Are Schools Meant to Be Gardens or Construction Sites?

by Seth Saavedra │Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

This past holiday weekend I had time to catch up on what had become an intimidating backlog of podcasts.


Being the education nerd I am, "Kinder-Gardening" from Hidden Brain caught my eye. It's a rich thirty minutes that left me questioning my world views on education and child rearing.


In the episode, host Shankar Vedantam interviews author and professor Alison Gopnik of UC Berkeley. In her most recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, she seeks to answer a question at the heart of raising children, which we now call "parenting".

What Is Parenting? And How Important Is It?


The term "parenting" didn't enter our lexicon until the late 1960s and early 1970s. From there, its usage has grown exponentially.


The title of her book stems from an extended metaphor about the relationship between parents and children.

For "carpenters", children are raw materials we shape and build into a final form. "The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you're going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult," she says.

"Gardeners", meanwhile, are less concerned with having a direct hand in who or what a child becomes. Rather, they focus on building a nurturing soil bed for them to grow from and explore. Gardeners aim to create "a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem."

A world where parents are more obsessed than ever on a results-driven approach to parenting, she argues, is also bad science. Citing studies, experiments, and anecdotes from her own grandchildren, Gopnik makes the case that children learn best by observing a wide variety of people.

“From the point of view of evolution, trying to consciously shape how your children will turn out is both futile and self-defeating.” Though knowing this doesn't make it any easier for parents to avoid doing so.

The Limits of Binary Metaphor

I found the metaphor of the carpenter versus the gardener interesting, even if reductive. Rarely are we "this or that" and the oppositional nature of binaries leads to a lot of finger pointing.

The reality is there are few controlling parents singularly focused on turning their children into only engineers or CEOs. And how many parents are truly “gardeners”, accepting a laissez-faire approach no matter the number of unavoidable hardships their child must endure?

Most parents exist on a spectrum between the two. And whether they are gardening or building depends on the child and the moment. As it should be.

Schools, Race, and Class


Graham Roumieu // New York Times


Gopnik spends some time writing about the impacts of race and class on her findings. She cites early-years interventions: children who have access to early childhood education or provided home-visit support “grow up to be healthier and have higher incomes”.

She expresses concern that schools, like parents, are overly focused on "outcomes" such as test scores and college going. Of course, this is the same straw man argument I most often see from college-educated White intellectuals who've already garnered the benefits of those privileges. And who want the same for their own children.

If we picture schools as only gardens or construction sites, we've hamstrung the conversation from the start. Schools must be both. They need to be places where children play, explore, and discover the multitudes of the world around them.

Schools must also provide scaffolding and tools to shape young minds. Students need to see multiple blueprints for themselves, particularly in a world more reliant than ever on them being professional chameleons with a wide variety of skills.

Yes, too many poor students and students of color in America exist in anemic soil, without all the necessary nutrients to be their best selves. Yet they also suffer from anemic thinking and belief in what they can become. Both are dangerous to their young minds.

A Plurality of Schools

Different students need different mixes of gardening and carpentry. This is why we need more diversity in the types of schools and the approaches offered.

Some students thrive in rigorous, college-prep environments with piles of homework. Others learn best through hands-on projects and apprenticeships. Our current systems offer too little of both.

The point, which Gopnik doesn't quite get to, is that students are widely varied and diverse. Parenting matters but not as much as we might think. And schools have yet to match the spectrum of student needs, reaching for the middle instead of offering better options.

Our students, especially poor ones, need many gardeners and carpenters in their lives. And also unwavering belief in what they are capable of, no matter the garden bed they've grown from.

Enough is Enough APS. We All Deserve Better.

by Seth Saavedra │Thursday, May 17th, 2018

The war of words rages on in Albuquerque over the New Mexico Public Education Department's attempts to improve three APS campuses.

The three elementary schools in question are Hawthorne, Los Padillas, and Whittier.


Hawthorne and Whittier are the only two schools in New Mexico that've earned six consecutive F grades in a row. Los Padillas has received five consecutive Fs.

