Sigve Indregard
Developing strength and resilience in children, Oslo, November 2nd 2010.
When leaving school is the lesser...
team of do-gooders – sociologists, psychologists – from the university are trying to help
the worst-off kids in school, th...
newsroom, the purpose of the game is winning Pulitzers for your editors, not writing
actual, true, good, just stories on s...
makers tend to forget about the «bounded» part of «bounded rationality».That is: you
should not believe what you find in th...
cope with a problem relating to his eyesight. However, the school didn’t actually give him
this. First, they forgot to che...
ancient astronomy: planet Earth is stationary, and it is the centre of the universe.To make
sense of the night sky, epicyc...
I advocate, therefore, a different approach to discussing dropouts. Herbert Swope, a
Pulitzer-winning first world war journ...
Note that the insistence on how good schools are for kids is the instrumentalistic mistake
once again.
A tentative, simpli...
What will she choose? It obviously depends on how she values the outcomes y and x.
Social scientists generally assume mone...
be: on the factors influencing the decisions: the xs, the ys, and not least on the probability
estimates.
It is also no coi...
The humanitarian instincts of the enlightenment’s illuminati and the profit-seeking
instincts of the industrial revolution’...
But there’s also a possibility hidden in such an idea. If we know where the students in
this classroom are going to work a...
Third policy prescription: More choice in important decisions, less choice where choices
are a hassle. Psychology has prov...
we can do is to shift away from the instrumentalist and elitist programmes of
understanding why some students are deviatin...
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Leaving school a lesser evil

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Preventing school dropout by becoming relevant to students' near future by Student and apprentice ombudsman Sigve Indregard
The conference Developing Strength and Resilience in Children, 1-2 Nov. 2010 in Oslo.

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Leaving school a lesser evil

  1. 1. Sigve Indregard Developing strength and resilience in children, Oslo, November 2nd 2010. When leaving school is the lesser evil: Preventing drop-out by becoming relevant to students’ near future Are you familiar with TheWire? It is an American television series, produced between 2002 and 2008, written by this man: David Simon.The five seasons added together yielded more than 60 hours – of what I would call pure, exploratory sociology.Through the lense of the Baltimore police department’s anti-drug efforts, we progress, season by season, through new aspects of Baltimore city’s problems: we get to meet the young street-corner drug hoppers in the first, the dock-workers threatened by lay-offs in the second, the people in politics in the third, the schools in the fourth, and finally the news industry in the fifth. TheWire argues convincingly that the same set of structures and processes is tearing down all these work-places and communities.The ripples of disruption from crime, corruption and drugs abuse reach dock-workers, police, newspapers – and schools.The series investigates these communities through a prism of shear curiosity. For instance, the character «Snoop» – a rather vicious hit-girl, killing dozens of people with no regrets whatsoever – is brought to the screen by a local Baltimore girl who went to prison for a murder she committed when she was fourteen. Her nickname back then was – can you guess it? «Snoop».That kind of committed curiosity yields sociological results, and to the school sector the fourth season should be compulsory. Anyway, I am possibly drifting a bit off-topic here.The point with this intro is to provide the background for telling you about a plot from TheWire. At this point in the series, a – 1 –
  2. 2. team of do-gooders – sociologists, psychologists – from the university are trying to help the worst-off kids in school, the so-called «corner kids».They have recruited Bunny Colvin, a former police commander who was put on forced retirement in season three. Actually, everyone who tries to do something about the status quo end up killed, maimed or on forced retirement in TheWire. Anyway. Colvin finds it hard to reach these kids with mathematics, science and English grammar.They are confused by the new special class they are put in, and aggravated by the new rules.Why are they resisting, he asks himself. We are only doing what we can to help these kids from ending up on street corners. Then he realises the truth:These kids were learning for their life at school – for their life. The classroom fights, the arguing over rules, the expulsions, the cheating on tests, the selling of candy-bars to younger kids, the social hierarchies – they were learning what the drug players call the game. The game preaches total loyalty to one’s closest allies and superiors, total