Expanding students’ networks — interview with Julia Freeland Fisher | VIEWPOINT

Julia Freeland Fisher: We talk so much in education about human capital shortages and crises at the teacher level, our world is awash in human
capital. We just haven’t designed schools to reach
out and pull it in. Frederick Hess: Julia Freeland Fisher, great
to have you here today. Julia Freeland Fisher: Thank you. Frederick Hess: You’ve written a new book, “Who
You Know,” out from Wiley publishers. “Who You Know” it’s an education book, and
what’s it about? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah, well, first, thanks so much for
having me. The book is called “Who You Know,” and the
subtitle sort of explains what it’s about, which is unlocking innovations that expand
student’s networks. And we really took a look at in schools today,
what are the emerging innovations that either show up students networks of caring adults
or expand and diversify students networks to people they may not otherwise meet? Frederick Hess: So, you say, “Student networks,”
and I’m immediately thinking of like these networking things where people sit around
and schmooze and that’s not what you’re talking about? Julia Freeland Fisher: Right. I was saying to someone the other day, “This
is not, like, mocktail parties in schools.” This is really thinking about if you step
back a second and think about maybe how you got to where you are today, networks really
contain value. It’s what economists or political scientists
would call social capital. And students inherit a network, we all inherit
a network. And the question we ask is, “Could schools
be organized to add new relationships into student’s networks that could help them both
explore what they want to do down the line career-wise, maybe forge new connections into
the knowledge economy, and also ensure that they have access to a web of caring, adults?” Frederick Hess: So, I’ll make sure I just understand. Let’s keep it simple. So, if we’re thinking about when my boys start
school, when you say, “Their network.” What are individuals who would be in that
network? Julia Freeland Fisher: Sure. So, right now, they have a network: so families,
community neighbors. When you enter the school building, you have
peers, you have teachers and probably some non-teacher adults in the school. Right? That’s a web already. That’s an existing network. And what we wanted to ask is, first of all,
are schools even measuring these networks? They’re not by and large. And second of all, are there gaps in student’s
networks that we could design school to better address? Frederick Hess: So, for instance? Julia Freeland Fisher: For instance, if a student is growing up in a rural community where there are no neurosurgeons, maybe has a little bit of interest
in becoming a neurosurgeon. But how the heck is even going to explore
that if he can’t meet a neurosurgeon? So, we’re looking at, for example, models
that would, over video chat, bring a neurosurgeon into a classroom to put a student into relationship
with someone in that career path. Frederick Hess: So, we’re talking about network. I mean, I guess, I’m immediately thinking
of networks or people that, like, you talk to regularly. But that sounds like that’s…the way you’re
talking about it sounds a little different from that? Julia Freeland Fisher: Sure. So, I encourage people, and this is a simplistic
mental model, but to think of your network as sort of a web with a dense center that
gets sort of looser and looser as it goes outwards. And sociologists refer to folks in that inner
circle as your strong ties, the folks that you regularly interact with that you have
higher rates of trust with, that you’re more likely to help out. But we also, as we know, have looser acquaintances. You’re, like, maybe I would call a weak tie
in my life. I’ve met you a couple times, delighted to
know you, but I wouldn’t ask to borrow money or have you look after my dogs. Exactly. Frederick Hess: Or both. Julia Freeland Fisher: Or both, exactly. Pay me to look after my own dogs. But what’s really interesting in the sociology
research, and you may have heard this term, is that our weak ties actually contain value
as well. Those acquaintances can open new doors for
us, can lend us new information. And so when you think about a young person,
we certainly want them to have a network of caring adults, but we also need to be thinking
about who are their acquaintances that are expanding their horizons and helping them
potentially gain access to opportunities they might not otherwise have access to. Frederick Hess: So, how much of this do schools
do today? Julia Freeland Fisher: It’s a good question. I mean, in some ways, we don’t know because
we don’t measure it. In the book, we talk about, sort of in the
later chapters, some of the measurement techniques that schools are using. And you may have heard of this study out of
Harvard Graduate School of Education called “The Post-it Study,” where inside of schools,
administrators have started to put up a roster of students names, and have teachers and other
adults in the school put stickers next to the students with whom they feel that they
have a strong relationship. And it reveals really interesting things,
right? There are kids in schools today who don’t
have a single strong relationship with an adult in that building, which I think is shocking. But that’s not a regular practice in schools. And so that’s sort of in-school networks. There’s certain measurement techniques, but
we’re not really using them. More broadly, we’re hardly looking at this
at all. We’re hardly looking at, “Okay, can we sit
down and think about who do you know in your life? What sorts of assets do you have that we as
a school could tap into? And where are some of these gaps where you
