Who Determines Literacy?

I was reading this article over at VSB today, and it got me thinking about the definition of literacy. Now, this is something we analyzed in my summer course about literacy, and I learned that the old binary between literate and illiterate is hopelessly outdated, like many things in education.

Yet we are still using the phrase “financial literacy” to describe teaching certain skills to people who don’t have a lot of money.

Now, do some poor people make unwise decisions with their spending? Sure. Because they’re people, and people make unwise decisions. Does it follow that being rich means you’ve necessarily been smart with your money? No. It just means you’ve been lucky.

We discuss “financial literacy” as though it is something we wise people can bestow upon the heathens pounding rocks in caves, when the truth of the matter is, being well-versed in financial systems would truly entail being made deeply aware of how few opportunities being poor afford people. I say this as a person who has never been poor and is unlikely to be. I’ve been “broke,” temporarily, and entirely because I was dumb. But you can’t stupid your way into poverty, you can only reside there by birth or due to lack of opportunity, or both.

It’s not too different from the language education field I am seeking to change, or the “appropriateness” analyzed within raciolinguistics. You know who needs “financial literacy?” It’s all the rest of us, who need to become deeply aware of how our systems are constructed to prevent escape from poverty. If the rest of us became “financially literate,” some would still choose not to care, but I can bet more of us would change our priorities and fight back against a system that harms so many.

This is easy for me to say from my academic perch as I enter 20th grade with my health insurance (and good health) and all. But we really don’t need to teach poor people better habits so much as we need to give them an actual opportunity to have access to money and power. We don’t do it because, in our view, it would come at our expense, and we want to win more than we want to be fair.

You know who’s financially literate? The president is, because he knows exactly how not smart you can be and get continually rescued by the system that values you because of your status. (If he truly believed he was smart and wasn’t scared he was stupid, he wouldn’t talk about his intelligence so much.) And people without money know the system better than most of us just because they can see and feel how it treats them.

Until we actually support our fellow citizens – and I am no economist with ideal solutions for how to do so – teaching them how to put an extra dollar away is just a stopgap. We should probably still do it anyway, though, because the system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Technical Problems

Reading an article for school (which doesn’t start for a few weeks, and this article isn’t due until Mid-September, but I gotta be me), and came across an interesting re-definition of the term “technical.”

I’m paraphrasing, but the piece (in a book for which we don’t have the full citation, my apologies, but the chapter is called “The Heart of Danger”) makes the point that there are two types of changes, technical and adaptive. Adaptive change is the riskier, more uncomfortable sort, the type that makes people feel their competence is being questioned as their habits are examined. Whenever I posit some theory related to race and education, I’m mostly talking about what these authors call adaptive changes. Case in point, one article to which I continue to refer describes poor attendance at a community education program and interviews both students and teachers. The students say, explicitly, that the program underestimated and ignored them, while the teachers and administrators insisted that people stopped attending due to logistical issues (eg scheduling). In other words, the people in charge needed to make adaptive changes but dismissed this notion to focus on ineffective technical changes.

I think about this in my current job. I can’t get too much into it, but suffice it to say that a large portion of my job is developing training courses on a governement database and its many features. We are told, by our clients, that we need to focus on what this piece I’m reading would call technical changes, in this case steps and processes that the workers need to learn and adapt to in order to succeed at their jobs.

But when it comes down to it, a lot of these scenarios require adaptive changes. Organizations and the people within them need the ability and willingness (and I think the latter is the key) to question their assumed competence and their ingrained habits. Maybe they don’t actually need to change very much once they take a good look. But they need to be willing to consider the possibility, and self-analysis by management is itself a necessary adaptive change.

For as long as we try to assume all issues are caused by technical problems rather than adaptive ones, we will fail to effect lasting change. But for the folks in charge, maybe that’s a feature and not a bug.

Justice: Or, So What Do We Do?

In the work I’m trying to do, part of the point is that language professionals who insist that race and language are separate issues (or that the former isn’t an issue at all) are wrong and that the racial hierarchy of the United States (and the world) has a profound impact on all marginalized and racialized people.

Yet as I work to find my own niche in documenting this – having chosen a form of performative defensiveness as a subject, an offshoot of White Fragility and the like I’m referring to as the “altruistic shield” – I’ve been confronted with the fact that just point out another avenue to pain for people of color isn’t really unique. My idea might be, if I succeed at arguing my point(s) well, but let’s say I do establish the altruistic shield as something credible. Then what?