distrust to strangers, and a totalitarian willingness to shed off — in real life to kill – those who break the rules of the game. The teachers were the police, the pupils were the drug hoppers, and navigating the two sets of rules – on the one hand, the official school rules or the law, on the other hand the special, ethical rules of the game – that navigation was what they were learning. There is a tension between the true, good, just ethics of the formal community and the actual, real, day-to-day ethics of the game. And the clue to understanding why the «high road» never is a viable option for the worst-off kids, is to see how this pattern is recreated in all work-places.This does the candidate mayor of the third season experience when he tries to win an election without bribing the right people. So does the teacher of season four discover when he disregards the principal’s instructions of teaching to the test. And the editor and the journalist of the fifth season, discovering that one of their colleagues‘ is just thinking up stories and witnesses, are discharged instead of honoured. In the – 2 –
  3. 3. newsroom, the purpose of the game is winning Pulitzers for your editors, not writing actual, true, good, just stories on society. And with that realisation, it is easier to understand why the kids in the special «corner kids»-class were resisting the help.The aim of the do-gooders was to teach them skills they needed for life away from the corners. But these kids knew they would wind up on corners anyway.Taking them away from their classroom habitat took away the only relevant education they actually were receiving: learning how to trick their teachers, cook the books, play cat-and-mouse with school authorities. [next slide] So, now: back to school.Through endless studies into the social background factors co- relating to dropouts, we have now established what we already knew: dropouts are the worst-off kids from the very beginning of their lives.These reports are only a selection from Norway the latest years.This, though, amounts to begging the question: the worst-off remain the worst-off because they were the worst-off... My «favourite» argument along these lines is that students drop out from secondary school because they have bad grades from middle school. I know a fair number of teachers in upper secondary who were relieved to hear these «news». I guess it is only a matter of time before some researcher discovers that cognitive abilities at age 6 correlate strongly with pre-natal measurements, and therefore taking the entire burden off the school’s shoulders. The drunkard in the middle of the night, having lost his keys, walks over to the lamp- post and begins his search there. «But you haven’t walked past that lamp-post before», says his companion. «Well, chances are higher that someone moved my keys here than they are finding my keys, stumbling around in the darkness».The drunkard’s right. He is exercising bounded rationality.The researchers are basically looking for the sources of school dropouts in the little light there is.The problem is: politicians and decision- – 3 –
  4. 4. makers tend to forget about the «bounded» part of «bounded rationality».That is: you should not believe what you find in the light can be generalised to what is generally to be found.The measurable social factors hiding behind the dropout numbers are not what is generally to be known about dropouts. I do not believe kids wake up one morning, thinking: «Hmm, my father has only completed compulsory education, so I think I better drop out today». Or, for that sake, «my mum has a lower income than most of my classmates, therefore I stay at home».That is not rational behaviour.1 A girl, sixteen years old, called me at my office. I should say, before continuing, that my task, being a student ombudsman, is making sure the schools do their part for the kids. So she calls me because she wonders what rights she have got. Her father’s gone, and her mother’s seriously ill after a stroke. She takes care of her brother, aged seven, and she works evenings to avoid being a burden to the strained family budget.This girl dropped out of school a while after this call. The thing is: she would look like a standard drop-out in the statistics. She has poor grades from grade ten, she was absent a lot, her parents had low education, she went to vocational school. But in reality it was all due to the stroke. She had good grades before tenth grade, she wound up at a vocational school due to pressure from a friend who denied going to vocational school «alone», and her mother had a good job before the stroke despite her low education. Her absenteeism was also, obviously, caused by the stroke. This other boy, whose mother contacted me, dropped out after three years of schooling. He had been granted supported education and an individualised curriculum to help him – 4 – 1 Or, really, it is ex ante rational, a kind of behaviour reserved for all-knowing Gods and social researchers.