may have ambitions and not know anyone who can help you achieve those ambitions?” Frederick Hess: Do we have any guidelines or sense of how many adults you need to have strong ties with as a kid to have a good shot? Julia Freeland Fisher: To thrive? Frederick Hess: To thrive, yeah. Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah. So, there’s some research out of…there’s
a group called the Search Institute that has been studying what they call developmental
relationships. And they really think of it as a web. So not one, but not 10, if that makes sense. Other research out of America’s Promise Alliance
who spent a lot of time, obviously, they’ve looked at graduation rates over the years,
but have started to hone in on the fact that caring adults are a key buffer to keep kids
in school. And their research shows that you need at
least one anchor, adult. So, one person who’s for sure looking out
for you, who can then activate a web around you. Does that make sense? Frederick Hess: Mm-hmm. Julia Freeland Fisher: So, you need one especially strong anchor who can then activate a network of five, six, seven caring adults who can help
buffer a risk. Frederick Hess: And so are those schools or communities or kinds of kids where they’ve got … or much more likely to have those adults in places
where they’re much rarer, or they…? Julia Freeland Fisher: Say more. Frederick Hess: So, it sounds like there’s probably
some kids come to school who are much more likely to have these networks in place. Do we know anything about those kids versus
other kids? Julia Freeland Fisher: Sure. Frederick Hess: And then, you mentioned rural schools and the neurosurgeon at the beginning. Is that generally the case with rural versus
urban, for instance? Julia Freeland Fisher: Do we have data. Sure. So, the phrase I use is that there is slim
but troubling data on this. Just to be very candid, I don’t think we have
enough data to make big generalizations. But here’s some of the data we have. We know that low-income students whose parents
are less educated report far fewer non-family adults in their lives. Meaning they have kinship networks, but they’re
not reporting informal mentors like coaches, teachers, religious leaders in their lives
at the same rate as students with more educated parents. So, that’s one gap we have seen measures around. Another is that one in three students, according
to the mentoring project, sorry, the mentoring partnership grow up without a mentor. So, we know that there are gaps there. Another data point is that parent’s networks
and this is super intuitive, but we have data to support it, parents networks are differently
networked into the knowledge economy. So, more educated parents know twice the number
of CEOs, professors, politicians. Right, and… Frederick Hess: I’m sorry for them. Julia Freeland Fisher: Exactly. And I want to emphasize here, we’re sort of
mixing two different advantages that relationships afford you in life, and particularly when
you’re young. And one is to get by, and one is to get ahead. So, you may have heard of the famous Harvard
grant study on Adult development. It’s the longest running study on sort of
health and happiness. And what they found was that warm relationships
are one of those leading predictors of longevity, and happiness, and knowledge. So, that’s totally separate from whether you
get to become a neurosurgeon or work on Wall Street, right? That’s about sort of thriving as a human in
society. And I think we need to be thinking about,
do our students have access to those warm relationships? On the other side of the equation, an estimated
50% of jobs come through personal connections. So, when we’re talking about labor market
outcomes and opportunity, we actually have to not just be thinking about these warm and
fuzzy relationships that increase longevity and happiness, but also about who do you have
access to that you can tap into when you’re looking to enter the labor market? Be socially mobile, pursue your passion. Frederick Hess: So, I mean, it’s not just that
these networks intuitively matter. I mean, you’re arguing there’s real reason
to believe they actually matter for whether you get into college, where you work? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah, absolutely. And I, like, the way we the phrase we use
in the book is that this is an asset and the opportunity equation, right? We talk a lot in Ed reform ad nauseum, maybe
about achievement gaps, right? Everyone can cite troubling achievement gaps,
and we’re sort of saying, “Wait a second, there’s also relationship gaps and those contribute
to the overall opportunity equation in America.” Frederick Hess: Okay. Julia, so when you think about this example,
teachers sharing information with the school about how well they know kids, seems like
there’s at least two possible challenges. One, some teachers might be hesitant to admit
they know a kid well because maybe the administration is going to look too closely. But the bigger problem might be that teachers
don’t want to admit that they don’t know students. And so do you wind up getting unreliable information? Julia Freeland Fisher: I think it’s a good question. I mean, I think it’s almost an R&D question
in measurement because this is such a rare exercise happening in schools right now. And I also think…I talked to a group of
teachers in LA Unified about this research a couple months ago. And one raised a really interesting initiative
at her school that felt like it could neutralize some of these concerns, which is that, if
it turned out that there was student who a teacher was having trouble forming a close
relationship with, just sort of the chemistry wasn’t there, they would look for other adults
in the school who could mentor them. So, I think if there’s a school-wide culture