In a way, it’s a shame, because a lot of what gets published is a series of studies documenting black (and brown) pain, and these studies need to be published because some folks, even within education, still don’t believe us, the way white folks in the 60s needed to see the brutality on TV before it was real, or had to see 45 assume office before they realized little progress had been made. So that subgenre of scholarship on racism that chronicles and documents bigotry is still, sadly, needed, because they won’t believe us if we don’t remind them. But what comes after? How do we actually address these issues?

I don’t actually know. And I know the way we are trying to solve it – “diversity and inclusion!” – isn’t really increasing racial literacy.

I could write what I want to and then tell people to read more scholarship, but with the paywalls and other such barriers, that’s not a very useful thing to advise, setting aside the fact that even open access journals are full of excessive jargon.

Yet I’m reluctant to offer a checklist. “Do these three things and you won’t be bad at race.” That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of it works.

As Paris and others have noted, the “inward gaze” is really the way to address all of this, in my view. People in dominant groups need to recognize more than mere privilege – which has been watered down into uselessness – but their role in hegemony and dominance. And then they – we, really, as I’m a male of high socio-economic status – have to consider what they can do about it.

Ultimately, though, we’re talking about justice. How can we truly increase justice for marginalized people? And since we’re talking education, justice for marginalized students? That’s the way to really and truly fight this issue. And there are a lot of forms of justice, despite the way the word has been narrowly defined as “vengeance,” basically. I’m not ready to answer the question as to the best way to provide justice for those who need it. But I think, no mattter what I do, it will have to speak to how justice can be extended to those from whom it has been denied. And if I can do that, in a concrete, actionable way, it will have some real weight and some real impact.

Stay tuned.

Behavioral Book Breakdown: “Scarcity”

Year: 2013

Authors: Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Well, this one is truly great. It covers every sort of “Scarcity.” Yes, it starts with povery, but it also touches on people who lack time, and even people who lack companionship, and how each of these types of scarcity truly lower fluid intelligence and executive control. The book does not pretend that those who are poor (or busy, or lonely) are actually less intelligent, but instead explains that the experience thereof can render a person with average intelligence below average, even if only induced temporarily.

The book has great implications for any program or person who seeks to help those in need, or even someone who wants to help a lonely friend or relative. In short, I plan to return to it frequently as I study, as I think there’s a lot to be found here. You should check it out too.

On “Levelling the Field”

Great and touching article in the Times over the weekend.

Check it out here.

He has many valuable suggestions, a few of which I will highlight here.

It is common to harbor fond feelings toward your alma mater. But to be a responsible, forward-looking member of your college’s extended community, look a little deeper. Make it your business to figure out exactly whom your college serves. What is the economic breakdown of the current student body? Some colleges trumpet data about underrepresented minorities and first-generation students. But many don’t. And either way, there are follow-up questions to ask. How has that mix changed over the past 10 years? What policies are in place to increase those numbers? You may not get a direct answer. No matter. When they call you as part of the annual fund-raising drive, press the issue.

This is harsh but necessary. Obviously I attended elite schools, and they might not like to see this, justified by higher-wealth alumni giving more so being selected for, in an endless loop. But if they truly care about moving the society forward, they should make access more even, and alumni, those with power, should push them to do so.

Legacy admission must end. By some counts, children of alumni, almost all of them from the top economic quartile, account for 10 percent to 25 percent of the students at the top 100 universities. In 2011, an analysis of 30 elite schools found that legacy candidates saw a 23 percentage point increase in their chances of getting in compared with otherwise similar candidates. Among the Harvard class of 2021, 29 percent had a parent, grandparent or close family relation who attended the school.

Being a legacy, and thus any child being a legacy, you want your child to have every advantage. But I also care about the issue. And I think more good would come out of relative equality.


Colleges say they need legacy admissions to encourage donations. But a 2010 study by Chad Coffman, Tara O’Neil and Brian Starr looked at alumni donations at the top 100 universities and found no discernible impact of legacy admission on giving.

There’s your data.

Another suggestion:

To help students who come from the middle and working classes, cities and states should adopt models like the City University of New York’s ASAP program, which provides intensive advising, money for textbooks and even MetroCards to smooth a student’s pathway to his or her degree.

Schools tout college acceptance, but the numbers for persistence are much lower. Support is needed, and the question is only what sorts of support can be provided.

The big bomb:

This may seem counterintuitive, but please stop giving to your alma mater. Donors to top universities are getting hefty tax deductions to support a system that can seem calculated to ensure that the rich get richer. If you feel you must give, try earmarking your donation for financial aid for low-income, community college students who have applied to transfer to your alma mater.

Well then. I’ll leave that with you.


