As a young Latino from a low-income, inner-city neighborhood who went on to graduate from Stanford, I’m considered by those who know me to be an example of how education and motivation can open any door in our great country. As an educator, I have seen, and even helped with, increasing efforts to build on these concepts by working to instill ‘grit’ and a ‘growth mindset’ in students, from college down to elementary school. But the truth is that, for young people without access to the right networks, merely having the right mindset is too often not enough to overcome the opportunity gaps they face.
Since her influential TED Talk in 2013, Angela Lee Duckworth’s theory of “grit,” an ongoing personal commitment to long-term goals, has gained tremendous popularity as a key predictor of success. Aligned with the concept of grit, Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, expounded on the importance of understanding that intelligence is not fixed, but that rather, we can strengthen our brain. This dispels the myth that many, even some teachers, have perpetuated that, “I’m not good at math,” unwittingly contradicting the basic premise that there is a purpose and benefit to studying.
To help correct and adjust these ‘fixed mindset’ statements and beliefs, researchers and educators including Dweck’s students at Stanford’s Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS) center worked with Baltimore City Schools teachers and other educators to develop and validate free informational and curricular resources for teachers and students at www.mindsetkit.org. Bolstered by a wealth of research validating improved academic, attendance, and behavior outcomes for students who develop a growth mindset, PERTS and the educators who have adopted the approach have hope that this will be the solution to closing the achievement gaps persistent in education.
However, if career outcomes are considered a long-term measure of success in achieving the American dream and ending generational cycles of poverty, a recent Atlantic article headline pointed out, “Education isn’t the key to a good income.” The article cites a recent working paper (Rothstein, 2017) that identified the structure of the local labor market as a greater influence on economic mobility than the education system.
This aligns with the conclusions of the 25-year study by Johns Hopkins researcher Karl Alexander’s (Long Shadow of Poverty, 2014), which showed low-income students learned on pace with their peers during the school year, but started school less ready than their middle-class peers and fell increasingly behind with each summer, moreover facing slim chances of escaping poverty due to a lack of key connections to the workforce. “Strong role models may be in short supply, the institutional infrastructure is weak, and, of most immediate relevance, bridges to good job opportunities in the wider world are in short supply.”
In fact, when it comes to actual job placement, a 2012 survey found that relevant work experience is more important to employers than strong academic performance. Low-income students have less access to the social capital available to their middle-class peers for accessing internship opportunities and, in interviews, are cited as lacking needed ‘soft skills’ (Reardon, 2013), an affirmed correlation to the income achievement gap. Recent research has shown internships to be an ideal method of developing these soft skills (NACE, 2017), and employers are discovering that in addition to fostering effective communication skills in their youth interns, the employees they assign to support the interns also develop valuable coaching skills in the process (Alper, 2017).
One school working vigorously and successfully to leverage internships as one of its three pillars, along with academic excellence and career content, is Green Street Academy in Baltimore. Beyond its vibrant and welcoming learning spaces, maximizing students’ interest through incredible project-based learning opportunities including aquaponics and climate-controlled ‘food computer’ greenhouses they program using open-source code from MIT, Green Street has facilitated exponential growth in student internships.
Applying lessons learned from early cohorts of just 8 student interns in 2013 and 2014, along with recent investment in staffing a highly qualified internship manager, Tia-shon Kelley, has allowed the school to scale to 136 paid opportunities last school year and an anticipated 250 such opportunities across multiple sectors this year. Evidence of the success of this model is Green Street’s high rate of attendance, a critical first step (90% for grades 6-12 last school year vs. a district average of 83%), and even more concretely, its first graduating class: All 36 graduates this past June were accepted to college, despite the additional challenge that 45% of the first graduating class faced, with an identified learning disability. The school is building on the increased engagement its model has spurred, having begun to bring up students’ academic test scores as well, being among the district’s top 10 schools for growth in English language arts proficiency.
As businesses assess their workforce needs and strategies for building their talent pipeline, they have no greater resource than the youth in their neighborhood high schools, yielding an incredible return on their investment while helping the community hold up its end of the social compact in the next generation’s pursuit of happiness.
-Rudy Ruiz, Chief Education Officer, Maryland Business Roundtable for Education