of not necessarily saying every student and teacher have to have a strong relationship,
but saying every student should have an adult who knows them well in the school, I think
that’s really critical. I think to also neutralize the fear around
appearing too close to a student, we really have to have a conversation about the fact
that the better teachers know students, the better student outcomes are. And there’s actually data to back that up. But that’s missing right now, in a more clinical
assessment of sort of, “Are you a good instructional coach,” as opposed to, “Are you able to forge
relationships with students, understand them, and be able to then teach to them more effectively?” Frederick Hess: Yeah. I believe we’ve almost literally taken out
of the equation. We talked about effective teachers. It’s do you move reading and math assessment
scores at the end of the year? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yep, absolutely. Frederick Hess: So, what are a couple of things schools can do? So, on the something like we pipe this neurosurgeon
into a rural school. You’re not developing a relationship with
them, they probably not going to help you get a job. So, if you think about the advice in the book
to real schools, to real educators, to families. Julia Freeland Fisher: To actually doing this. Frederick Hess: How do you help them think through? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah. So, can I be wonky first for a second? Frederick Hess: Please. Julia Freeland Fisher: So, this is where the theory of disruptive innovation, which is what we study at the organization where I work, the Clayton Christensen
Institute. This is where disruptive innovation becomes
a really interesting lens to understand what’s happening. Frederick Hess: And say a word about disruption
for folks who don’t know. Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah. So, disruption, you hear this term all the
time out in Silicon Valley where I grew up, and now there’s like millennial entrepreneurs
who are all going to disrupt everything. And colloquially, people use it to mean just
something new and successful. In reality, it means something very specific,
which is an innovation that competes on affordability and access as opposed to traditional measures
of quality. So, Sony’s first Walkman couldn’t compete
at all without RCAs fancy radios and TVs back in the day, but the Walkman were super cheap,
and they were a little bit crummy. But teenagers who started buying them didn’t
care, and over time, Sony got better and better and disrupted RCA. So that’s kind of the process of disruptive
innovation. It’s a competitive…it’s a theory of competition. And we take that theory and look at what’s
happening in the education sector to understand which innovations are affording more access
to high-quality learning, or new learning pathways, and in this case, new relationships,
and how did those stand to grow over time? It’s like disruption. Frederick Hess: I like that, that’s good. Julia Freeland Fisher: So, the reason why this is an answer to your initial question of what can schools actually do? Because this is online neurologist, what have
you, lawyer, whoever you’re networking a student with online is not an actual relationship. And I’d argue that that’s the thing people
say when disruptive innovations are afoot, that we look at them and we’re like, “That’s
crummy. That’s not a real connection. That’s not a real relationship.” And so we sort of dismiss them. And I think that especially happens when we’re
looking at schools where conventional wisdom is the stronger the relationship, the better. And what we want to cut through is, yes and
weak ties, and even brief interactions can really be conduits to new information opportunities. And these technologies could be designed to,
over time, nurture stronger and stronger relationships. Right? So, one attribute I look at in technology
tools, and we’ve been mapping a whole bunch of tools that expand access to networks. One attribute we look at is, is there a way
to re-engage with that person? Can a student reach back out? And that’s assigned to me like, “Maybe they’re
not even doing it yet.” But have we designed these tools with that
trajectory of improvement in mind to continuously strengthen or diversify relationships as the
case may be? Frederick Hess: What does that look like? What’s something like that? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah, sure. So, we looked at a number of online mentoring
tools that are emerging, and this… I actually hate the word mentor because it’s
this capacious term that means everything and therefore nothing. But a lot of these tools are in the guidance
college going career advice category, right? So, you can log on and talk to a mentor as
you’re trying to navigate the college application process. And some of those tools would be more like
just on demand advice where you can get accurate information from a chatbot. I’m not interested in those, right, because
a chatbot I can’t go back to for advice later. The chatbot can’t get to know me necessarily
in the way that they could offer me an opportunity. But there are tools out there, when we talk
about in the book student success agency, which are networking high school students
with near-peer mentors who are in college. Frederick Hess: So, “Near-peer,” meaning? Julia Freeland Fisher: Meaning the high schoolers are junior, senior year and the mentors are in college. Frederick Hess: So, not necessarily geographically
near? Julia Freeland Fisher: No, sorry, near-peer is a term of art in the mentoring world meaning “of a close age.” Frederick Hess: Gottcha. Julia Freeland Fisher: And research shows that students are actually sometimes more likely to trust and form closer bonds with people who they see