Social-Psychological Interventions

Yesterday, by chance, I found a printed-out copy of a report on “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education.” You can find the abstract here, though you’ll have to pay for the entire study, so I’m glad I was able to access it.

The title says “Social-Psychological” but once I got to reading it, it was clear they were speaking about what I (and others) might prefer to call behavioral design. The gist of the report is as follows:

Recent randomized experiments have found that seemingly “small” social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later. These interventions do not teach students academic content but instead target students’ psychology, such as their beliefs that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong and are valued in school. When social-psychological interventions have lasting effects, it can seem surprising and even “magical,” leading people either to think of them as quick fixes to complicated problems or to consider them unworthy of serious consideration. The present article discourages both responses.

Yeah, that’s behavioral science in a nutshell.

A few years ago, when I first became interested in out-of-the-box solutions to entrenched problems, I gave a presentation on what I was referring to at the time as “noncognitive skills.” A colleague from my graduate program saw it and was compelled to suggest we collaborate the following year, which we did, and by then it had developed into “conation,” which we took to the TESOL conference in Seattle this past March. But as 2017 rolled along, it became clear that, for me, behavior science was most likely going to be my interest and my focus, as I wrote about last week.

I say all this to say that this report validates my curiosity and my optimism for the potential impact of behavioral design. If you read the report, you will see that each group of students was given just a short exercise – fewer than thirty minutes – at the outset of a semester, and that this these students improved greatly when compared to the control. The results were so dramatic – and long-lasting – that, as the excerpt above suggests, people tend to dismiss it as “magic” or, at the least, unrealistic. But it’s real.

A few things are clear from the research:

  1. It can’t be top-down. Telling students why an intervention or an assignment is important does not convince skeptical boys and girls to buy in.
  2. Contextual experise – “an understanding of the psychological experiences and backgrounds of students in the local context” – is vital. Which is to say, even the best educator can’t walk into a culture with which they have had no previous contact and expect their intervention to succeed.

From here, I’d like to see how this might work quite specifically on adult learners, as these experiments were performed mostly on middle- and high-school students. I’d also like to see if the same dramatic improvement on students of color would remain the same regardless of age. And ultimately, I want to see if this can work even if students and instructors don’t speak the same language – can these exercises, short as they are, be translated for the first day of class? Would this have the same impact on student outcomes? And, as I’ll always return to, would this lead to greater long-term success, be it in terms of employment, income, or other relevant metrics?

There is a lot to look for, but this report and others like it are encouraging. Someday I will do my own such research and hopefully share it with all of you, and with others in my field.

The Project

One of my (Justin’s) interests, as you can see below, is the impact of behavioral science on educational outcomes. Within that realm, my particular curiosity isn’t just the type of outcomes most educational institutions are able to easily measure – GPAs, test scores, graduation rates –  but what happens long after school is over. Anecdotally, I have noticed that the outcomes for people of color I’ve known at the selective schools I have attended have been less stellar, but I don’t really have any data on that (and I’d like to gather it). Having said that, it might just be who I happen to know, as there are plenty of doctors and lawyers out there.

I want to dive deeper, though. The external trappings of success are quite obvious, and salaries, real estate, and zip codes are easy enough to track. But are we, as minority graduates of so-called elite institutions, actually satisfied with their lives? Or, to put a finer point on it, are we at the same levels of satisfaction as our classmates? We know that racism exists no matter how much money you have, but the bill of goods we’re sold by such institutions implies that we’ll be somewhat safer from discrimination because of our closer promixity to traditional success. So, if this is true, bigotry should have less of an impact on people who are more externally successful, and, even if we’re not as satisfied as our peers, we should, perhaps, be closer to their level than people who, say, only have a high school degree. But ultimately, my real question is this: if it turns out that we’re not as satisfied as our peers, and that our graduation from selective schools does not, by itself, close the gap between our level of satisfaction and those of our classmates, can we use behavioral science to change this? And, to circle back to the beginning, can increasing satisfaction then have a positive impact on our more concrete success?

There are a few questions here to be asked and answered, starting with one that is more straightforward (and is probably answered out there already, so I just have to go and look): what are the concrete, long-term outcomes for minority (and I’d split it up into different ethnicities) graduates of top-tier schools? That’s the normal stuff, starting with GPAs and carrying on to salaries and perhaps other factors like homeownership. I also want to know about social lives, rates of marriage and divorce, substance abuse/mental health issues, even premature death if it happens to have occurred.  I am theorizing, of course, that race has a legitimate correlation to such results, but I don’t know for sure, so I want to find out, gradually. And of course, we’d need to compare to people who didn’t graduate from selective schools, to see if the gap in satisfaction (if there is one) is larger, smaller, or the same.

