Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fixing Odds Against Idleness

In case you missed it, at the start of this week, Opportunity Nation, a broad-based coalition of over 250 concerned organizations with a mission "to expand economic opportunity and close the opportunity gap in America," released a report stating that 6 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor at work. That amounts to 15% of people in that age range - nearly 1 in 7. Imagine that, in the average secondary school of about 700 students, 100 students simply stop showing up one day.

The coalition also reports on underlying factors such as poverty, public safety, lack of social capital, and declining incomes. It is an all too common litany of explanations that sometimes gets captured (as it does in the AP press story) in terms of "zip code." To quote the article, "Their destiny is too often determined by their ZIP code," says Charlie Mangiardi, who works with Year Up, a nonprofit that trains young adults for careers and helps them find jobs.

I have no doubt that where a young person comes from has an influence on where he or she is going. Without advocates, supporters, boosters, mentors, role models, guides, etc. the odds that a 16-year-old will wind up down a blind alley or dead end street surely increases. But  do those factors determine or destine such a dismal outcome? Given how intractable those social conditions can be, and how immune they can prove against our best attempts to solve them, it's no wonder we find the data depressing.

I am not sure why school factors are absent in the coalition's report, but I do know we must consider schools as part of the solution to this problem of unproductive idleness. Recently the Quaglia Institute conducted an odds analysis on a very large data base of surveys of students in grades 6-12. We inquired of the data: What might help predict whether or not a student is academically motivated (and let's assume for the sake of this discussion that academically motivated students stay in school). Two factors stood out:
  • Students who are engaged in school are 14 times more likely to be academically motivated than those who are not engaged
  • Students who feel they are supported by their teachers are 8 times more likely to be academically motivated than those who do not feel teachers are supportive
It turns out that 40% of students surveyed do not report being engaged and 42% do not feel supported by their teachers. This means if we could "convert" those students, transform their experiences of engagement and teacher support, we could have an enormous impact on academic motivation - and maybe even on how many 16- to 24-year-olds find themselves out of school or out of work. 

Again, I cannot say how malleable poverty is, or quantify how much influence those working in schools have over a student's socio-economic status. What I am certain of is that teachers have a tremendous influence on how engaging their classes are, and how much they convince students that they are supportive. The statistics say that if we improve either one of those factors, the odds go up substantially that a student will stay in school (assuming of course that academically motivated students stay in school). I say let's play the odds.

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