“Ultimately, Haskell contends that guys like Bethea—not academics like himself, or Sierra Club activists, or Washington bureaucrats—are best positioned to make good judgments about landscapes and ecosystems. Bethea is a deeply rooted member of this ecological community, as are the neighborhood folks caring for Manhattan’s street trees. They have a mature sense of ecological aesthetics based on belonging, and their ethic will stem from what they view as beautiful and whole.”
At school, even a small reprimand from a teacher or perceived insult from a fellow student can trigger explosions of rage, expletives, and other inappropriate behavior.
. . . At Lincoln, the teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special “quiet room.” Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.
. . . As the Lincoln staff discovered, helping teachers de-escalate their reactions to student misbehavior is critical to building trusting relationships. “Things like language [and] tone of voice can really trigger or re-trigger some kids, especially kids who have known trauma.
“It’s not that we need to convince these young people, one at a time, that school is important and they need to work hard and have high aspirations. It’s more that we need to give them opportunities to be who they really want to be, not who they feel constrained to be because of their position in the social structure.”
“One of the biggest lessons we hope to impart in our report is the need for government leaders to listen to their constituents; in Flint that didn’t happen,” said Chris Kolb, co-chairman of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force.
I receive a monthly newsletter from bcg.perspectives that I scan for any relevant connections to school systems. Their work often centers on business policy, but sometimes their work has either a direct or indirect connection to the education sector.
A recent post,”Gauging Long-Term Impact in the Social Sector” on developing a system of long-term evaluation for a large international nongovernmental organization (INGO), there are lessons well worth considering in developing systems of long-term accountability for schools.
The INGO discussed, named SOS Children’s Villages, works towards “improving the situation of children who are at risk of losing, or who have already lost, parental care” across 134 countries.
The assessment methodology that SOS Children’s Villages developed jointly with BCG evaluates two elements of the programs’ long-term impact: the nonfinancial (or all-around) impact on the individual program participants and the community and the financial impact on society. The determination of the long-term impact on individual participants is based largely on information gleaned from interviews of former program participants by external researchers. This is supplemented by qualitative research conducted through focus group discussions with former child participants and their caregivers. . .
The programs’ long-term financial impact on society is gauged by the programs’social return on investment (SROI), a comparison of the programs’ total costs and benefits to society. . . The calculation of societal benefits is based on easily quantifiable elements.
This combination of intensive qualitative and correlated quantitative data gathering seems to make great sense when considering systems for school accountability. Many school systems have been relying primarily on isolated testing data — but why not go straight to the source, and interview the ones we most seek to impact? The students and families and community. And then correlate that with longer-term impacts via “social return on investment”? What are the long term outcomes of students after they graduate?
Raising test scores is wonderful. But enriching one’s community and society over the long-haul is the true goal of education. Developing better combinations of quantitative and qualitative evaluation of our school systems that can help us determine long-term impact is key to not losing sight of that higher purpose.
“For four years, the reformers never really tried to have a conversation with the people of Newark. Their target audience was always somewhere else, beyond the people whose children and grandchildren desperately needed to learn and compete for a future. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to create a natural “proof point” in Newark. There was less focus on Newark as its own complex ecosystem that reformers needed to understand before trying to save it.”
Here’s a great report from the Center for Promise on the importance of relationships in graduation outcomes, based on the perspectives of the youth themselves. Concrete resources and advice for educators is provided:
“Yet it struck me that most of the tensions the struggling school experienced that year were sociological rather than ideological: They concerned the challenge of bringing together people of different races and backgrounds (most of the families were low-income and black whereas most of the teachers were young, white, and middle-class) around a shared vision of what education can and should be. Yet our public debate is centered squarely on the ideological rather than the sociological. We endlessly debate the overall “worth” of various institutions—from “no excuses” charter schools to teachers unions—with a political or ideological framing. But we rarely venture inside, scrutinizing the arguably more important question of how people relate, or fail to relate, within these realms. Venturing inside—at least in a meaningful way—takes time, trust, and an open mind.”
There’s many bits of learning I gleaned from that day, but there was one piece of research that really stood out to me in relation to the focus of this blog. Carl Hendrick, in his presentation with Harvard GSE’s Christina Hinton on a grassroots model of education research (view the presentation here), made an off-hand reference to the research of David Yeager on the concept of “stealthy interventions.” It piqued my interest, so when I got home, I dug up this review by Yeager and Walton, “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic.”
As readers of this blog know, we’ve explored the concept of “obliquity” as critical to sustaining impact within a complex environment, especially in relation to goal-setting (see the following posts: 1, 2, 3, 4). This is why the idea of a “stealthy intervention” caught my attention—that sure sounded like the principle of obliquity in action.
