Uri Treisman gave a near-perfect talk on race, poverty, and equity at NCTM 2013 (which I trust you’ve now seen at least once) but he left one crucial thread dangling.
He spoke of fault-tolerant systems by way of a metaphor to commercial air travel. The early airplanes developed by Concorde would respond to the most trivial hairline fractures by plummeting from the sky. British air dominance ended, according to Treisman, when Boeing simply assumed there would be lots and lots of those fractures and then built a system to tolerate them. This process culminated in a wind tunnel where Boeing engineers dialed up the wind speed on a prototype, started its engines, dropped a guillotine on the nose of the plane, and then watched the airplane continue to hum along regardless.
Guess what? Poverty really sucks. It’s incredibly hard. All the lifespan studies going back to the 1920s show that poverty in youth is a very hard force. We need to build fault-tolerant schools and systems if we’re actually going to address equity.
Treisman left the design of those schools and systems as an exercise to the viewer. He doesn’t even specify the faults explicitly, though it isn’t hard to define some.
For one example, the poor are more itinerant than the wealthy. They change jobs, locations, and schools more often. Any system that doesn’t find some way to recover from that liability, to induct students into new routines and ameliorate lost class time as quickly as possible can’t be considered “fault-tolerant.”
Dan Goldner has picked up the conversation where Treisman left it and I hope he continues it. His school has targeted five areas for fault tolerance ranging from students taking the wrong course to intermittent attendance. Head to his post and read their tentative solutions. Then help us with the question:
What are the policies of the fault-tolerant school? The fault-tolerant classroom?
Having a National Curriculum means pupils and students who have to move around have at least some continuity to their education.
Just like we talk about math problems having multiple entry points, students should have multiple opportunities to re-craft their math plan. The idea that you must take courses A, B, C and D or else you will never get to course E is antiquated. The fault-tolerant school provides opportunities, and encourages students to pursue them, rather than maintaining artificial obstacles.
I am not absolving schools of the responsibility of finding ways to keep these students on track, but the task is almost Sisyphian in many cases. In areas where poverty is the rule, a school needs to be a community center, providing health-care related services, afterschool opportunities, and family programming; many students need this range of services in order to stay in school. Academic support beyond the school day could be made available in this type of setting as well, providing the tutoring that struggling students from more affluent families may receive privately. We can talk about engagement, perseverance, and productive struggle all day long, but truthfully, there is a huge block of students for which these issues are completely secondary to surviving their circumstances.