In other words, for example, two such graduates, same age range, same career track, same type of zip code, same marital status, etc, but different ethnicities. Is one more satisfied than the other? You will not be surprised to hear what I suspect to be the answer to be, but I am perfectly willing to be wrong. And is that satisfaction gap smaller than it is for two counterparts with a different level of education?

You have to get into the weeds on this, of course. Maybe someone who isn’t satisfied at age thirty-five felt the same way when they were in school. And we’d have to analyze minority students who were raised in affluent areas from those who weren’t to see if there’s a difference there, as well (or maybe there isn’t, but we have to see). Or maybe I’ll just find out that my theory is entirely baseless.

There is also the undeniable fact that it’s still going to be self-reported self-assessment. There will be something squishy in there, because there always will be when you ask someone to describe something emotional.

And frankly, I do not yet have the research skills to piece this all together yet. But that’s okay, because I intend to acquire them.

What’s the point of all this?

Well, one of two things will happen if I pull this off. Either I find out that, no, race and satisfaction for graduates of selective schools – when compared to same for those without said degrees – do not correlate whatsoever and I move on to something else. Or my theory is right, and then I can think of ways that behavioral science can have a positive impact on these students to help them as they grow and strive to achieve.

The genesis of this project, way before I knew about any of it, was probably a day in the fall of freshman year, fourteen years ago. Our Resident Advisor gathered us in a group to ask us what we thought of our school experience thus far. And I took note of the fact that the white students all rated their experience at an eight, nine or ten, while the black students all chose two or three. Lying to myself and others, I said five, trying as I always did at the time to hedge my bets. (This project will cover more than just black students, to be clear, but that group only had white and black boys and girls.)

I’ve seen rather dispiriting outcomes for many of my classmates from both high school and college, substance abuse and dependency and really serious financial struggles the likes of which one might not expect from selective school graduates of any race. But again, those are my own friends, and perhaps many white students have had the same issues that I just don’t know about. And of course haven’t a real idea of someone else’s inner feelings. I think the schools try, they do, bless their hearts, but there is still something missing in the way they provide support to people who don’t resemble their typical and historical graduate. And I don’t say this out of self-pity or self-absorption – I’m fine, or, in the language being used here, very satisfied. But some folks aren’t, and I wonder if I can help figure out why, and how to change it.

I think, if there are thousands of adolescents out there who are thinking they are the only people who feel how they feel in the school where they’re expected to be molded into superstars, then perhaps behavioral design can help more than what the schools are already doing it.

I don’t really know. But I very much want to try and find out.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to begin sharing at least my initial research (on the type of traditional outcomes I mentioned at the outset) very soon.

Behavioral Book Breakdown: “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

Carrying these posts over from my personal site, as I believe that behavioral science can have a great impact on the public sector, especially given the relative lack of funding. Behavioral science can generate low-cost solutions to entrenched problems, and so I’ll occasionally describe books I’ve read on the subject.

Author: Daniel Kahneman

Year: 2011

So this is kind of the ur-text for this subject. It’s thick (literally), and dense (in every sense of the word). It will cover every single cognitive bias (or “heuristic”) that had been studied up through its publication, most of which were codified by Kahneman himself and his late partner Amos Tversky. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his behavioral science work, and the discipline would literally not exist if it weren’t for these two men.

But my god, it is not easy to read.

I took it with me on my vacation in early September. I read a novel very quickly and then turned back to this one. And my vacation was extended because of weather issues. And I could only get through 30 or maybe 40 pages on a good day. It was just that dense.

I struggled to the finish line. And I like Kahneman. A brilliant man whose work has ultimately, if indirectly, changed my life and that of many others.

But this is much more of a reference book than a book you can really leaf through or apply to your life from moment to moment.

The other books I’ve given capsule profiles in this space wouldn’t exist were it not for this book and its author, so it had to be covered.

It’s certainly very informative. And it’s not written in jargon or anything of the sort. It’s just not exactly pleasant to try and read. Quite an accomplishment to make it through and you’ll be all the better for it, but I would point you towards the others – and more I’ll talk about later – if you want a more accessible entry point into behavioral science.

I’m glad I finished it. I can just keep it on my shelf and point to it now!

Behavioral Book Breakdown: “Invisible Influence”

Carrying these posts over from my personal site, as I believe that behavioral science can have a great impact on the public sector, especially given the relative lack of funding. Behavioral science can generate low-cost solutions to entrenched problems, and so I’ll occasionally describe books I’ve read on the subject.