Last month, after months of back and forth, improvement plans for Los Padillas and Whittier received conditional approval from NMPED. Read the approval letters here. Meanwhile, Hawthorne must "champion and provide choice", meaning APS must inform all parents of nearby school options and support students who need transferring.

These are reasonable and logical responses to schools that have underserved students and teachers for the better part of a decade. Right?

Not if you ask leadership of APS or the Albuquerque Teachers Federation (ATF). Their responses have been apoplectic and centered on damaged egos instead of the best interests of all teachers, students, and families.

In what world, besides the echo chamber of disconnected leaders, is ensuring parents are aware of all their schooling options a bad thing?

APS Board President David Peercy (an engineer by trade) doesn’t see any problems with the schools. Barbara Peterson - board member for district four which includes Hawthorne Elementary, retired APS teacher, and former ATF political coordinator - doesn't either. And, as a retired APS teacher and ATF darling, Sen. Mimi Stewart only finds issues with school grades, not schools themselves.

I can’t make this stuff up. The closer one looks, the more this appears to be a concerted effort by a retired old guard seeking to preserve a system that maintains their lifestyles at the expense of our most vulnerable communities. When our leaders have more allegiance to school buildings than the teachers and students in them, we've lost our way.

As a "minority-majority" state, this is also a reminder of how important diversity - in age, experience, and race/ethnicity - is in making decisions for students of color. When our leaders don't share backgrounds with our students we get disconnected, ungrounded viewpoints like these.

According to an email sent out by ATF President Ellen Bernstein - who's been in the position for 22+ years - the apocalypse is nigh:


ATF is also listed as the creator of a Facebook group named "Save Hawthorne Elementary School" which continues to simultaneously misinform parents and tout changes coming to the school.

These are changes, mind you, that came about as result of the improvement plans required by NMPED.


Much of this stems from an email on Friday, May 4th, where ATF leadership writes:

"On Monday at 4:30pm, we have a Save Our Schools meeting to plan actions to help save Hawthorne Elementary … this invitation is for ATF members only. We will involve the larger community after we do the initial planning."

ATF leadership's approach is to determine the outcome they want first, then foist that self-interest onto parents and students. They are also fomenting for something to walk-out about. In recent emails they've written:

"Teachers Walking Out-what would it take here? –school closings, charters, evaluations…" and "Ellen talked with KUNM about the nationwide strikes and our context locally … we can have a conversation about this. What will be the issue that will galvanize APS teachers?"

Ellen and APS’s main contention with the MRI process - which is part of our federally mandated ESSA education plan - is that school letter grades are "flawed". So let's look at Hawthorne outside of the six consecutive Fs:


Only 1 in 4 of Hawthorne students can read on grade level. And 1 in 10 do math on grade level.

Well how does Hawthorne compare to similar schools? Taken alongside 128 schools across NM with similar demographics it doesn't look any better:


And, finally, how is Hawthorne doing for both high- and low-performing students? By now, you know the answer:


We must also bear in mind that the hard working teachers of Hawthorne are ensnared by the same inept leadership that allows schools to flounder for five years and more. I've met with many of these teachers. They are passionate, ready for a change, and frustrated by the lack of visionary leadership. 

Nationwide school turnaround efforts are always painful, but also commonplace and spurring much needed innovation. So, why do Albuquerque's education leaders insist on fighting a process aimed at turning around three of the lowest-performing schools in the entire country?

  • First, they don't like school grading. But, even without specific letter grades, the learning outcomes are dire. See above for proof. Plus, the fact Hawthorne is permitted to earn 6 Fs in a row shows no one is "abandoning" the school. How many Fs, then, before we parents and taxpayers have the right to demand something better?;
  • They thrive off of a constant fight against NMPED. District and ATF leadership make money from peddling paranoia, and have a problem for every solution offered;
  • They think this is a "push to charter schools." Which makes no sense outside of City Center. NMPED instructed APS to inform parents of ALL options, including nearby APS schools. And, if parents decide to stay enrolled at Hawthorne, that's their right. Schools should earn students, not trap them based on zip code;
  • APS continues to be inept at both running and overseeing schools. Admitting that Hawthorne needs immediate intervention also means conceding fault. Our schools should be governed by logic and common sense, not personal interests; and
  • ATF leadership is looking for something to fire up members about in a build up to similar walkouts we've seen in Arizona and Oklahoma. They are hoping for something bigger that makes them feel important. This, despite recent increases in salary and overall education spending.

