Is School Renovation The Change We Seek?

OK, I realize I’m late to the game – I was in China last week when President Obama first outlined his jobs proposal to a joint session of Congress. But I’m back now, and I just read it, and as I look at it I’m wondering if anyone else has made a simple observation about his idea to renovate America’s crumbling public school buildings:

Is this really the change we seek?

Don’t get me wrong – scores of schools need renovating, and lots of people need jobs, so anything that tackles both of those issues must have some merit. And yet it’s odd that, at a time when we’re all in search of the best ways to transition from the Industrial-Age model of schooling to an as-yet unnamed future vision (the Democratic-Age model, anyone?), we would choose to double down on the use of buildings that were designed to accommodate the needs of a bygone era.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I’ll be spending the 2011-2012 school year observing three different schools — district, charter, and private — here in DC. The traditional neighborhood public school is housed in a traditional American school building – first constructed in 1924. By contrast, the brand new charter school is located in a brand new office building.

At first blush, you’d think the neighborhood school would have all the advantages when it comes to its use of physical space, and its capacity to think creatively about how to create the optimal learning environment for children. And, to be sure, the building – large, airy, and complete with playgrounds, art rooms and science labs – does afford certain privileges and conveniences (the children at the charter school, for example, must traverse a busy street in downtown DC just to reach an outside playground). But as I watched the staff of the new charter school use the final weeks of August to transform an otherwise nondescript office floor into an engaging and attractive learning space, I realized that the absence of a traditional building was also liberating, and, ironically, providing the space for people to think more innovatively about what a school actually needs to look like.

This point has been made before. As Rick Hess notes in The Same Thing Over and Over, “If the schools erected over centuries past were a road map for the system of schooling that we want, the strategy of walking the same path faster and more energetically would have much to commend it. But our schools do not provide that road map. They were never intended to take us where we desire to go. Our schools are not a solid foundation for twenty-first century schooling but a rickety structure that wobbles under the weight of each new addition.”

I agree with Mr. Obama when he asks rhetorically: “How can we expect our kids to do their best in places that are literally falling apart?  This is America.  Every child deserves a great school – and we can give it to them, if we act now. “ I also think it makes sense to make needed repairs. But as we do so, we would be wise to be more intentional in thinking about what the school buildings of tomorrow will need to look like – and not look like – and Mr. Obama would be wise to lead us in that process, else we move ahead blindly to renovate a sea of rickety structures that will do little more than provide cover for our ongoing efforts to succeed in a system that no longer serves our interests.

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Categories: Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Guido Stempel
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I live in Ohio. About 20 years ago ti was determined we were 48th in the country in quality or condition of school buildings. We set out to provide state funding and made progress fora few years. Then the state funding got reduced on the point that I wrote a column in the local newspaper saying it was like to old riddle about the frog at the bottom of a 20-foot well who jumped up 3 feet every hour and slid back 2 feet. I suggested we were jumping up 3 feet and sliding back 4 feet. We had arrived at the point that the amount being spent was clearly less than depreciation or the inflation in building costs…We don’t talk about the prolem in Ohio these days. I also offered a simple tests: comapre the bank buildings and the school buildings in your community… ..

  2. NP
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate your suggestion that we scrutinize where the spending will go, but your editorial never gets to what you find wanting in the President’s proposal. You hint that the schools in need of renovation may not be the best schools for the future. Well then, what do you suggest? What are others suggesting? I understand that some believe that learning is going online and going to a building seems “old fashioned”, but it seems to me that students do NOT go to a building, they go to a teacher or teachers for guidance. There is a personal and social element in learning that is not eclipsed by nifty online experiences. And please don’t think that emailing a teacher can be equated with having a lively classroom discussion surrounded by diverse peers and led by a teacher who can actually see your body language. Online learning will take its useful place, but it won’t end the appeal and effectiveness of the community of learners. Please share your ideas without undermining the President’s initiative with hints that it is the wrong direction…

  3. Posted September 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for writing, NP. The main thing I’m suggesting is to look before we leap, and I do not believe, as you say, that all learning will merely migrate online. Powerful learning is interpersonal first and foremost, not to mention the ongoing custodial role schools serve, and neither of those factors is about to change anytime soon. So yes, we will continue to need physical places of learning, and my main point was to ask if anyone is thinking through the implications of major investments in these old buildings when, as Hess says, they are rickety structures in more ways than one? And above all else I want the president to be mindful of the need to make sure we don’t saddle ourselves as a nation with thousands of shiny new buildings that may, once we get closer to figuring the future out, not fully serve our needs.

  4. Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Sam: As always, deeply appreciate your POV and words. And given how quickly you’ve responded to the President’s call-to-arms on this matter, I appreciate it even more.

    To your point re: “a nation of shiny new buildings”, this will not be the focus of the President’s program.

    Instead, the goal — as currently outlined — is to renovate (and simply bring up-to-speed) out-of-date buildings that often are questionable in terms of safety, access to basic technology, daylight, indoor air quality, and primal levels of space. While the President is speaking about 21C, the truth is that the vast majority of school buildings in this country are at least 65 years old…and barely able to function in basic ways. Long before we’ll get to “a nation of shiny new buildings”, we’re talking about basic safety and comfort. And to that, it’s hard to argue.

    However, I applaud your effort to focus our attention in the following way:

    “So yes, we will continue to need physical places of learning, and my main point was to ask if anyone is thinking through the implications of major investments in these old buildings when, as Hess says, they are rickety structures in more ways than one?”

    There are close to 100,000 public schools (in a physical sense) in the US (and certainly far more when you include private, etc) that ‘could’ be affected by the President’s request. The likelihood that even a fraction of students will suddenly be in a dramatically different physical environment in the next 5-10 years is modest, and yet those buildings continue to have a pronounced impact on the health / well-being of students.

    Is it possible to keep an eye on the larger prize (and pattern forming) that you challenge us with above…while also honoring the fact that kids spend 8+ hrs a day in buildings that are often far below the physical standards that kids deserve long before we even explore how learning will cut-anchor from the traditions of yesteryear.

    Again, thank you for your piece / challenge. Just curious what we do “come Monday” while also supporting the long constellation forming.


  5. Mike
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I agree with NP, that this seems like the beginning of an article, and I would have liked to have seen you draw some conclusions. That being said, one thing I think would be beneficial is if we started building schools smaller. My son’s (public) elementary school has two classes per grade, 20-25 kids per class, and a teacher and aide in every classroom. The principal knows every student by name. The teachers have time to focus on every student, and therefore know their strengths and weaknesses. My son came into kindergarten able to read, but had real trouble with fine motor stuff like penmanship. So they pulled him out of reading class to work with the 1st graders, and they pulled him out periodically to work on fine motor skills, which improved dramatically over the course of the year.

    That’s the solution, as far as I’m concerned. Not warehousing the kids in classrooms of 40 and 50 students because we can’t fund the schools well enough to hire enough teachers. Doesn’t matter how modern the building is if the kids aren’t getting any attention.

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