  5. 5. cope with a problem relating to his eyesight. However, the school didn’t actually give him this. First, they forgot to check the student’s file from earlier school years.Then, after a new inquiry and ruling was made, they still were reluctant to go through with it.The process of complaining and documenting the process dragged out, to the point where the plan the boy wanted and needed was impossible to complete within the three years of schooling he was entitled to. So, he finally dropped out – he could not possibly complete secondary education any more. Now, where do we find this in the reports? We don’t, because disabilities are not put into any registry in Norway. So who knows how many instances of this boy we have got out there? And then, there’s the other question: was it because of his disability or because of the school’s insolence he dropped out? Both causes were necessary. Neither are in the reports.We had to look far beyond the lamppost’s light to find them. The conventional approach of maximising the predictive powers of background factors is inherently flawed when applied to understanding how to change these patterns.When you come to think of it, statistics are just descriptive of past realities.That is not all we need.We also need to understand the actual reasons and justifications kids give for dropping out, and for that sake, for not showing up, for not handing in their assignments on time, for falling asleep. And by «we», I don’t mean researchers. I mean the «we» who deal with these problems before they have grown irreparable. I refer to the reasons kids themselves give as «actual». No kid would refer to their own social background stats as justification for dropping out, so those reasons aren’t actual. Asserting the social background stats as reasons is what philosophers of science call «epiphenomenal».The term is derived from the impressive system of so-called epicycles, spins and twists the planets and moons had to do to conform with the basic truth of – 5 –
  6. 6. ancient astronomy: planet Earth is stationary, and it is the centre of the universe.To make sense of the night sky, epicycles had to be invented. Inferring from background stats to real reasons follow the same pattern. Background stats is by definition the centre of the universe, and real choices people do have to be coerced into this pattern.Therefore, the choices kids do are «interpreted» for them. It is not really because they want to work, don’t like school, feel the returns of schooling are inadequate or simply have no use for it – it is because they have poor grades from earlier years, or because they have an alcoholic for mother, or because they didn’t go to kindergarten. In the language of Norwegian philosopher Hans Skjervheim, this is known as the instrumentalistic mistake.We assume that the real world can be ruled by the theoretical world; that the models are adequate for not only description, but also prescription. Common to all these instrumentalistic interpretations is a move from a changeable future to a fixed past. After all, there is no way even a good teacher could change their students’ family backgrounds.To prove this point, we once again turn to Bunny Colvin of TheWire. In one of the very few acts of goodness that actually ends well in the entire series, he manages to save one of the corner kids – by adopting him when his mum ostracises him due to his poor skills at drug selling.The morale is that in a disintegrating society, the only movement that actually works is the truly integrating one: by personally including the disintegrated kid into your very closest sphere, the family. I guess we’re lucky Norway is not that disintegrated. But by doing this, Colvin does in a sense switch the background stats for Namond Brice. He rewrites history. As a general rule, however, changing backgrounds is completely out of the question.We need to focus our efforts on the future. And Namond’s classmates all end up dead, imprisoned, bullied or high. – 6 –
  7. 7. I advocate, therefore, a different approach to discussing dropouts. Herbert Swope, a Pulitzer-winning first world war journalist, once said: «I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure; try to please everybody all the time». There is no one-size-fits-all solution.The interesting part is at the individual level, not at the aggregated. However, as social researchers, it would be impossible to ask all the kids all the right questions, and even more impossible to get meaningful answers.The act of modelling, of simplifying reality into groups of similar behaviour, is needed. So the challenge becomes: How do we model this while keeping the results open, not fixed to some long-gone past stats? I suggest modelling this as a rational decision made under uncertainty, considering the bounded rationality of the students.This slightly technical term basically means I am presupposing three things: First, young people generally do the same thing as other people: make the decision that seems best to them, their mind and experiences taken as a given. Second, young people can not know exactly what outcomes will manifest themselves after the choice is made – they are lacking perfect information.Third, decisions have to be made now; calculating exact outcomes years ahead take too much time, and therefore kids will rely on heuristics – rules of thumb – when deciding. Yet, the presuppositions aside, I am still considering their decisions as rational. I believe this is what is different about this perspective. Literature I have read on this topic generally fail at this point: they are good at describing which kids wind up on the «low road», but it is a mystery why the choose that road. Again, statistics muddy our instincts. Politicians claim the personal return to schooling is great, both in terms of income and life quality. But is this really true for the actual kid who is making a decision, given the actual education system she has to deal with? – 7 –
