How Schools Can Cash in on Social Capital

A brainstorm illustration with the word "social capital" in the middle.

Image credit: Shutterstock

As a society, we talk a lot about how important our children’s futures are, but we still seem to struggle when it comes to making sure that all kids have access to a good education.

One of the biggest problems that the education system faces right now is inequality. Poorer communities don’t have access to the same resources that wealthier communities do.  As a result, children from low-income families end up with a lower quality education.

Fixing this problem has proven to be a lot more difficult than it seems. But according to a new study, there is at least one resource that even the poorest schools should be able to tap into: social capital.

Jeff Grabmeier, senior director of research and innovation communications at Ohio State University, defines social capital as, “The network of relationships between school officials, teachers, parents, and the community that builds trust and norms that promote academic achievement.” In other words, it’s who you know. And while wealthier schools tend to have a lot more social capital, Grabmeier points out that this isn’t always the case.

“That’s not to say there’s no relationship between community wealth and social capital,” Grabmeier writes. “However, the majority of the difference in levels of social capital between schools could not be explained by their socioeconomic status, the study found.”

The authors of the study argue that the key to obtaining more social capital is to get schools to reach out to the community, to interact with parents and others, and to get them actively involved in supporting the school and its students. Open houses, conferences, and other ways to reach out and build connections are key, and those are generally the kinds of things that school administrators need to take the lead on.

It’s like the old saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

How Do We Combat “Alternative Facts” When People Won’t Listen to Real Facts?

A picture of a female teacher with her grade school students.

Photo credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono at Flickr Creative Commons

Educators, more than anyone else, have a keen interest in tackling the issue of “alternative facts.” But it’s a tough issue to fix when it’s the U.S. government that is perpetuating it. Most of us are aware that study after study, fact after fact, have proven that many of the claims made by the current administration are blatantly false, and yet people are still buying into them.

And it seems like all the facts in the world don’t make a difference, as people carry on believing what they want instead of what is true. According to sociologists, this is steeped in a problem of which most of us are unaware. It turns out that exposing misinformed people to facts not only doesn’t usually get them to change their mind, but actually makes them reinforce their wrong beliefs.

Nobody is quite sure why this happens, though. And it’s possible, likely even, for some educators to question whether or not they and their peers might be to blame. Were these people failed by the educational system? What can we do moving forward to try and prevent such attitudes from arising in current and future students? Is there anything that can be done? Are these attitudes hard-wired or learned at home?

None of these questions have easy answers. The nature of the problem is one that will take a while to find an answer to. But researchers aren’t giving up; they are determined now more than ever to find the answers we’ve all been waiting for.

In the meantime though, perhaps the best that educators can do is continue to teach still-impressionable students the truth. A reliance on facts and critical thinking now, when kids are still learning, might be the greatest tool we have to keep people willing and able to learn in the future.

My Struggle With Finding a Job After College

A diagram with the words "job search" in the middle.

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Look, I get it. I’ve been there myself. I graduated from the University of Iowa with my Master’s in Library and Information Science. While that’s not your typical “basket-weaving degree,” I will say that I did struggle to find employment after college.

It took me a total of eight months to find a job once I graduated. Even then, my first job out of college wasn’t within my field. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was so desperate for employment that I took a job as a secretary for $15 an hour.

My meager wages combined with my lack of self-confidence spiraled me into a deep depression. I was poor, humiliated, and completely dissatisfied with how my life turned out. I couldn’t help but to think I wasted six years of my life on a degree that was essentially useless.

However, I’m here to tell you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But I’m not going to sugar coat it: it takes a whole hell of a lot of effort to reach that light.

For me, I had to sacrifice one of the values I hold dearest to me: family. I grew up in a small town in Iowa. After college, I confined my job hunt to places within the surrounding area. I didn’t want to break away from my parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. They mean the world to me.

But I knew that if I wanted to get the job of my dreams, I had to start searching in other areas. I eventually ended up taking a job in St. Louis. Again, it’s not how I originally envisioned my life, but I’m a lot happier now that I’m making more money and working within my chosen field.

My advice for you is this: get out of your comfort zone. What boundaries, values, or rules have you set for yourself that are holding you back? What are you afraid of losing if you let go of this particular belief? What do you stand to gain if you let go of it?

Can Pokémon Go Be Used As An Educational Tool?

A young boy finds a Pokémon on his cell phone.

A young boy using the Pokémon Go app. Image: MichaelJayBerlin / Shutterstock

A quick summary in case there’s someone still out there who’s not familiar with Pokemon Go: The newest installment in Pokemon’s 20-year history of video games, the popular phone app requires players to walk around the real world to find virtual locations and virtual creatures, all the while collecting, strategizing, and battling. Immediately after it’s launch in July, it surpassed Twitter to become the most-downloaded app ever, and the largest mobile game in the history of the industry.

