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Assessments don’t always translate outside the classroom, but students’ networks do

Mahnaz Charania
June 10, 2021

Before COVID, an “epidemic of untapped potential” was emerging. Year after year, many of Boston’s best and brightest were successfully completing high school only to face obstacles that thwarted their ability to reach their potential. In 2019, these valedictorians -- graduates of Boston Public Schools classes of 2005, 2006, and 2007 -- were interviewed. They excelled at school and graduated with big dreams. But good grades only got them so far. 

For instance, nearly a quarter of more than 90 Boston valedictorians from 2005 to 2007 told The Boston Globe they wanted to be doctors. Yet today, not one holds a medical degree. “Boston students who persist in chasing their medical dreams face daunting odds in a process that favors the affluent -- students whose families can foot the bill for expensive test prep courses...or offer them the freedom to study or take summer enrichment programs without having to work,” The Globe reported.

A key insight from The Valedictorian Project? For students with dreams for social and economic mobility, academic achievement is only part of the story. 

Research shows that the enrichment spending gap -- the money parents can spend on test prep and afterschool activities -- has been steadily growing over recent decades; this is a proxy not just for access to enrichment, but for students’ reported unequal access to informal mentors. This research, and the experience of the Boston Public Schools valedictorians, underscores a fundamental truth about opportunity: much depends on our inherited network. Our inherited network is the social infrastructure into which we are born and which forms around us when we are young. Inherited connections are by no means negative or bad influences. They can provide all sorts of critical support, love, and care. And these networks can propel young people into certain careers, particularly if they hope to work in industries or roles that resemble those of their parents’.

But as students grow older, they may find that the reach of their inherited network is limited along the dimensions that family and neighborhoods pass down. And all the academic interventions and supports in the world do little to change the opportunities contained in a student’s inherited network, and the doors this network can or can’t open.

In an effort to reverse the trends experienced by former valedictorians of Boston Public Schools, the Valedictorian Project now pairs each valedictorian with two mentors -- a peer mentor and a more seasoned mentor -- to ensure they have what they need to make their next step a successful one.  

School leaders can take a page from the project’s approach, working to ensure all students are supported equitably with access to relationships that can help them both get by and get ahead.

Meaningful data on students’ relationships is a game-changer for student success

Fortunately, research and practice are converging to show how institutions can become more deliberate, equitable, and effective brokers of students’ networks so that students’ hard work translates to the opportunities they seek. My colleague Julia Freeland Fisher and I summarized these insights -- alongside emerging metrics and measures -- in a new playbook, 5 steps to building and strengthening students’ networks.

Drawing on the playbook, below are three crucial steps school leaders and classroom educators can begin to take to ensure students are growing and maintaining meaningful relationships that will help them thrive beyond the classroom:

  1. Get to know who your students know. Map the relationships students have access to both inside and outside of the classroom to uncover untapped assets and overlooked gaps in students’ networks. These maps should extend beyond just students’ immediate family and friends. This is because acquaintances -- or what sociologists call “weak ties” -- are more likely to contain new information, advice, and opportunities than students’ strongest ties. When taking stock of students’ networks, schools and institutions also should count weak ties. From there, schools that identify students who lack trusting relationships with adults or faculty can direct additional connections and resources accordingly. For example, Ted Dintersmith’s Innovation Playlist illustrates relationship mapping in action at Jamestown Public Schools and the power of engaging students alongside adults in the process.
  2. Ensure students have a web of support and at least one anchor, or especially strong relationship, to help coordinate and communicate across the network. According to research from the Center for Promise, a web of support represents all of the relationships and resources in a young person’s life, and how they all fit together. A web is also more supportive and resilient if the members of that web know one another, particularly for academically at-risk students or those dealing with adverse life experiences. Helpful metrics for assessing the strength of student support networks include tracking the number of peers and adults a student turns to for different supports; how those individuals are connected to each other and the student; as well as a student's level of comfort in seeking, activating, and mobilizing support from individuals in their network. For example, one evidence-based integrated support model called City Connects provides non-academic and academic support to low-income students by assigning coordinators and existing staff members to assess each individual student’s needs and connect them to in- and out-of-school supports.
  3. Ensure students are introduced to diverse professionals and develop skills to maintain those connections. Schools committed to expanding student networks in service of expanding opportunities can begin to measure the number of industry connections students have beyond school, the expertise and background of those individuals, and students’ confidence in re-engaging with these individuals outside of school. Big Picture Learning, for example, is a national nonprofit that supports internship-based learning in high schools. They’ve designed a technology tool called ImBlaze to help schools manage work-based learning contacts and opportunities. But schools don’t just use ImBlaze as a productivity tool; at the start of their semester, Big Picture students are encouraged to upload their existing and new contacts that they have in local businesses through their families, communities, and other networks. From there, students across the school have visibility into the range of opportunities represented across their entire school community -- not just limited to their existing, inherited networks. 

Good grades are necessary but insufficient in and of themselves to ensure students access the career pathways they strive for. Schools must begin to bear the responsibility of partnering with students to nurture who they know alongside what they know. This way, every student, not just some, graduates with the academic accolades they’ve earned and a network to pursue their dreams.

Mahnaz Charania, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow for education at the Christensen Institute.

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