Monday, December 3, 2007

This is Your Brain on School...Any Questions?

Remember the Partnership for a Drug-Free America's public service ads? Watch these before reading this post.

Ask a class full of 9th graders in an urban school if they're going to college, and the overwhelming majority will tell you that they are. These kids see education as a pathway to social mobility. The problem is in getting from here to there. While urban kids' skills and behaviors - like watching less TV or completing homework - have not followed from their aspirations, their belief in education itself is not the central problem.

Yet much of the debate about "rebranding school" in NYC is about using advertising to change urban kids' attitudes and "make school cool." Whenever Joel Klein talks about this topic, he appeals to the popular understanding of the acting white theory, essentially arguing that minority kids do not value education. (Full explanation here on Fordham and Ogbu's acting white theory.) In a Newsweek article, Klein said:
"It's no secret," says New York City schools chief Joel Klein. "All you have to do is ask kids in these areas and they'll tell you: school is not their thing. They don't want to be identified as being good at it. Studying is not something they want to be seen doing," he says.
So here's the plan as described by Newsweek:
In January about 15,000 middle-schoolers from high-poverty neighborhoods will be given free cell phones. Through those phones kids will then receive taped-and perhaps even personal-messages from entertainment and sports celebrities reminding them to try their best in class. They'll be able to download "interviews" with well-to-do men and women who work as dentists, technicians, scientists and accountants and who will discuss the way they parlayed school success into financial security. Teachers will also use the phones to remind pupils about upcoming tests or an overdue homework assignment. When individuals or groups of kids improve their attendance, up their grades or display good citizenship in school, they'll be rewarded with free minutes on their phones and tickets to shows and sporting events. Kids who get phones will also be assigned mentors.
My generation was the target of the "Just Say No" campaign. It's now clear that those public service ads had no effect on teenage drug use. Why? The campaign tried to change our attitudes about drugs with the hope that changed attitudes would translate into changed behaviors. But the only part of this program that sounds promising in this regard is the mentoring component.

My bet is that in 20 years, some blogger will be posting slick ads from the NYC Department of Education and reminding readers that they had no effect on student success. Hopefully, these ads will give NYC kids a better line to sass back at their parents than we had: "You, alright! I learned it by watching you."

See Ms. Frizzle, NYC Parents, Ed Notes, and Inside Schools for their takes.


Hispanic CREO said...

Excellent analysis.

I agree with you that the battle is not getting kids to believe that education leads to better opportunities.

Here ARE some the issues that need to be addressed:

1.) Promoting a "college culture." At the affluent high school which I attended, everyone had their reach schools and safety schools picked out by spring of their Junior year. At the urban high school where I was a teacher, I had my senior students coming to me in February asking how to apply to college. There is a great lack of information in urban communities about the process of applying to college. This needs to be addressed - not just by a few assemblies for 11th graders, but by teachers, coaches, and other influencers constantly reinforcing the college message. These adults need to talk about college, their experiences, and what it takes to get in.

2.) Students need to see REAL benefits to going to college.

Sadly, when I surveyed my students, very few of them had friends and relatives who had graduated from 4-year colleges. So although they knew that a college education could give them better "future opportunities," that idea was a very vague concept. Students need to be able to have role models who they can point to and say, "Wow, if he hadn't gone to college, he wouldn't be so successful now."

3.) Students need to be able to understand the connection between their work inside school (and their behavior outside school) and their future education.

I wish that I was making this up, but when I was in the classroom, literally dozens of my students with sub-2.0 GPAs and sub 600 scores on the SATs insisted that they were eligible to attend prestigious 4-year colleges. It was not fun to explain to them the actually reality of their situation.

It sounds very harsh, but perhaps we need to be more blunt with our students. Of course, they need to be encouraged. But they also need to know the facts about getting into college (and why their grades/test scores are so important).

At some point, I realized that this comment was turning into a blog post of its own, so I've responded in full on my blog, the Daily Grito.

Well done, though. I really liked your insight with this post and always enjoy reading what you've written. Keep it up!

Stuart Buck said...

While urban kids' skills and behaviors - like watching less TV or completing homework - have not followed from their aspirations, their belief in education itself is not the central problem.

But as you admit in this very sentence (and as Mickelson's work confirms), there is often a disconnect between abstract aspirations and concrete behaviors. In other words, if a researcher asks, "Do you think education is valuable," kids will all say yes, just as they'll say yes if you ask them whether it's good to avoid littering. That just means that kids are smart enough to tell a researcher what he or she wants to hear, not that kids never litter or slack off in school. What really would show a child's attitude toward school would be an honest answer to the question, "When faced with the choice to study for an exam or hang out with friends, how often do you choose to study?"

With that point in mind, I'd note that the NYC program is aimed not just at changing "urban kids' attitudes" in the abstract (as you seem to suggest), but at rewarding concrete behaviors such as improved attendance or grades.

While we should certainly reserve judgment on whether such a strategy will ultimately make a difference, the attempt to reward concrete behavioral changes is far, far different from a mere TV ad that had only the "hope that changed attitudes would translate into changed behaviors."

Suburban White Guy said...

Not only did the anti-drug ads not "work," if anything they tended to increase through a boomerang effect the use of drugs. Remember, the US government eventually ponied up several billion dollars to pay for such ads in prime time.

In fact, the evaluation of the campaign showed that it was having a negative effect. DARE, where cops came into the classroom and showed students the dangers of drugs also had a boomerang effect.

It is well known that anti-drug or other ads will have most effects on those who are in the least need of help -- e.g. the light drug user.

Joel said...

Hey, I linked to you over at So You Want To Teach? in the 148th Carnival of Education but it didn't trackback correctly. Sorry about that.