Year: 2016

Author: Jonah Berger

Whereas “The Power of Habit” was the first behavioral book I sunk my teeth into (or, fitting for the subject, sunk its teeth into me), “Invisible Influence” is one of the more recent I’ve come across, looking around for a book to chew over on my commutes to and from work and finding it pleasant, if a bit short. It’s 232 pages, but a lot of those pages are cut in half by titles and such. It’s written by a marketing professor, and many (most) of the examples used are from real-life business decisions and other such accessible subjects. I complained about it being slight, but on the other hand, accessible though it may be, something like “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (which I’ll get to in this series, eventually) is nearly 500 pages of dense (though engaging) writing, and you and I both know that most people don’t bother with that sort of thing. And even if they do bother, they skim, or give up.

So there is a place and a purpose for a slimmer tome.

Berger’s argument is essentially that we must not deny the fact that our behavior is rarely something we fully choose for ourselves, much as we headstrong Americans like to think we’re independent. Of course, one of the principles of behavioral science is the fact that we tend to deny or ignore facts that don’t fit our worldview, so, paradoxically, the people who most need to hear this sort of thing would have the hardest time accepting it.

Some of the fun examples here include the fact that many successful athletes have older siblings (that they wanted to keep up with and then, eventually, defeated), why expensive products have barely visible logos, why running with people slightly faster than you can improve your own speed, and, sadly but importantly, why many black students have their academic achievement impacted by the spectre of “acting white.”

It’s essentially a series of vignettes – there’s a lot of Gladwell in it – but plenty of the real data to back it up. And, hilariously, it uses examples from my own eating club in college, Terrace, and how people can tell we belonged to the club by what we wore.

It’s not the “I’m trying to make this dense subject palatable” hard-hitting work of a “Power of Habit” or a “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” It’s more like tying together narratives that appear disparate but aren’t. And I think one thing that fascinates me about this topics is that it can be both a science that needs to be made accessible AND a bridge that brings groups of stories together.

Berger also usefully concludes each section with ways that the various stories and studies he has just mentioned can be used. This is a key, and it’s one thing that’s similar to “The Power of Habit.” None of this stuff is valuable if we can’t take it and use it.

And that’s my goal here, to encourage you to go out, learn more, and use it. It’s interesting and fun and all, but ultimately, if it’s not practicable, it’s pointless.

Behavioral Book Breakdown: “The Power of Habit”

Carrying these posts over from my personal site, as I believe that behavioral science can have a great impact on the public sector, especially given the relative lack of funding. Behavioral science can generate low-cost solutions to entrenched problems, and so I’ll occasionally describe books I’ve read on the subject. Here’s the first one.

Year: 2012

Author: Charles Duhigg

This one, this is how it all started. I received this for my birthday in 2012, just as I was getting into running, and it helped me focus and really believe I could improve in my fitness, in my relationships, in my career. I have often referred to this book as my bible, but it’s more like my amazing grace, as I once was lost, and then, after this book, I was found.

But what does it actually say?

The main concept is that every thing you do regularly consists of a three step process. A cue, a routine, and a reward.

The cue is what it sounds like – maybe that’s your alarm waking you up – and the routine is the actual process – perhaps that’s dragging yourself downstairs to run across a bridge – and the reward is what you get for it – in my case a sense of satisfaction at achieving goals.

Setting up cues isn’t very hard, and most can do so. And it’s pretty easy to envision rewards. But sticking with the routines is the challenge, and what trips most of us up. How many times have you decided you were going to lose weight or gain a new skill or save money and then fallen short? Even just this year, the very focused version of myself failed at learning to program because I couldn’t figure it out without an instructor’s guidance.

So the key is to make that routine different, and then to stick to it. Easier said than done! But necessary.

Learning to delay gratification is a great way to build willpower, even if it’s for something minor. Not being allowed to skip the routine in the middle to get to the reward can change anyone’s behavior. Even if you have to metaphorically tie a hand behind your back, do it.

For me, I used to always skip runs for dumb reasons. Or slack off on schoolwork. For running, instead of just running however much I felt like, I put it on my calendar, and that blaring reminder got me out the door. I got better clothes and shoes. And I didn’t bring a metrocard so I couldn’t cut it short. And over time it just became harder NOT to run than it was to run.

Make your cue strong, find a way to get through your routine, and then reward yourself for achievement.

“The Power of Habit” was the first book about behavior that reached me. You should read it if you want to learn about it yourself.