Recently I began listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History. I’m a little late to the game so I started at the beginning of season 1 and am trying to catch up. Yesterday I listened to two episodes that are part of a three part series on the cost of post secondary education and how poorer Americans fit into the past secondary puzzle: “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” and “Food Fight.” I’ve always enjoyed the way Gladwell thinks so I would highly recommend the podcast.
These two episodes got me thinking about how we serve our students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Gladwell talks about two concepts that I felt were relevant to the public education, K-12 story as well as to the post secondary story. The first concept is that of disruption. We all experience disruption in our lives – divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of employment, etc. In many families those disruptions can be on a grander scale- arrests, imprisonment, abuse, etc. The argument that Gladwell makes is that students of privilege not only have fewer disruptions on the grand scale but, even when they do, they are more likely to escape the disruption without issue. For example, a rich, suburbanite student gets pulled over for speeding is found to be DUI. His chances of avoiding punishment are much better than the same student who does not come from privilege. Privilege allows for better attorneys, privilege affords a possible connection in the police force, privileges can be used to ‘buy’ your way out of trouble. The poorer student has little of this ‘buying’ power. Disadvantaged students who experience these disruptions, especially the high end ones, often are pushed to the breaking point. Their lives are already so tenuous that one major disruption sends everything into a tailspin. Foster care, single parent families, homelessness can all be a reality for a student born into poverty from just one massive disruption.
The second concept is that of capitalization. Gladwell defines capitalization as “the rate at which a given community capitalizes on the human potential… what percentage of those who are capable of achieving something actually achieve it.” Gladwell’s focus here is on how well our society does in recognizing talented students from poor communities and assuring that those students have the post secondary opportunities that more privileged students have. Eric Eisner who founded YES Scholars makes an eerie point about capitalization in the episode ‘Carlos Doesn’t Remember.’ To paraphrase, he says that we are waiting too long to identify these students. If we are waiting to see how they do on their SATs, we are waiting to long. Why? For most of these students, the junior year in high school never comes. Many will drop out, many will join gangs and for some the disruptions will just be to great by the time they hit the eighth grade. Let that sink in. When was the last time you sat in your elementary or middle school classroom and worried that a student wouldn’t make it to ninth grade? The answer to that question will determine where your school sits on the continuum of privilege in this country.
So what can we do as K-12 schools to assure that our students overcome disruption and that our communities experience a high percentage of capitalization? The first answer, I believe, comes in the culture of our schools. I mean this on a national as well as a state and local scale. Are we as a nation, a state and a community focusing so much on passing a high stakes test that we have ignored the disruptions in our students lives? Funding over the past few years in Pennsylvania, my state, has been cut in many areas of human services. Can we build a culture that genuinely cares about students when our country and our state has deprioritized human services? I’ve written before about grit, bootstrapping and growth mindset. All of those things need to overcome a certain measure of disruption. As schools we need to be cognizant of the disruptions in our students’ lives and fill that into the equation whenever we speak to or about them. That would be a good start.
To better capitalize on the human potential of our schools we must start with creating a culture that nurtures students through the disruptions in their lives. We also need to do a better job of identifying our best and brightest despite the backgrounds that they hail from. We know that students in poorer households come to school with fewer skills but we also know that with a solid education many of these students catch up to their peers eventually. There are two things I believe that we don’t address efficiently. First, students who come to us from lower socieconomic backgrounds have there abilities masked by the language poor environments that they were raised in. We don’t acknowledge their gifts early enough because we make assumptions about their intelligence relative to their zip code. Second, even though we see underprivileged students gain on their more privileged peers, we also see that gap begin to widen again as the move into middle school. Students who were average or better elementary students tend to become low average or worse students when the do not come from privilege. Even in a small school where most if not all of the students will eventually graduate, the disruptions become too great for many of these students to maintain their academic achievement.
I don’t have the answers to these questions but I think being cognizant that they exist is an important step. As educational leaders we need to open the eyes of those we lead to these potential pitfalls. Brendon Burchard has this short prayer that I believe speaks to the needs of leaders in our society: “Grant me the strength to focus this week, to be mindful, to serve with excellence, to be a force of love.” Yes, let us be a force of love in education.