Disruption and Capitalization

Recently I began listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist HistoryI’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.

Let’s Get Gritty

On my summer reading list for 2015 was Mindset by Caroline Dweck. Dweck’s research looked at ‘growth mindset’ vs.‘fixed mindset.’ The book is intriguing and I was disappointed that I had let it sit on my shelf for so long. A colleague had lent it to me and at first blush it seemed rather dry. I was pleasantly surprised from page 1. I would describe the book as ‘easy to put down’ or more appropriately ‘necessary to put down.’ I don’t mean that negatively but it is a book that will cause you to be introspective. When you start reading a passage that you identify as your own personal fixed mind set it startles and frustrates you and you need to put it down to reflect on that trait in your psyche.

The reason for me writing this is that in conversations that I have had I believe many people confuse the growth mindset with grit. Or maybe they don’t and I have a different connotation of grit. Angela Duckworth out of the University of Pennsylvania studies grit at the Duckworth Lab at UPenn. She defines grit as the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. The assumption is that grit is more important in determining success than talent or IQ.

In that definition, grit and the growth mindset are definitely comparable. The growth mindset as defined by Dweck is when people believe that their basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Both imply that success, in any pursuit, requires practice and resiliency. The ability to see one’s mistakes and begin to do the work it takes to remedy those mistakes. The desire to work hard at your craft and to stand up every time you fall.

In Dweck’s book, she mentions General James Stockdale. Stockdale is also a player in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great where he writes about the Stockdale Paradox. Collins described the paradox as accepting the brutal facts of your present reality but maintaining faith that you will prevail in the end. Stephen Covey’s ‘Sharpen the Saw’ draws on a similar mentality: Stay active in physical, social/emotional, spiritual and mental self-renewal. All of these writers/psychologists have hit upon the same notion, becoming an overnight success takes a long time and a lot of work. Malcolm Gladwell attempted to quantify becoming an overnight success in his book Outliers. By his estimate it takes about 10,000 hours of work to become incredibly successful at anything.

That is the background of where I am coming from today. The notion that hard work is important and, despite your limitations, with a little talent or at least average intelligence, anyone can be a success. I love the idea but this is where our roads diverge. One characteristic that isn’t mentioned is that all people don’t come from the same socioeconomic condition. I know there are plenty of examples of people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps but the reality is that many more don’t even have bootstraps. In Dweck’s book she compares the fixed mindset of Sergio Garcia to the growth mindset of Tiger Woods. A great comparison but both of them were born into opportunity. Can we even imagine the amount of talent, creativity, intelligence that never gets the opportunity to work hard? Those whose long term goals are to survive. Those whose brutal facts of reality have crushed their faith and optimism. How many talented, intelligent, athletic people use up there 10,000 hours caring for sick children or parents, working extra jobs to feed their family, searching for a place to spend the night? I agree with Dweck and Duckworth and Stockdale and Covey but some people use up their resiliency just trying to survive.

This is where I believe that public education is exceptionally important. I believe that schools are one of the only mechanisms that are readily available to break the chain of lost opportunity. Schools need to be the places where talents are recognized. Schools need to be the places where students’ experiences are broadened. Schools need to be passionate about helping to break the chain. We have to be able to be a place of respite for the weary. A place for empathy and a place for caring.

As we begin a new school year please remember that hard work, resiliency, optimism are important. We should be careful though to not assume that everyone comes to the table with the same experiences and the same opportunities. While mindset and grit, resiliency and practice lead many to be successful, many need to have their basic needs met first.

I’ll end with this Tweet for the Blunt Educator: