Magnet Schools as an Oblique Method of Integration

There’s been some good stuff coming out on the topic of integration and desegregation lately, in case you’ve had your head buried in the sand.* Here’s a quick link roundup:

Something especially caught my attention in Part 2 of This American Life’s series that relates to our past explorations of the principle of obliquity:

Enid and her staff show up at baseball games in the suburbs, talk to parents about Hartford magnet schools. They leave brochures in suburban libraries. They show up at Girl Scout troop meetings, Mommy and Me groups, the YMCA. They study this market meticulously. And they consult professional marketing firms. Not your little mom and pop places, either, Enid tells me proudly, but people who advise companies like Apple. . . .

This is how integration works in Hartford. Sometimes white families are happy to see it. But it’s not usually why they show up. Their neighborhood school is often pretty good. But they were looking because their kid was bullied, or there was too much standardized testing, or the other parents seemed annoying.

Enid, who is selling them on magnet schools, which exist to promote integration, also does not mention integration. The long history of segregated schooling doesn’t come up. The current reality of segregated housing is irrelevant. No one here is being moved by a sense of collective responsibility. It is as if John Brittain never happened.

Instead, the experience Enid is curating is for comfort. All the details she considers, like making sure there are white kids in the brochures. Or if parents do tour a school, Enid does her best to have their child shadow a white student. That way they can see they won’t be the only one. [Bold added]

This is fascinating, and insightful.

There’s a couple of ways to read this.

  1. All white people are inherently racist.
  2. Parents of all stripes don’t vote with their feet based on grand ideals, such as “collective responsibility” or “pluralistic democracy”***, but rather based on whether they think their child will be safe, welcomed, nurtured, challenged, and provided with opportunities.

I believe the latter point is true. This speaks to the universal desire of parents to seek better opportunities for their children.

I’ve talked about “forcing” integration before on this blog, and this is the kind of force I’m talking about. There’s an army of effort going on behind the scenes to make this effort at integration work. But arguably, such targeted marketing of magnet schools may ultimately be the most effective method, avoiding the ugly blow ups of mandated busing.

Instead of being explicitly about integration, it’s about providing an innovative opportunity for all kids. That’s something most any parent can buy into.

The grand ideal, the ultimate purpose, hides obliquely behind the machinations of brilliant minds, heroic hearts, and hard work of people like Enid Rey and John Brittain.

*might be literally true, if you’re a teacher or administrator! In the Bahamas, catching that last bit of sun prior to the onslaught of a new school year. Yeah, I see you.

**He’s the Council Member for my school’s district in the Bronx! Great to see him taking a stand on this.

***Though I certainly wish more of us did.

For more of my thoughts on integration and segregation, see the following:

On Stealthy Interventions

By Sidharta-999 (done by a friend) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Last weekend I attended the Research ED conference, an intriguing new style of conference organized by Tom Bennett and other educators from across the pond. Getting the opportunity to listen and learn directly from educators I’ve only read online, such as Daisy Christodoulou, Carl Hendrick, and David Weston, was an enriching experience.

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.

Cuomo: Build Relationships, Not One-Measure-to-Rule-Them-All

By Codking (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In my last post, I explained why NY Governor Cuomo’s push for greater weight on testing was bad strategy. In a study in the American Journal of Public Health on schools with Zero Tolerance policies, here’s some further confirmation that linear thinking backfires in complex environments:

The authors found that “students attending schools with suspension policies for illicit drug use were 1.6 times more likely than their peers at schools without such policies to use marijuana in the next year.” That result held for the student body as a whole — not just for kids who were suspended.

There was another interesting result discovered in this study: relationships are better medicine.

But they did find one factor that actually did seem to decrease the likelihood of drug use: student-teacher interactions. At some schools, students caught with drugs were sent to their teachers to discuss the consequences of drug use. This was associated with a 50 percent decrease in the odds of later marijuana use.

What’s the lesson here for state policy on education?

Don’t seek to impose brute force policies to cover up poor politics and inadequate funding and the most segregated schools in the country. What will really make a difference in education? How about building meaningful relationships with practitioners and the folks on the ground who work in communities and schools facing the greatest of challenges? How about providing them with real funding that demonstrates that we value them?

In the face of complexity, policies that seek to foster empathy and community will be the ones most likely to sustain change.

Source for quotes in this post:

Christopher Ingraham, “Zero-tolerance school drug policies only make drug use worse, a study finds” on The Washington Post, via link on Twitter from RealClearEducation.

Cuomo Doubles Down on Linear Thinking

“The dunes here are linear, thought to be due to shifting wind directions.”

New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has decided to double down on a misguided effort to increase the weight of state assessments in a teacher’s evaluation from 20% to 50%.

I’m going to spare you the “corporate reform” and “hedge fund buddies” angle on this; instead, I contend that this single-minded focus on test scores is simply bad strategy.

The focus of this blog has been on teasing out the metaphor of a school as an ecosystem, and elaborating on the theme that managing complex systems requires moving beyond linear thinking.

Here’s a relevant quote from Steve Denning (which we’ve examined before) on the principle of obliquity:

Efforts to impose linear thinking on complex situations have often led have the opposite of what was intended. As a result, the principle of obliquity becomes relevant. Where explicit articulation of a goal will result in the complex environment pushing back in the opposite direction, oblique goals will often be more effective, e.g. the goal of delighting customers may make more money than an explicit goal of making money.

What would be the opposite of what was intended in this situation (if Cuomo gets his way)? Well, if every teacher in the state is conscious that their evaluation is heavily determined by their student’s performance on that state test — then the problems of focusing mostly on ELA and math and shallow skills-driven test-prep will most likely be exacerbated. And kids that most need access to rich literature and knowledge across the domains of history, music, arts, science, and technology will instead continue to be given drivel. And teachers and schools may be more likely to engage in cheating.

I generally assume best intent when assessing the decisions of others. So to be fair to Cuomo, he is pushing for a simplified accountability system because the current system of 20% state, 20% local, and 60% principal observation may lead to the problems of over-testing and inflated scores.

But moving to increase the weight of the state test scores as a leverage over teachers is not the right move to resolve these issues. Instead, this maneuver is much more likely to compound deeper issues, rather than achieve the goal of increasing student and teacher performance.

It would be great if our elected representatives could move beyond linear models when making critical decisions on how to improve our system of education.