  8. 8. Note that the insistence on how good schools are for kids is the instrumentalistic mistake once again. A tentative, simplistic way of making this point is shown here. Here, I am imagining a seventeen year old student, trying to make up her mind: should I go to school, or should I take the temporary employment opportunity.The temp job has its problems, probably problems that probably are underestimated by the student. But we are looking at her view, so we assume that the rewards for choosing drop-out is x. Now, she further assumes that she can always get a job like the temp job, so the baseline reward is x per year.Will she be better off going to school? Well, to be qualified for anything better than the temp job, she will need a craft certificate.That means she will have to get an apprenticeship, and she will have to pass both an exam at the end of the school-year and one at the end of the apprenticeship. Now, let’s assume this girl has poor results and poor experiences with exams. She also knows the worst students are unlikely to get apprenticeships. Let’s say she considers the chances of passing each exam 50 %, and the same for getting an apprenticeship.Then she will with 75 % probability waste a year of x rewards, because she fails her school exam. Then, if she passes, she only gets an apprenticeship half the time. And if she gets it, she gets an apprenticeship with much worse pay – on average half x – for the next two years, losing another x.With 50 % probability she then gets the big award, let’s call it y, and with 50 % probability she just loses the x. So, choosing school means she will have three fourths probability of ending up with the temp job after losing one x, one-in-eight probability of ending up with the temp job after losing two x, and one-in-eight probability of losing two x and then winning y. – 8 –
  9. 9. What will she choose? It obviously depends on how she values the outcomes y and x. Social scientists generally assume monetary income as a proxy for this value, but I believe that is a fatal flaw.The value of x and y is strongly affected by how the girl estimates the social stigma of choosing x over y, exemplified by choosing to work at a grocery store or as a kindergarten assistant.This will vary from individual to individual. Anthropologists have for instance described working class families as directly hostile to higher education, and undoubtedly the same could be said regarding well-educated families’ beliefs on low-skilled employment opportunities. Additionally, being in a school in itself might influence the numbers. Imagine a student being bullied in school. She would probably put extra value to the punishment of being another year in school. As for myself, I would rather stay at the university all my life. Generally, then, children at risk have low percentage chances of reaching y, and they value x more than others.The choice of leaving school is, in this sense, the strictly rational choice. No wonder schools have resorted to fear-mongering as a tactic to keep their students. Even I do that, only in a different form. I show students this chart, telling them that it shows the importance of having inclusive schools.This charts the percentage of jobs in the future available for different educational groups. Even well-adapted, school-loving children should know this – because no-one, not even the rich and wealthy, wants a society with ten, twenty percent unemployment. So far, this strategy has painted a bleak picture.While the statistical approaches at least try to explain away dropouts as sad, bad choices made due to poor background factors, my approach says the opposite:The choices these kids make are generally the optimal ones to cope with their life. Optimal as in choosing pest over cholera, but optimal nevertheless. However bleak, though, this approach puts the spotlight where it should – 9 –
  10. 10. be: on the factors influencing the decisions: the xs, the ys, and not least on the probability estimates. It is also no coincidence that I refer to this as my approach. I will not, and can not, present to you any eternally effective solution to combat dropout. Instead, I believe we have to approach each student individually. Different children will have different points of interest to discuss, and the solutions will also be different. It all comes down to Bunny Colvin’s realisation: If we want a chance at reaching these kids, we must make school relevant to their life. Luckily, few Norwegian kids have a future as a corner kid made out for them. Mobility is much greater than in the Baltimore high-rises, and therefore opportunities and rewards for trying harder are higher. But still, the way in is to make school relevant. At this point, teachers probably scoff at me.What am I saying – should schools teach Facebook, how to arrange parties,Twilight, and all sorts of youth culture? No, that is not what I am saying (although, as an aside, I’m not sure it would be such a silly thing to do). Kids haven’t just got current lives.They have plans, dreams, ideas of what future will be like.They have preconceptions on what their own skills and limitations are.When I want schools to attach themselves to kids’ lives, I mean their life projects. [next slide] Ken Robinson, a renowned professor, writer and creativity campaigner, not to forget a knight of the British empire, remarks how our public school system came to life in the 19th century, in the philosophical atmosphere of the enlightenment and the economic atmosphere of the industrial revolution. Prior to this, no-one could gather support for a free, public school system – why waste money on the reading abilities of street urchins and manual labourers? – 10 –