more like them, they can identify with. Right? And through Student Success Agency, you literally
have an agent who you can go to and ask these questions repeatedly over time. It’s fully virtual. But over time, you get to know one another. So, it’s not just a one-off pamphlet of college
advice, which has been a little bit of the convention over the past years, as we try
and help students get through the gauntlet of college applications, it’s a relationship
on the other side of a virtual platform. Frederick Hess: And do we know anything about
the impact of a program like that? Julia Freeland Fisher: So, we’re still early days. A lot of the measures are dissatisfying to
the existing flash old guard of Ed reformers because they feel very input-based. Right? So, Student Success Agency is a great example. There are some statistics that suggest that
in high-need schools and large comprehensive school, students get only 38 minutes a year
with a guidance counselor, which I think is like a human rights violation. I think it’s insane. Student Success Agency has gotten to 38 minutes
a month. Right? So, we’re seeing a switch in dosage, we don’t
yet have great outcomes data on a lot of these. Tools that have been around for longer, because
a lot of the tools we’ve looked at are really still in startup phase, but there are some
that have been around for a longer. One called iCouldBe, iCouldBe.org is a nonprofit
online mentoring organization. And they have some really compelling data. They’ve been around for two decades showing
increases in student’s sense of self-advocacy, expanded career ambitions. And then this one, I think, is fascinating
and is a whole other research project, which is the fact that students actually show that
they are finding in real life face-to-face mentors as a result of having an online mentor. So, there’s a low stakes sort of practice
of interacting with an adult in the online environment that’s leading them to grow their
networks offline, which is pretty exciting. So, that’s an outcome. Yes. Frederick Hess: So, you talk to parents or teachers
about this. Are there things that they should know to
ask? Are there things they should be wondering
about that people haven’t been thinking about? Julia Freeland Fisher: About just generally, social capital
or…? Frederick Hess: About social capital, but particularly
about these networks? Are there…? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah. I mean, I think… Frederick Hess: I’m a parent and I want to know,
how do I expand my kid’s network? What should I ask my school about what they’re
doing or what they should doing? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah. So, I think this is sort of a no-brainer,
but, like, do we even have a baseline, right? Do we even know the social assets that a school
may have but it’s not tapping? Because one of the things that, like, sort
of blows my mind when I step back from the past three years of doing this research is
we talk so much in education about human capital shortages and crises at the teacher level,
our world is awash in human capital. We just haven’t designed schools to reach
out and pull it in, whether that’s in the form of volunteers or sort of part-time folks
coming in and out of schools, community members, experts. So, I think getting that baseline data and
then getting almost an outer ring of data of what is around our school that we could
be tapping into from a human capital perspective and we’re not. I know I’ve talked a lot about technology
as an online tool to interact, but there’s also a number of platforms starting to emerge
that helps school take stock of those local assets and coordinate them because I can see
in your eyes, the logistical nightmare of doing this is perceived sometimes to be insurmountable. Frederick Hess: You know, and I think one of the interesting things here is, obviously, folks who’ve written about the erosion of
social capital. So, Bob Putnam, Charles Murray. One of the things they talk about is that
youth used to be surrounded by institutions, which should do this: churches, youth groups. And one of the things I hear you pointing
out is especially for kids who aren’t in the more educated households, a lot of that stuff
has fallen by the wayside. So, is part of what you’re doing talking about
ways that schools can start to stand in for some of the stuff that’s not there? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah. I knew you were gonna ask this question Rick, so… but I still don’t have… I think this is actually a debate we need
to have in the reform conversation because I anchored on school as a core institution
that could, to your point, start to fill in. I don’t think school is the only institution
that can do this. Right. In one of the chapters in the book, we highlight
the story of a composer named Bear McCreary. Have you heard of this guy? He’s kind of the breakout composer of our
generation. He scored stuff like “The Walking Dead” and
some popular horror films, and… Frederick Hess: Which says something about…? Julia Freeland Fisher: Our generation, yes, or might not. My limited knowledge of pop culture. But his story is really interesting because
he was sort of a self-professed bored cocky teenager, not that engaged. And he went to a Rotary luncheon in a small
town in Washington, where he was growing up, sort of told his story, wanted to go back
to school, didn’t want to talk to the awkward old men in the room. And this guy comes up to him afterwards and
he’s like, “I think you should meet my friend.” He’s sort of, like, dismissive and it turns
out his friend was a guy named Elmer Bernstein, who’s the composer of “Last Generation,” and
eventually met him and became his protégé. And he calls it a cosmic coincidence. But when sociologist would look at that, they
