking of ways to get out of a deflationary spiral, since this is extremely difficult.  Instead, they think of ways to prevent entering that cycle in the first place.  Schools and teachers should do the same.  How do we avoid becoming a school characterized by low expectations?

There is, obviously, no easy solution.  But my suggestion is that we target and neutralize those factors that have an outsize (negative) influence on a school’s culture.  I’m speaking of the (admittedly few) students who act in ways so detrimental that they bring down the entire school’s culture of learning.  I’m speaking of, for example, the student who, while I’m teaching, nearly breaks down my door, picks up my trashcan, stomps out into the hallway, and chucks it–garbage flying out like confetti–at a student he was fighting with.  I’m speaking of, as another example, the student who sets a fellow teacher’s purse on fire and pretends as if nothing serious had happened.

When we tolerate such behavior without meting out serious consequences, others replicate and one-up the initial behaviors (I see the trashcan-stealing student roaming the halls everyday, slapping people, causing chaos and disrupting classrooms).  These dozen or so students in my school affect how everyone acts. They have disproportionate influence on our school’s culture. They set the tone.  And they need to go somewhere else.

But we can’t lay all the blame on students.  Teachers can make related errors that bring the collective culture down.  Some teachers may insult and degrade their students (“you’re stupid!”). Others may allow normally-unacceptable behaviors.  Still others may set expectations so low that it will be impossible to prevent the downward spiral (I will address one of these issues in my third “Economics and Education” post–coming soon).

Although teachers can err, too, it is ultimately the teacher’s duty to fight the downward pressure.  Teachers must hold their positions–perhaps even swim like salmon upstream and against the current.  Why? Students really don’t know any better.  That’s why we need to teach them and show them the beauty of learning. Of course, easier said than done.


Our school has developed a culture stacked against learning.  Students feel pressured to live up to this image.  And they do.

Yesterday, I showed my students a news clip about 9 DCPS seniors who had earned full-ride scholarships to George Washington University. My students were eager to see which students had won scholarships and from which schools they had come.  The appearance on screen of a student from one notorious DC school prompted AM to burst out: “I bet no [my school's name] students won a scholarship!”  As the clip ended, “See, what’d I tell you! We dumb!” I tried reacting in a way to show that, “no, those students weren’t special; they just worked hard for their success. You can do it too.”

But this comment connected with many other comments I have heard recently.  Throughout my brief teaching career, I have been carefully recording student quotes that have caught my attention.  These naturally help me reflect on my teaching experience, because I can monitor how my students are generally feeling. However, the practice of saving quotes has also been useful because I can get a sense of where my school’s culture is and where it could potentially be going.  Combing through my document, I’ve noticed that many of them display a serious lack of confidence in our school.

RW, during a recent Do Now that asked students to describe our school’s setting, wrote this: “It is not a very good setting for people to learn anything because of all the kids that don’t want to learn try very hard to keep others from learning and it is just very hard to learn in [our school].”

Making what was, at the time, his first appearance in my classroom in weeks, EHJ–one of my school’s most notorious hallwalkers and behavior problems–lamented on a choice he had supposedly made earlier in his school career: “I made a bad decision by coming here.  I coulda been at [name of NW DC school] right now.”

ZC, upon hearing this comment, chimed in with her own two cents: “Yeah, I was at [name of another NW DC school] before I got put out. This school is so much worse.

EM, in one heated debate that almost turned into student mutiny around the high expectations that I set in my classroom, said this: “if we were meeting the expectations you set, we wouldn’t be at [my school's name]!”  This statement implies that my school is for people who cannot–or choose not to–achieve.


What I find interesting is that all around me I see evidence of various education-related theories in action, whether it comes to ideas about race, achievement, organizational behavior, or psychology.  But, while those at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute or Brookings or any other thinktank analyze “bigger,” more “valid” data sources, I merely use what I have within my reach–anecdotes.  Indeed, one could argue that my own analysis is an extended case study on one school in one district in one city in the United States.  As a result, there might be an inclination to say something like “that’s just one school.”

But I don’t think the anecdotal basis of my conclusions should be written off too quickly.  Over the past few months, fellow teachers have explained to me the almost identical problems and outcomes that have existed in their own schools.  Every school has its own unique situation. But there are lessons that can be applied anyways.

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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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