  11. 11. The humanitarian instincts of the enlightenment’s illuminati and the profit-seeking instincts of the industrial revolution’s capitalists turned this upside-down: now, to be an effective worker required a set of basic skills, and to be an effective democratic citizen required quite a lot, actually, of education. So schools turn out to be a compromise: it has the outer structure of an industrial revolution-era factory – the bell, the departments, the conveyor belt-ish structuring of children into year-batches, the classroom environment where the work-leader or teacher produces and the workers or pupils reproduce. But the ambitions were humanitarian: every little boy and girl is a philosopher at heart; we need only give them their basic enlightenment and the true lover of knowledge will appear. In there lies the seed of the highly destructive idea that academic knowledge somehow is better than practical know-how.This idea, which is new in a historic context, marginalises young children with less academic backgrounds.We are, basically, asking these children to spend 13 years doing stuff they don’t appreciate, because we believe it will be better for them in the long run. It is tempting to cite Keynes, the economist, who once wrote «in the long run we are all dead». And aren’t what we are really saying this: we believe the rest of society is better off doing this to the kids? Instrumentalism again. So, what are my policy prescriptions? They follow my approach of analysing choice, and to increase the number of children choosing to remain we may do two different things: we may increase the value of reaching y, or increase the probability of reaching y. First of all, we, at least here in Norway, need to guarantee children an apprenticeship. Do not let the counties place a school desk in a classroom before they know they can get an apprenticeship for that student. Given my earlier assumptions, that would chip away one third of the failure probability. – 11 –
  12. 12. But there’s also a possibility hidden in such an idea. If we know where the students in this classroom are going to work after they finished their two years of schooling, why can’t we then let them visit and work in those workplaces while they are technically school-children? That eliminates a set of other reasons, not in my simplistic model, for leaving school: uncertainty about your own abilities, whether they are good enough for the work place; about the co-workers; about the relevance of the skills you learn at school. Second policy prescription is to increase resource differentiation.Today, schools spend about the same amount of teacher time on all students. But kids with deprived backgrounds or other challenges, or even just lousy motivation for school, would benefit much from a more teacher-intensive day, smaller groups, more tailored tasks and teaching methods and so on.The sales punch here is that the really privileged wouldn’t really be hurt much by having less teacher time. First of all, they generally respond better to larger independence and more responsibility, and also: if they get slightly deprived of teacher input at school, their parents step in. I believe we could and should do a lot more of this, particularily at young ages, when the kids can’t possibly be blamed for their deprivations. How does this fit into my model? Well, the point is making school relevant to the individual. It is a ludicrously hard task to make school relevant to thirty students at a time. More teacher time means more tailor-made school days. And on the other hand; for the really privileged students, being assigned to larger groups, more independence and less direct teacher-to-student teaching is very relevant to their overwhelmingly likely academic future. – 12 –
  13. 13. Third policy prescription: More choice in important decisions, less choice where choices are a hassle. Psychology has proven humans to be really, heavily loss averse.That means: If I give you hundred dollars, you’ll be happy. But if I say to you: here’s a thousand dollars, and then I give you only two hundred, then you’ll be really unhappy. In the same way, «school choice» does perhaps make the winners marginally happier to get into the right school, but it makes the losers really disappointed.The choice of school is, in Norway at least, really unimportant for school achievement.The teachers, on the other hand, are really important.The illusion of choice corroborates the students negative attitudes.Taking away that choice, we should instead focus our efforts on giving students a real choice of subjects, possibly of teachers, of methods, of books. In those choices, nearly every student can be accomodated, and they do therefore increase motivation. Fourth, we need tons of empirical studies, following smaller groups of students through our educational systems.We need panel data to know where stuff goes wrong.Today, school systems everywhere install comprehensive evaluation schemes like No Child Left Behind and our own Nasjonale Prøver. It is not very interesting.We should instead be following smaller groups tightly, with a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research instruments. Fifth, and least concrete, is the idea that schools should cater to life-projects.We should demand that teachers get the time and resources they need, so we can make sure they know their students.That they are aware of their aspirations and troubles. And that schools get the formal freedom to adapt this «knowledge-factory» in more ways. Schools are, in the words of Ken Robinson, becoming increasingly irrelevant to kids’ lives.The breakdown of the simplicity of work-life in the age of industrialism ensures this.There is no simple mapping from education to job any more.The jobs of tomorrow don’t really exist yet, and that leaves education today in an awkward position.The best – 13 –
  14. 14. we can do is to shift away from the instrumentalist and elitist programmes of understanding why some students are deviating from the norm of academic skill, and instead go search for the potential found in each and every student. Alarmism is seldom wise. But our school system’s lack of adaptation to a new, post- industrialist position is worthy of an alarm bell.Today, a quarter of our young population begins their grown up lives in a position with meagre prospects of ever getting a real job. While larger parts of the population get an education than ever before, an education is even faster becoming a requirement for participation in society.The ripples of disappointment with the grown-up world will be felt by us all. – 14 –

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