Podcast: Peanut Butter and Persistence

Have You Heard drops by a San Francisco high school where ninth grade social studies students are diving deep into a topic that concerns them directly: school lunch. The students are part of a new ethnic studies curriculum that puts them at the very center of what happens in the classroom. And it’s producing big results: the kind that have researchers salivating more than a kid excited for chicken nugget day in the cafeteria.

Warning: what’s happening in San Francisco looks (and sounds) absolutely nothing like the standard reform recipe being served up in cities across the land! 

 

Aaron French: Hey, everyone. Welcome to another edition of Have You Heard? I’m Aaron French.
Jennifer Berkshire:  I’m Jennifer Berkshire.
Aaron: Jennifer, I hear we are headed out west this week.
Jennifer: That’s right. We’re going to San Francisco.
Aaron: A beautiful, beautiful city. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you got to see the Golden Gate Bridge while you were out there.
Jennifer: By an amazing coincidence, it just happens that the high school that we’re going to visit overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge.
Aaron: Pretty sweet. Sightseeing aside though, what are we talking about today?
Jennifer: Let me ask you something, Aaron. Does it make sense to you that if students have a chance to study something that they’re really engaged in or care about, or feel like affects them in their world, that they’re maybe going to be more interested in the school?
Aaron: I’d say so. If I were given the opportunity to study Neil Diamond’s sequin jumpsuits over the past twenty years, I’d definitely do it.
Jennifer: I have nothing to say to that. Back to San Francisco. We’re going to go and meet some ninth graders and we’re going to hear from them about their new social studies curriculum. Now it happens that these students are studying the school lunch, but what they’re really learning from this curriculum is how to keep going when somebody throws up an obstacle in their path.
Aaron: Now that I think about it, there is this word we use in my [inaudible 00:01:26] circles. I’m missing it, but I think it rhymes with Brit.
Jennifer: Nope. I am not familiar with that word. That is not what this episode is about.
Aaron: Be that as it may, shall we head to San Francisco?
Jennifer: Let’s go.
The school day has just started at San Francisco’s Washington High School. In David Coe’s ninth grade Ethnic Studies class, the talk is all about lunch.
Student: At 10:00, you usually don’t expect to have lunch. It’s usually around breakfast or late breakfast. If you have lunch that early and you have classes later in the day, you’ll obviously be hungry. If the teachers don’t let your in class, then you’re screwed.
Jennifer: All year long, these students have been learning how to identify, analyze, and come up with solutions to community problems. The class chose to take on the topic of school lunch and they’ve been examining the issue from every angle. The first students I talked to are taking on Washington’s crazy lunch schedule. What they’re learning goes way beyond the issue of how to time lunch for 2,000 students.
Student: The main thing we’ve been learning is something called practice which is basically identifying the problem, analyzing the problem, trying out a solution, and then seeing if the solution works. It’s been really good so far because you can apply it to almost everything in life.
Jennifer: The semester will be over soon, which means that the push is on to get final projects done. The students I talk to next seem to be struggling a bit. They decided to focus on nutrition by interviewing kids about the food choices they make when they go off campus versus staying at school to eat. First, they had to figure out how you do an interview.
Student: I was pretty nervous my first time. I got used to it though. I don’t know. It just felt good the second time.
Jennifer: Social Studies teacher, David Coe, says that he’s constantly having to remind himself that most of the ninth graders he’s working with have never done anything like what this class requires.
David Ko: It’s their first time doing a lot of different things. Especially with the next phase, after they’ve gathered the information and trying to change something, for most students it’s the first time they’ve done anything like that.
Jennifer: The most important lesson these students are learning may have little to do with how to conduct a survey or even how to fix the school lunch schedule. They may not realize it, but they’re learning how to bounce back when things don’t go their way like the students who found out that when you want to interview your peers about their food choices, you can’t just walk into a class and announce that you’re ready to start the questions.
Student: Man, that’s tough. We learned that the hard way. We got yelled at. It’s hard.
Jennifer: The official name for this class is Ethnic Studies. A more accurate title might be, “How to Navigate the Great, Big, and Personal Bureaucracy that is High School.” The students who’ve determined through their surveys that the extra short lunch period on Thursday is causing more of their peers to be marked tardy. Now they have to figure out how to document that without running afoul of student privacy rules.
Ko: Yeah. Definitely, and trying to figure out what information students are allowed to have access to and to see if it’s confidential, find out which person they talked to and find out when they can talk to them, find out the best way to contact that person, see if it makes sense for all of them to be there or just one of them to be there. That is not necessarily directly in state content standards, but it’s a useful skill that I’m not sure where students learn if not here.
Jennifer: The concept behind a course like this is pretty straightforward. Give students an opportunity to study something they care about, something they feel like they have a stake in, and they’ll be more engaged in school. Until recently though, no one had really looked whether this approach actually works. Does it?
Emily Penner: A lot of interventions don’t have this magnitude of effect. This is a very big effect.
Jennifer: That’s researcher, Emily [Penner 00:05:36], part of a team at Stanford who’s been studying San Francisco’s Ethnic Studies curriculum. She and a colleague followed ninth graders who had GPAs below 2.0 and were at-risk of dropping out, and were then assigned to the Ethnic Studies Class.
They compared them with a group of ninth graders who had slightly higher GPAs, but who didn’t take the class. What they found was striking.
Penner: Their attendance in all of their classes was 21 percentage points higher than the kids just above the threshold. They earned 23 additional credits by the end of the school year and that corresponds to about 4 additional semester courses worth of credit. Their GPAs were 1.4 grade points higher and that’s in classes that exclude Social Studies, so not in their Ethnic Studies class. We actually threw that GPA out to make sure that they weren’t just getting easy grades in the class, and that was inflating their GPA.
Jennifer: Those are big gains and the students who made the most dramatic progress, says Penner, were the ones who’d started out being the least engaged in school.
Penner: If you can get some of those kids to buy into showing up every day, investing some time in paying attention, and turning in assignments, there’s a lot of space for improvement. Making those kinds of changes can have big effect.
Jennifer: What makes the study so unusual isn’t just what researchers found, but how it was done. When those ninth graders who’d struggled the year before showed up on the first day of high school, they got what researchers call a strong nudge to take Ethnic Studies. It was on their schedules. If they wanted to get out of it, they had to meet with a counselor and sign-up for something else.
Emily: Usually when schools design courses like this, they let whoever wants to take the class take it. They just say, “Hey, we’re offering this new thing. Anybody’s who’s interested, sign-up.” In this case, they actually wanted to target the class and a particular type of student. That’s not very typical, I think, of how a lot of courses are designed or at least how they’re ultimately implemented in terms of who gets to enroll.
Jennifer: Penner says that the researchers have several explanations as to why the Ethnic Studies curriculum turns out to be so effective. In addition to the persistence lessons that we heard going on in Mr. Coe’s class, these classes also help students understand why their own identity is valuable.
Penner: They spend a lot of time trying to help students identify stereotypes and then talk about the ways in which those stereotypes might be negatively impacting them. They spend a lot of time coaching students on how to learn about their own backgrounds, and identities, and families, and communities, and then write reports about why those backgrounds are valuable.
Jennifer: The, they, that Penner is talking about are San Francisco’s Ethnic Studies teachers, which gets at something else unusual about this experiment. This curriculum was largely designed by teachers like Mr. Coe. They came up with the course, they tried it out, and then they refined it to make it better.
Penner: This is a place where a district said to its teacher, “Go meet with each other,