Reform without Community

“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.

—Dale Russakoff, The Prize


Don’t Quit on Me: The importance of relationships in graduation

We talk a lot about the importance of relationships in education on this blog.

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:


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Public Debates on Education are Ideological, Rather than Sociological

“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.”

—Sarah Carr, “There Are No Simple Lessons About New Orleans Charter Schools After Katrina. Here’s How I Learned That.” on Slate

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.

How is Carmen Fariña doing from an “Ecosystems” perspective?

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As Carmen Fariña begins her first full school year as NYC chancellor, now is a good time for us to step back and reflect on how Ms. Fariña is doing from a socio-ecological perspective of leadership.

What might such a perspective of leadership entail? Glad you asked! Looking back through common themes we’ve explored on this blog, some relevant criteria that emerge could be as follows:

A leader who recognizes schools as ecosystems . . . 

  • Values inclusion and diversity (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • Consistently observes local conditions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Plays the long game  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Models active listening (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Applies intensive management (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Displays a willingness to try different things (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Utilizes the principle of obliquity (1, 2, 3)
  • Sweats the small stuff (1, 2, 3)
  • Demonstrates humility (1, 2)
  • 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.