"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Poverty Solutions: Psychological Immunization and Neurological Alteration

The "No Excuses" charter school operators prefer school locations in poor urban areas, rather than socioeconomically mixed areas.   There are a number of reasons for preferring segregation: 1) cheap real estate deals for charter operators are easier to come by in the most depressed areas, as public schools are often combined or closed for performance or efficiency reasons, thus leaving empty buildings that can be leased or purchased cheaply; 2) heavy concentrations of students in nearby low-cost housing provide potential charter customers who do not require large outlays for transportation costs; 3) poor parents are more likely to be occupied with basic life needs and less likely than other parents to question how their children are treated or to seek involvement in curriculum and instruction decisions and discipline policies.  Once parents and students sign KIPP contracts, their participation in schooling decisions is relinquished to the school leadership team.

In short, No Excuses operators operate beyond parental and public oversight, this allowing practices that would never be allowed in schools that serve middle class students.

Operating in high poverty areas presents serious challlenges, however.  Because expansion of the "no excuses" charter chains depend upon high test performance by the children in their testing factories, in order to secure new contracts, worker children in high poverty areas where charters operate need every performance-enhancing intervention that can be applied to maximize production.  If hungry children are going to have test scores that can compete privileged children in the leafy suburbs, which is a prime political selling point of the "no excuses" schools to begin with, then the charter industry needs some way to make children immune to the effects of poverty, which has always been the best predictor of test performance.  

Enter the positive psychologists aimed to solve an economic problem related to increasing "human capital."  Add a few learned helplessness shrinks who inspired the CIA following 9-11.  To that bizarre mix, add the social-emotional learning (SEL) disciples and the motivational experts like Carol Dweck, and you get a potent combination of forces now aligning themselves to do battle against the costly productivity drag that results from children and their parents living in poverty.  A new field is emerging, in fact, that is aimed to psychologically and neurologically alter children and their parents so that they become immune to the debilitating effects of the impoverished and dehumanizing lives they live.  As Paul Tough explained in his 2012 book, How Children Succeed . . ., “character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways. . ."

The effects of long-term psychological and neurological manipulations of children, for whatever reason, can only be guessed, but the potential seems particularly devastating when we know that these interventions will be carried out in total compliance schools by non-professionals who are under the gun for increased production of test scores to furnish burnish brand names.

The dire possibilities, however, do not seem to be at all visible to psychologists like Carol Dweck, who is engaged in building her own little empire to mold the minds of the poor.  She recently appeared at a Gates-funded Education Week meeting in Washington, DC, to make her case for immunizing children against the effects of poverty with her "growth mindsets."

Below is a brief clip from my new book, Work Hard, Be Hard..., which provides some context for understanding the, um, motivation behind the emerging SEL fixation by Dweck and others. 
            Among the teachers interviewed for this book, there was a shared anxiety with regards to what KIPP’s lockdown environment will eventually produce.  As student success entails a sense of empowerment, or the ability to not only control but to affect or transform one’s world, these former teachers understood the danger that the KIPP Model poses to that purpose or aim.  The resulting anxiety is represented by the statement below, which expresses concern that the KIPP influence would continue to reach beyond the 183 KIPP franchises:
I am worried that if the KIPP motto starts to spread that it will end up going into public schools as well and then because KIPP is so test-focused, other schools are going to be that way. I feel like we are just going to be creating robots, like people who aren’t really able to think for themselves and be creative and expressive and be able to have their own personalities. I am just worried that it is just going to create a society of people who are going to be complacent and just kind of do whatever people tell them to do because that is what they have learned their whole life.
            Growing interest among corporate foundations and their think tanks (Center on Children and Families at Brookings, 2014) for “character” building through social-emotional learning (SEL) interventions suggests the KIPP Model is likely to be repackaged for another generation of No Excuses schools. Once again, psychologists of the developmental variety are coming to dominate this social and emotional learning (SEL) niche (Steinberg, 2014; Farrington et al, 2012), and they are joined by new paternalists who are fixated, as they always have been, on instilling self-regulation and self-control.  
As a solution to the character deficiencies among the disenfranchised, SEL will likely have a dominant role in the next phase of the crusade to fix the poor.  In a recent research review (Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014) sponsored by the Gates Foundation, the authors examine studies that support the Duckworth thesis that non-cognitive, or motivational, factors like “academic tenacity” can have more effect than “cognitive factors” on “core academic outcomes such as GPA and test scores” (p. 2): 
At its most basic level, academic tenacity is about working hard, and working smart, for a long time. More specifically, academic tenacity is about the mindsets and skills that allow students to . . . look beyond short-term concerns to longer-term or higher-order goals, and withstand challenges and setbacks to persevere toward these goals (p. 4).