APS struggles enough on its own teaching our students without outside forces seeking to turn this into trench warfare for the sake of personal gain. The time has come for ATF leadership to get out of the way of turning around these schools.

As the Journal recently asked, "At what point do the adults concerned with education in New Mexico come out of their fighters’ stances and truly focus on the students they should be serving?"

Let's Commit to Thinking Deeply About Improving Education

by Seth Saavedra │Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Last week Harvard Business Review put up an article that piqued my curiosity: "What It Takes to Think Deeply About Complex Problems".

Penned by Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, the summary reads:

The problems we’re facing often seem as intractable as they do complex. But as Albert Einstein observed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” So what does it take to increase the complexity of our thinking? To cultivate a more nuanced, spacious perspective, start by challenging your convictions.

Tony's solution involves three core practices:

  1. Forever challenge your convictions. Ask ourselves doubting, critical questions about the things we most believe to be true;

  2. Do the most challenging task first every day. Reserve unadulterated time to take on our most daunting problems; and

  3. Pay close attention to how you’re feeling. Monitor emotions and how they impact our thinking.

I'm drawn to this topic because almost nothing - aside from line cutters and loud talkers - bothers me more than shallow thinking. Particularly when the stakes are so high for students and educators. Policy makers and advocates, at the least, owe the field the benefits of honest, critical thinking.

This in large part explains my aversion to talking heads. If there is a field that rewards superficial problem solving more than politics, I've yet to find it. In elections years like this one, the vacuous one-liners are beyond egregious.

Education - inclusive of large portions of academia - possesses its own unique strain of empty verbosity. This includes some efforts over the past 25 years done in pursuit of reform. We see - or even author - a policy, recognize principles we hold as true, and fall right into the confirmation bias trap.

If a given approach affirms our existing worldview, then it must be right. Right?


In fact, the opposite is reality and a sure sign that an issue is in need of deeper thought. The better an education policy fits our strongest beliefs, the more skepticism required. And the more we're entrenched on an approach, the quicker we should be to reflect on why that's so.

Standing around self-flagellating about all the things we would've done differently isn't helpful. Instead, as I've touched on previously, we must harness new models to disrupt binary, "either-or" approaches. I've found the "limit and equilibrium" mental model pragmatic and helpful.

There are many bad ideas and policies, though not always as bad as we think or not bad for the reasons we'd thought. And the same is true for good policies. Simple truths are mythology. Occam - or Ockham if you're a pedant - and his Razor are aspirational lies we tell ourselves.

Simple answers make us feel safer, especially in disruptive and tumultuous times. But rather than certainty, modern leaders need to cultivate the capacity to see more ­— to deepen, widen, and lengthen their perspectives. Deepening depends on our willingness to challenge our blind spots, deeply held assumptions, and fixed beliefs. Widening means taking into account more perspectives ­— and stakeholders — in order to address any given problem from multiple vantage points. Lengthening requires focusing on not just the immediate consequences of a decision but also its likely impact over time.

As we ponder the next frontier of education evolutions, we'll be best served by thinking and reflecting on our staunchest beliefs - about Education and otherwise. The stronger we feel about something, the harder we must work to deepen, widen, and lengthen our underlying assumptions.

Part of the goal here is to reorient ourselves around problem solving. When we remain focused on solving problems - and disentangle from our sacred cows - we are more willing to change our minds and open them to new ideas. Both of which demand courage.


There's a specific bravery in changing perspectives and releasing beliefs. We don't want to appear weak or waffling. Yet, "I am wrong" remains a more powerful statement than "you are wrong". And saying it is as rare as it is necessary.

As Schwartz writes, "Managing complexity requires courage ­— the willingness to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty and let its rivers run through us." I work to conjure this courage and release myself from the pattens of thought I'm ensnared in at any moment.

As rhetoric around education heats up this election year, let's question what we "know" to be true and invite in new perspectives. Even from those we've marked as sworn enemies to all we hold dear.