I’ve struggled with the application of the principle of obliquity within my own practice in the classroom—so I was excited to find that the “social-psychological interventions” outlined by Yeager and Walton are fairly concrete, once some resources and materials to apply them are developed. Some of them I’m already familiar with and have been applying—I’ve been teaching my students about a growth mindset since I first read Rita Smilkstein’s “We Were Born to Learn,” and I’ll use affirmation exercises with my students prior to state tests. But to wield such interventions more strategically and systematically, especially to assist students who are in crisis or struggling with significant academic hurdles, is something my special education department and I are seeking to build across our school. So I brought Yaeger and Walton’s review to my team, and we did a close reading of pages 274-275, which proffers insight such as the following:
“This analysis draws on a core tenet of social psychology, namely, that every attitude and behavior exists in a complex field of forces—a “tension system”—in which some forces promote a behavior whereas other forces restrain that behavior (Lewin, 1952; Ross & Nisbett, 1991; Wilson, 2006). One lesson from this analysis is that the structure of the system determines its potential for change—an intervention that increases students’ motivation to learn or that removes barriers to learning will improve academic outcomes only when learning opportunities exist in the educational environment.” [Bold added]
What I love about this exposition is how the authors explicitly acknowledge the complexity of the educational environment, then explain how oblique interventions operate within such an environment. The authors explain the success of a social-psychological intervention as attributable to how they fold into and reinforce the learning activities already present within the school (what they term “recursive processes”):
“. . . what can seem especially mysterious is how a time-limited or one-shot social-psychological intervention can generate effects that persist far ahead in time. For instance, people may assume that an intervention has to remain in mind to continue to be effective. But like any experience, a psychological intervention will become less focal as it recedes in time. As we suggest below, a key to understanding the long-lasting effects of social-psychological interventions is to understand how they interact with recursive processes already present in schools, such as the quality of students’ developing relationships with peers and teachers, their beliefs about their ability, and their acquisition of academic knowledge. It is by affecting self-reinforcing recursive processes that psychological interventions can cause lasting improvements in motivation and achievement even when the original treatment message has faded in salience (e.g., Walton & Cohen, 2011).” [Bold added]
In other words, social-psychological interventions leverage relationships and the experience and knowledge of students and school staff. That’s what I call viewing a school as an ecosystem.
The most powerful takeaway I got from this research, aside from concrete suggestions for activities and interventions based on their review, was the heuristic of designing an intervention or goal-setting process that accounts for the student’s subjective experience:
“. . . social-psychological interventions can be brief yet impactful because they target students’ subjective experiences in school and because they rely on a rich tradition of research on persuasion and attitude change to powerfully convey psychological ideas.” [Bold added]
As my special education department seeks to include our students in the process of setting their IEP goals, this is a good rule of thumb to bear in mind.
Facilitates the confrontation of the brutal facts (1, 2)
We could keep going deeper into the sort of systems and investments such a leader might make, such as a focus on developing collaborative relationships, building in redundancy and robustness, creating greater optionality, investing in initial conditions, and investing in infrastructure, but just in terms of leadership, I think this provides us with a good start.
So by the aforementioned criteria, how is Carmen Fariña doing as a leader of NYC’s hugely complex school system?
Here’s what Ms. Fariña has done thus far in her tenure as chancellor:
Made parental engagement one of her top priorities.
Focused on elevating the role of the arts and extracurricular activities in schools.
Constantly stepped foot into a variety of schools, focusing on concrete feedback to school leaders, rather than needless politicizing.
Removed letter grades from school progress reports, making progress reports based primarily upon quality reviews from actual observation and contextual knowledge, rather than decontextualized data points.
Implemented a series of pilots throughout the city to test out new initiatives.
Demonstrated a vision for the sustainability of the profession by requiring longevity and experience for leadership roles in schools and districts.
2014-15’s Citywide Instructional Expectations establish a continuum from prior CIE’s, rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Continues to push for the positive intent and implementation of the Common Core.
Collaborates deliberately and strategically with the teacher’s union.
In sum, Ms. Fariña is shaping up to demonstrate the qualities of a leader who recognizes schools as complex systems and is able and willing to both intensively manage, while simultaneously maintain flexibility and empathy. Her actions and words thus far align well with the criteria of a leader with a socio-ecological mindset.
There may things going on politically behind the scenes at Tweed I don’t know about, and I may not agree with all of her positions, most especially her obvious coziness with Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and stress on independent reading. But Fariña’s leadership has palpably shifted the tone in NYC, and I’m excited to see how her initiatives will continue to develop and play out, and hopefully she will continue to provide a positive model to other leaders across the country.