A promising summer journey in education

Ed Pioneers 2

This week, I had the privilege to meet many people who were deeply passionate about education reform in the US. I’m on a fellowship with Education Pioneers, an educational nonprofit that seeks to grow a pipeline of leaders in the education sector. For my summer project, I’ve been matched with Teach For America, an educational nonprofit that seeks to eliminate educational inequity.

It’s always inspiring to meet people who are passionate about social causes. (And I had the great fortune to work with many of them in my last job.) You know it when you meet such people and talk to them. You can tell it from their words and deeds, and stories.

Some of them are lively and talkative. Some of them are quiet and reserved. Regardless of their external orientation, they all have a deep and personal conviction of why they want to work in education. For example,

  • One of them, M, grew up in a humble background. The odds were heavily against him and others like him. Fortunately for M, he had a lucky break and went on to do well. Despite his success, he knew that many others were not as lucky as he was, and it became his personal mission to eliminate the education inequity. He enjoys serving the underprivileged, and he considers himself so lucky!!” to be able to do so. Wow!
  • Another one of them, H, came to the US when he was a young boy and spoke no word of English. He overcame his initial handicap, and feeling a sense of gratitude to the country, he joined the army. His tour of duty took him to war-torn places around the world, where despite the destruction and abject poverty people took education seriously. He saw village kids go to “school” made up of makeshift tents in the mountains. It made him wonder how for all its wealth and spending on education, there was still so much inequity in the US. He wanted to join the education sector to do something about it.

And there are many other folks. Talking to these people, I found them to be extremely bright and talented. Quite a number were from business school. They could walk into any Fortune 500 or consulting company and earn a salary many times what they would get in the education sector. Yet many of them chose this path instead.

It’s interesting that whenever I talk to people in the US about the education system, they would have strong opinions that were generally not very positive. Most people think there are too many vested interests and the problems are too deep. When asked for their one-word description of the education landscape, some of the replies were: “intimidating”, “complicated”, “divisive”, “layered”, “complex”, “entrenched”, “incongruent”, “opaque” and “intricate”.

Yet, there was also one other word that stood out to me: “promising”. Promising, not in terms of the current state of affairs, but in terms of the people who are passionate and want to make a difference. As an optimist, I like to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Perhaps adversity and passion are two sides of the same coin? Perhaps like a spring, the harder you depress it the stronger it pushes back at you? Perhaps in the very depths of the complex problems lie the source of strength for the solutions?

Ray of light

A lot of discussion and criticism on education centers around money and resources. Perhaps this is not surprising, since these are tangibles that are easier to count and compare. And I do not disagree that money and infrastructure are important. At the same time, I think the greatest resource lies not in these, but in the people who strive to make a difference. These are more intangible, because its not just about the number of such people but also the depth and substance of their passion and conviction.

As I embark on my summer journey to learn more about the US education system, I will likely come across many complex challenges, perhaps far more than there are solutions. At the same time, I have faith that in the adversity also lies hope. I look forward to knowing many awesome people and their inspiring work. In that regard, I feel optimistic, and at the same time, I can’t help but feel so lucky!! :)



Photo Credits:

Education Pioneers 2014 GSF Chicago/Midwest Cohort

Brian Talbot via photopin cc

Dorena-wm via photopin cc

Helping under resourced students succeed

hare turtle

In the story of the hare and turtle, the hare lost the race because he was over confident. Some may say the turtle’s diligence and perseverance paid off.

Of course, it’s a story. In real life, we don’t expect turtles to outrun hares.

Or do we?

In some situations we seem to expect it. At least, we think the solution is to teach turtles to run faster, almost like hares.

In education, the conventional approach is to establish standards and formulas for success, and bring everyone closer to the norm. For example, the ACT is a widely administered test in the US, and a composite score of 21 (out of 36) is widely adopted as the benchmark for college readiness. Many schools turn education into an endeavor to prepare students to score well on the ACT.