Creator Niantic wisely chose to release the walking-based game in midsummer, but as September approaches, parents and teachers alike are curious about the game’s educational potential. On the flip side of the coin, others are worried about privacy and safety risks.

The game features local landmarks across the country as Pokéstops—places where players collect in-game items—which educators are hoping will spur a widespread interest in students who want to learn about local history and resources. Players online have been talking excitedly about discovering features of their own towns that they’d never known before.

In the words of James Gee, a researcher in educational video gaming from Arizona State University, the app “enchants the environment.” After all, it is firing up a new interest in real world surroundings. The non-gaming generation has long bemoaned youth’s alleged lack of interest in their environment. With Pokémon Go, school-aged children can rediscover their home towns, and even organize outings and clean-up events in popular places.

Players can also use features of the game to track individual Pokémon, teaching them the concepts of triangulation and orienteering. Math, too, is a part of the game for those who want to calculate which of their Pokemon will evolve into the strongest creature at which level.

The biggest concern of detractors is that of safety and privacy (players have been accosted while following the game into unsafe areas, and game play requires your phone to be tracking you at all times). But with prudence and supervision, it will be interesting to see how education becomes the next thing to enfold this social mega-phenomenon.

Educational Stability

Kids reading in shopping cart

Foster children have been notoriously underserved when it comes to schooling, but ESSA might change that.
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Students in foster care get the short end of nearly every stick. And one of the most damaging shortfalls for their long-term welfare is the lack of access to consistent, quality schooling. A year ago, a national study of over a thousand foster kids revealed that kids in the system moved schools an average of once a year and lost 5-6 months of academic progress with every move. More if they were moving between schools with very different performance levels (bad to good, mediocre to awful, good to bad.)

They also found that every single change in living arrangements with their attendant change in schools reduced the child’s chance of graduating by fifty percent. More than 400,000 children are currently in foster care in the United States, and just barely over half are statistically going to graduate at all.

When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and later No Child Left Behind stressed the importance for schools to close the gap between their high and low performers, education agencies identified foster kids as officially high-risk for the first time. In 2014, the Uninterrupted Scholars Act was passed, which gave childcare welfare agencies important access to education records (these were previously only available to legal guardians). With agencies able to keep themselves up to date, they could ease some of the frustrations (enrollment delay, having to repeat courses, credits that didn’t transfer or went missing) that increased the odds a student would drop out.

This year, a clause in the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has gone a step further. The new act contains provisions to keep students in the same schools if at all possible, even if they move from one district to another. It requires schools and state agencies to provide transportation and to expedite enrollment and record transfer if a change of schools has to happen anyway. Perhaps more importantly, schools are required to report the progress of students in state care as they would any other minority group, so that for the first time, broad national data is available to be acted upon.

Elon Musk’s Ad Astra

Elon Musk

Elon Musk has started his own school for his children.
Image: Phil Stafford / Shutterstock.com

Surely, many parents wish that they could simply pull their kids out of an under-performing or otherwise unremarkable school and begin their own, better school. But most people–and perhaps especially, most parents–don’t have the time, skills, or capital to go through with it.

Elon Musk, billionaire entrepreneur and inventor, apparently has enough of all three.

Unsatisfied with the school his five sons were attending, he pulled them out of it, hired away one of their teachers, and began his own school. At the end of its first year, Ad Astra has 14 students, mostly the children of Musks’s employees at SpaceX, the company that launched The Dragon, which berthed in 2012 at the ISS.

In an interview on Chinese television, Musk talked about his experimental school, which teaches problem solving using a top-down approach. For instance, in teaching engineering, rather than beginning with the simplest tools and machines, students are presented with an engine, and the assignment is to figure out step by step what tools and techniques are needed to take it apart, clean and repair it, and rebuild it.

Since Musk is one of the forces behind not only SpaceX, but Tesla Motors and Paypal, perhaps his ideas about teaching are worth study.

Apart from that single interview, the inventor has been quite secretive about his school. It has no web site and no social media presence, at least not from the outside. It has no grade levels or internal divisions. Its name, Ad Astra, means “To the Stars.”

His own sons are currently elementary-aged. There’s no data on the other students. We know that the student body will increase to twenty students next year, but even Musk has no idea how long the school will last. For now, he just says, “The kids really love going to school.” And that’s important to him, as his own school days in South Africa were anything but lovable. “It was torture,” he says, and on at least one instance, vicious bullying landed the young Musk in the hospital.

With a background like his, and the resources open to him, it’s easy to see why Musk would not leave anything to chance in his sons’ education. Hopefully, Ad Astra will be a success and offer up new options in education to all students.