                   The philanthrocapitalists and their think tank scholars quote liberally from the work of Walter Mischel (1989, 2014), whose experiments with delayed gratification among preschoolers provide the dominant metaphor for another generation of paternalist endeavors.  In Mischel’s experiments, children were offered a single marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows later if they could delay their reward.  The test, which came to be labeled “The Marshmallow Test,” represents the potential to delay gratification in order to gain a larger reward later on. 
                   At many of the KIPP, Aspire, Achievement First, and Yes Prep schools, children wear t-shirts emblazoned with “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow.” Mischel’s (2014) latest work, The marshmallow test: Mastering self-control acknowledges KIPP’s prominent role and places it within the context of recent research on improving self-control.  David Levin has made Mischel’s book a central component in his Coursera massive open online course (MOOC), Teaching character and creating positive classrooms, which was first offered with co-instructor, Angela Duckworth, in 2014. 
                   Levin and Duckworth are two of the co-founders of Character Lab, which uses Duckworth’s experimental work at the Upper Darby School District near the University of Pennsylvania to fine tune the character performance interventions that Levin initiated at KIPP schools in the early 2000s. Interestingly, much of the research that is used to justify the use of the Seligman-Duckworth resiliency improvement methodology is the same data offered to justify the Seligman deal that cost the U. S. Army $145 million (see Chapter 1) for interventions that brought no benefit to GIs suffering from the stresses of war.  We may wonder how much these alleged remedies for children might cost federal and state education departments, whose bankrolls are much smaller than those at the Pentagon.
            A related character approach that operates under the trade name, Brainology, claims that 1,000 schools are now using its “growthmindset” based on Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset(2006).   Dweck’s work is included on the suggested reading list used by Levin and Duckworth for their online course mentioned above.  Brainology cites unpublished research that shows teaching the growth mindset “boosts motivation and achievement” and narrows both the gender and racial achievement gaps (Mindset Works, Inc., 2008-2012) A license for 300 students is available for $5,250, or the program may be purchased for $79 per student.  A separate site license for professional development is sold for $1,500.
The Brainology website has links to a handout that summarizes finding for a short list of preliminary studies showing Brainology’s effectiveness in increasing motivation, although none of the findings has appeared in refereed journals.  Even so, the enthusiasm among reformers is strong and growing stronger as the debilitating stresses from poverty rise, and the spread of educational austerity measures calls for the ramping up of strategies that might mollify those affected children whose promised rewards become more and more uncertain.
Center on Children and Families at Brookings.  (2014).  Essay series on character and opportunity.  Washington, DC: The Character and Opportunity Project of the Brookings Institution.  Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/multimedia/interactives/2014/ccf_characterseries/characterandopportunityessays.pdf

Dweck, C.  (2006).  Mindset: The new psychology of success.  New York: Ballantine.
Dweck, C., Walton, G., & Cohen, G.  2014).  Tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/~gwalton/home/Welcome_files/DweckWaltonCohen_2014.pdf
Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., & Beechum, N.  (2012).  Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance:  A critical literature review.  Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
Mindset Works, Inc.  (2008-2012).  Mindset works: Spark learning. Retrieved from http://www.mindsetworks.com/webnav/whatismindset.aspx


  1. It's more than a little ironic that the so-called reformers who insist on teaching "character" have such poor versions of it themselves, since their education model is based on lies, propaganda, manipulation and flimsily-concealed paternalism/condescension.

  2. Anonymous8:53 PM

    Has any research been conducted as to the consequences of Restorative Justice practices in neighborhoods experiencing high rates of violence?

    Abigail Shure