would say, “That’s actually not totally a cosmic coincidence that was an institution
that brokered that connection.” And I think we lose sight of that, in our
institutional designs, not only for the reasons that you described of fewer people are going
to church, they’re less civic membership. But even the way we’ve designed school as
this bizarrely insular institution that doesn’t let kids out and doesn’t let outsiders in,
even though school could be that broker. Frederick Hess: So, I’d just got to ask about
where this sits with a couple of other things that education reform has been about, and
so much…? Julia Freeland Fisher: As you know all too well. Frederick Hess: So, when we think about, for instance, where there’s been such an emphasis on assessment and testing and that kind of
data. And how does it sit alone? Is this partly a critique of that emphasis? Is this a correction? How do those two sit side by side? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah, it’s a really good question. So, I want to emphasize, again, I’ll go back
to the economic terms. This is not saying social capital can replace
human capital. Human capital is what you know, what you can
do, and the labor market will pay you for. This is just saying social capital matters
alongside human capital in the opportunity equation. So, nothing about testing runs afoul of saying,
“We need to network students into opportunity.” We need to be investing in both. And in fact, the research shows that returns
on your network increase at higher education levels, which really tells us that we need
to be doing these in tandem. Frederick Hess: But it…does this suggest that
we worry sometimes about the amount of time and energy devoted to reading and math instruction,
test preparation? It seems that those things probably come in
some part at the expense of… Julia Freeland Fisher: A trade-off. Frederick Hess: …opening up schools, field
trips, things which expose kids to network possibilities? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yes, along these other measures. I don’t disagree. I do think…And one of the things we started
tracking when we were looking at the technology market earlier on was how many companies are
being pulled into becoming curriculum companies as opposed to network expanding companies
because that’s where the demand is, right? And some have had to go that direction to
sustain themselves. And I think paying attention to that trade-off
is really key. I think you’re getting in a different thing,
which is, again, I’m not against testing. But in the absence of measures for these other
things, we’re going to always fall back on testing as the metric that we focus all of
our energy and dollars on. Frederick Hess: And where does this sit in terms
of the school choice conversation? Are they two different conversations? Is choice problematic? Is it helpful? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah. So, I’ll answer that in a kind of roundabout
way, which is how I think…we think about choice at the Christensen Institute. Because early days, we were very clear that
charter schools are not disruptive relative to traditional schools because they’re still
serving mainstream consumers, which is a wonky point. But key to the thing I’m about to say, which
is we’re more interested in instructional choice than school choice. So, how are we expanding the pathways available
to a student, whether that’s in a charter or a district school? Because a lot of charter schools have actually
replicated very traditional instructional models, some of them getting fabulously better
results, others not, right? But they haven’t actually necessarily innovated
around the instructional model to the degree that we think would lead to better student
outcomes at the level of individual students. So, I think that I’m excited about school
systems that are trying to multiply the pathways, we call them slots in the book, the slots
through which students can learn. And I think that’s happening right now in
both the charter and district sector, with charters having obviously some more leeway
to do so. Frederick Hess: Last question. What’s one piece of advice you would give
to school reformer-types out of the book? What’s one thing that they can do better? Julia Freeland Fisher: Yeah. I mean, I think we really have to be honest
about the ingredients to opportunity right now. I think a lot of people in that conversation
got where they are today not just because they worked the hardest, but because of who
they know. And that’s not a bad thing. That can sound very cynical. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. I think all of this life is a fundamentally
social endeavor. But we have to own how we got to where we
are and think about what does that mean for designing the right experiences for all students. Frederick Hess: Julia, that was fascinating. Thank you so much for the conversation. I think folks will get a lot out of the book. It’s now available and looking forward to
a more robust conversation about how we do right by kids. Julia Freeland Fisher: Thank you. Pleasure to know you. Frederick Hess: Good to see you. Hey, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Julia
Freeland Fisher. Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed what you saw, remember to like
the video or leave us a comment. And be sure to check out the rest of our videos
and research from AEI.

One Reply to “Expanding students’ networks — interview with Julia Freeland Fisher | VIEWPOINT”

  1. my state Goa which is beleaguered by tourist – centric imported hedonism is about to revamp its dated education system..we need to look at Japanese, Finnish and Dutch methods, but we need innovation that this speaker seems to be completely filled with..wow

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