So, I read with interest a recent report by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS). The following diagram is adapted from a chart in the report. It is a scatter plot of ACT scores and college enrollment for high schools in a Chicago school district. If we believe that ACT scores are correlated to college enrollment, it is not difficult to find data to support this. We can plot a line of best fit through the data (see green line, added by me), and this is where most analysis may conclude i.e. the data shows that higher ACT scores are indeed correlated to higher college enrollment.


The INCS study though went one step further. They zoomed into the red box area where schools with low ACT scores were placing a high proportion of students in college. In behavioral studies, this is called positive deviance, which identifies “people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers” (source: Wikipedia).

Using the hare-turtle analogy, these “turtles” placed well in races despite being slow in speed. What is interesting is that some of these “statistical outlier” schools also have an overwhelming proportion of students from under-resourced communities where 80-95% of students are on free lunch programs.

I’m familiar with such socioeconomic profiles. In my former organization (in Singapore), we work with schools with 30-40% of students on school financial aid (in Singapore this is considered high). Many of such students come from rough home environments: mostly low-income, some heavy in debt, some single-parent, some with a parent in prison, some large families, some families where breadwinners hold multiple jobs to make ends meet, some experience regular domestic violence. Many of those students struggle in school, and social and education issues are intertwined.

To be fair, much resources are invested in such schools and their students. What is often done though is to “patch” deficits. For example, if the students come from low-income homes, the response is financial aid. If they lag in their studies, the response is remedial lessons. If they are delinquent, the response is punishment. I refer to these as “deficit approaches” as the underlying philosophy is that these students have some deficits from certain “norms” or equilibrium and the strategy is to remove the deficits and put them “back on track”, where they can be expected to function and succeed the same way as everyone else.

I think this works to some extent for some under-performing students, but I’m not sure it works for all. Given the socioeconomic profiles of these students, there comes a point where a rather different approach to success, or even measures of success, may be required.

Returning to the INCS study, when INCS zoomed into the “positive deviant” schools i.e. those with overwhelming populations of students from under-resourced communities they found some common themes:

  • These schools emphasize personal and non-cognitive skills like grit, perseverance and accountability.  Put differently, attitude over aptitude. The schools know that many of their students will fail or struggle at some point, and what they need are skills to help them overcome failures, learn from them and move on.
  • These schools entrench a “college going” culture from Day 1. It’s hard for such students to even think about college, when they have to grapple with many social challenges or if no one in their families or communities went to college. They need to believe they can go to college, and much of their social norms need to be over-written.
  • These schools help each student to find the college that best fits them.  The schools believe that college is for everyone, but not every college suits everyone – this is an important distinction. Further, getting into college is one thing, but staying and persisting through it is another thing; here again, not every college suits everyone.
  • These schools pair each student with a caring adult.  Given the socio-economic profile of these students, they can do with more positive role models. This is not to downplay their home environments, but more to help them build connections to more role models who have succeeded through college.
  • These schools track and support their alumni.  The aim of the schools is to support their students “to and through college”. One school put it well, “We put so much effort to get them into college and then we simply forget them? That’s insane!” Life in college is different from high school – different environment, different people, different learning approaches. Many students struggle in that transition. To top that, many of them may face financial and social realities at home that may derail their college journey.

Each of the points on its own may not strike one as game changing, but the collective and consistent philosophy across all of them that suggest a fundamentally different philosophy and approach. These schools are not “restoring” their students to some norm. They are charting a unique formula and pathway for them. Revisiting the hare-turtle analogy, the turtles are not expected to run like hares. Instead, a different race for success is being developed and defined for them.

The hare-turtle analogy is not used to downplay turtles, and in fact, many of our notions about turtles are shaped by our mental models of them. Put in a different way, if the race is not about running but swimming, perhaps turtles have strengths over others. Perhaps that’s what we need, to build people from strengths rather than weaknesses or deficits. All of which is quite nicely put in this video, and perhaps this is the out-of-the-box narrative and thinking we need :)

Photo credits:

Matea2506 via photopin cc

Illinois Network of Charter Schools Policy Brief