Baltimore and the Societal Factors Influencing Our Schools

The unrest in Baltimore has been on most of our minds. As a kid, I lived–and, now with my own three kids, live–not far from the city, so I’ve been following events closely.

Over the last week, there’ve been some moving pieces written about the schools of Charm City. NPR followed a principal the day after schools reopened and captured the pained (and painful) voices of 8th-grade boys. The Baltimore Sun covered a group of Baltimore Ravens visiting schools, including a high school named for famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass (watch the two embedded videos of Ray Lewis).

My favorite, though, has been the piece written by my friend, the inspirational Derrell Bradford, a Baltimore native. He offered a personal reflection of his journey–figurative and literal–from a troubled neighborhood through challenged and elite schools to his current role as a school reform advocate. This CNN piece, about Baltimore’s lost men, is similarly moving and even harder to read.

I’m incapable of adding new insight to the issues of race involved here. I did my best to contribute a small bit on that score in the wake of Ferguson last fall.

But since then, I’ve spent a good bit of time looking into a wide range of issues associated with the tough conditions faced by millions of city kids and what we might do to offer these boys and girls better opportunities. I’m under no illusions that I’ll end up with The Answer, but I am hoping to grow smarter and more thoughtful about some of the issues influencing and influenced by urban schools.

I haven’t yet integrated all of this into a cogent vision or argument. But here are some of the most relevant and most interesting recent items I’ve come across. Maybe you’ll find one or more of them thought-provoking.

Understanding and Empathy: New research suggests that strangers cause us stress and that stress inhibits our ability to appreciate the suffering of others. If we can move people from the “stranger zone” to the “friend zone,” we can grow our empathy for those in need. So how do we do this? One unexpected answer appears to have a range of other social and cognitive benefits as well. Unfortunately, there are powerful cultural forces that seem to pull people of different groups apart from one another–see this book by Mark Pagel or his talk on how language can be a factor. An excellent Aspen Ideas presentation by Kwame Anthony Appiah, however, offers some hope. His take on cross-cultural conversations argues that there’s far more to gain by talking than we might expect.

Organizing Social Movements: Social media has made it easier to organize protests and foster social movements. But UNC Professor Zeynep Tufekci makes the case that the slow, deliberate process of building trust and collective goals (seen in previous generations’ reform efforts) is likelier to produce sustainable change. Spontaneous uprisings in Gezi, Ukraine, and Hong Kong were inspiring, but we may look back and see them as ephemeral. Read Tufecki’s NYT op-ed or watch this TED Talk. If you’re particularly interested in leadership in large, diffuse movements, this book on how ants (yes, ants) communicate and organize might be of interest.

Social Change and Resilience: Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, explains how social change over the last quarter century has opened an “opportunity gap” among kids of different backgrounds. Though policy is certainly part of the equation, cultural shifts loom large in the narrative (listen to his talk with Brookings here or his conversation with Walter Isaacson here). Similar themes emerged in Charles Murray’s 2013 book Coming Apart; so too in David Brooks’ column today (“a healthy neighborhood is like a ballet, a series of intricate interactions in which people are regulating each other and encouraging certain behaviors.) As a nation, we may have been insensitive to how changes in micro-behaviors would add up to macro-consequences, especially for boys and girls. But a new book by Judith Rodin (head of the Rockefeller Foundation and former leader of Yale and Penn), called The Resilience Dividend explains how cities, states, and nations can bounce back from major setbacks and prepare for future ones (her Aspen Ideas speech is terrific).

Security and Fulfillment: Seventy years ago Abraham Maslow developed a theory about humans’ “hierarchy of needs.” He made the case that people had similar types of motivations but that individuals could only pursue the more sophisticated ones when basic needs were met. Feeling a sense of security is fundamental to our “graduating” to higher-order considerations. Kids suffer horribly when they consistently feel unsafe; this primer on toxic stress explains. One problem from a policy perspective is that society tends to overestimate rare threats (e.g. plane crashes, terrorist events) and underestimate common ones (suicide, domestic violence), meaning we poorly prioritize resources and perhaps do too little to set up vulnerable kids for success. This video on the “security mirage” is instructive. If we can get this right–but only if we get this right–we can help people address their highest-order needs, which Maslow termed “self-actualization.” