Sunday, March 16, 2014

Continuation. Persistence. Grit.

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I'm kind of a fan of Apple's ads.  Heck, I'm just a fan of Apple. While Apple's practically omnipresent in 2014, it was a far different world fifteen years ago, with me carrying my blue clamshell iBook to class in law school.  Back in the 20th century, in the corporate world, Apple was a non-entity; there might be one Mac, sure -- it'd be in the corporate suite, in marketing, where it was the purview of the "graphic designer," the safe, corporate-oriented name for the company's artist.

The realm of the Mac through the 1990s was education -- perhaps an old IIGS, running a library's card catalog software, with a copy of "Encarta" perpetually stuck in its CD-ROM drive. Apple had long since stopped seeming cool.  The company was barely hanging on, the last gasp of hippies, diehards and art nerds.  Destined to be "upgraded" as soon as the school got a bit more budget.

Apple didn't become the most valuable company in the world because their computers were better than everyone else's. Their hardware was often both worse and more expensive. But Apple's long been special in education and the arts. Apple just hung in there, for years. What made  their products different was and is what you can do with a Mac -- with an iPhone -- not processor speed or display resolution.

But Apple itself is special because it survived through pure grit.


So, I tend to keep an eye out for when Apple's creative team goes in a new direction. There's careful thought put into what they say, even when they say very little.  And I noticed a distinct change in the middle of 2013. 

The Apple advertisement at the right is called "Music Every Day."  It's an odd one for Apple, strangely somber, almost a memento mori, or perhaps sounding the theme "et in Arcadia ego." There is happiness, yes, and youthful energy; athletics, dancing, mass transit, a trace of the international, but there's something else, not fully captured artistically.  There's a sense of individuals striving towards achievement, who haven't yet made it.

Towards the end of 2013, watching college football, I noticed that UCLA was running a spot that was as dissimilar from the standard "Everything is Awesome!" college promos as an Apple advertisement is from one for Radio Shack.
"It's not always easy being the exception, the square peg. They'll tell you, you don't belong. That it's not your place. That it'll never fly." 
"But here, you learn you have a choice. You can listen to those voices." 
"Or you can leave them all speechless." 
The UCLA spot lacks the winsome ambiguity of Apple's; it is unselfconscious in its evocation of "carpe diem." But it was the speaker's directness with the student -- you have a choice, and it's not going to be easy -- that caught my attention.

And then, this week, I saw "Your Verse." Maybe Apple decided that because it's been twenty-five years since "Dead Poets Society" was released, that it was as good a time for an homage as any. But one way or another, Apple got ahold of the rights to Robin Williams' monologue as John Keating. I think they thus completed the circle they started with "Music Every Day" -- that they captured the educational ethos so lacking in the business metaphors that permeate the software and computer industry, and most if not all of late modern/contemporary American life:
"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer -- That you are here -- that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse." 
"What will your verse be?"
Robbin Williams as John Keating
Dead Poets Society (1989)

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Apple uses of the voice of education -- Robin Williams as Keating --  to tell us education is about art, and that art's about grit. About persistence in the face of defeat. It's about commitment, about being driven by passion, even when daunted, fearful, and afraid. Apple turned to Dead Poets Society for words intuitively understood by a generation less inclined towards the commercial metaphors so readily employed by those who perhaps still cling fondly to old copies of Windows 95. For "Your Verse" is the speech of a teacher ultimately fired by his private school for unveiling the subversive nature of poetry -- of education -- of art -- to his students.


I've been working with UC and CSU performance data for about the past six months, thinking about measuring grit.  I've been comparing the grade point averages earned by students in college who attended different high schools, and I know from the data that the students in Sonoma Valley have done very well indeed. Whether compared to similar schools or private schools, at CSU or UC, the students from Sonoma Valley earn better grades.  Further, more and more students from Sonoma Valley are admitted to CSU and UC with each passing class -- UC admissions increased by 70% in the past decade, and CSU admissions have increased by 180% since 1996.  In addition, the admission rate for students from Sonoma Valley to UC continues to rise, from 74% of the students who applied in 2000 to 96% of the students who applied in 2007.

As I've been looking at the data, I've had a particular model, a particular equation in mind.  The idea, more or less, has been to take the high school grade point averages of initially enrolled students, and then comparing that to the first-year grade point averages of those who remained in college after the first year. Of course, when I put it that way, the issue leaps off the page for most readers. But it took a while of looking at a screen of numbers and strings of SQL to see the important point being missed. CSU calls it continuation, UC calls it persistence, but it's really just grit. For the correct denominator in calculating averages should be the number of students that initially enrolled, not the number continuing.

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And that's when the data (PDF here) got very interesting indeed.

I wasn't surprised at all to see the Pumas at the top of the table; most any way you cut it, Maria Carrillo's the best high school north of San Francisco.

El Molino and Analy, on the one hand, and Piner and Vintage, on the other, are the schools where CSU and UC data diverges the most.  That kind of makes sense; the West Sonoma County schools have strong reputations, and UC's probably reaching deeper into their classes than they would otherwise, which is why their kids appear to do so much worse in relative terms at UC than CSU.  The reverse is likely true for Piner and Vintage. A student attending El Molino and Analy that's on the bubble for UC probably heads for CSU if she earns the same numbers at Piner or Vintage.

Marin Academy and Branson are a real study in contrasts; no one appears to have lower High School grade inflation than Marin Academy (a very significant achievement). But MA's students look brittle.  Their drop out rate in college's the highest for both UC and CSU. This clearly isn't simply correlated with their being an expensive private school; the Branson students don't mirror the trend.

But the surprise was that, despite months of looking at the data, I just hadn't realized how well Sonoma's students would do. Because Sonoma's students refuse to break. The impact of drops at UC for Sonoma's kids is the lowest in the table.   Apparently, when you throw silver and green in the wash, those colors just don't run.


Instilling grit is no easy thing, and measuring it's even harder. Yet Sonoma's teachers and administrators are making it happen, which reminds me that if talent's defined as the ability to hit a target no one else can reach, genius is hitting a target no one else can see.  And the students are responding -- because the more I've talked with parents, the more they've told me that students want to go to school in Sonoma Valley -- that it is the parents that are interested in other schools.  

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Understanding the dynamic has taken time; parsing the cognitive metaphors has been tough. Parents talk, for instance, of the quality of private schools as they do of cars; hearing about them sounds like nothing so much as a newly minted Yuppie gushing over a leased 325i.  "You should see the acceleration! And the class size!" But the conversations seldom include the phrase "my student's so excited to be there ..."  Instead, the business metaphors start flying by fast and furious.

Private school administrators have often wholly adopted the business metaphor for education, emphasizing features that most attract the interest of the implicit customer, the parents. More disconcerting is that there appears to be a certain amount of grade inflation being allowed at the less expensive private schools, perhaps to aid in convincing parents that their "investment" really is paying off. Yet alarm should be focused on the seeming failure of private schools to prepare students to handle failure and adversity, to coach grittiness.

I have tremendous sympathy for parents approaching high school for the first time, and the concerns they feel. To help me understand those fears, I turn to Mark Rothko and the Seagram murals. Of one piece in the Tate Modern, Simon Schama tells us:
"Red on Maroon" (1959)
Mark Rothko (1903‑1970), Tate Modern
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"... a hanging veil, suspended between two columns, an opening, that beckons, or denies entrance.  A blind window? A gateway -- if some of those portals are blocked, others open into the unknown space that Rothko talked about, the place that only art can take us, far away from the buzzing static of the moment ... to feel the poignancy of our comings and our goings, our entrances and our exits, our births and our deaths, womb, tomb, and everything between. Can art ever be more complete, more powerful? I don't think so."
For when I think of the concerned parent, shopping schools with every iota of their energy, I think of them gazing upon a high school much as Schama views Red on Maroon.  A school, particularly a high school, is a gateway through which their family may struggle to pass, to a destination unknown. A blocked portal, through which they're not even sure they want to go, knowing only that they feel little choice, on a path they sense will be fraught with danger, danger that they fear.

Rothko understood that fear.  Rothko had become used to poverty and failure.  He had gone through 30 years of financial hardship and mental struggle to find his style, to become perhaps the premier artist of the late 1950s, if not the 20th century. For Rothko had learned the meaning of grit, and what it takes to get it:
"When I was a younger man art was a lonely thing ... no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain.  Today it is not quite the same.  It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large, I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence, where we can root and grow."

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Rothko's use of the metaphor of the forest brings me to James Scott's concept of legibility. For it can be hard to appreciate all the subtleties of the social dynamics of a diverse high school like Sonoma Valley. The understandable inclination may be to come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what the school ought to be.  But our public schools are producing students that are gritty and resilient --  that have the vitality of a natural forest.  It may be that there are benefits to be had from the walled gardens of "elite" private high schools. But the "scientific forests" James Scott studied eventually underwent ecological collapse, while the complex, confusing, "illegible" natural forests thrived.


So to the parents, swallowing perhaps more than a bit fearfully as they gaze at Red on Maroon, I say that the data shows that students in Sonoma are authentically, personally engaged in pursuing their own education. They speak the language of Robin William's John Keating. That the results are strong, and getting even stronger.

To the students, by contrast,  I say take your common core skills, and make an argument for Sonoma from evidence. The PDF is here. Should your parents suggest they're not sure whether you're right, try to not be too hard on them. They may be just a bit of a PC. You're probably becoming a Mac. And that's not so bad. Especially if it reminds you of the most important point of all.

That Apple survived through pure grit. 

And so will you.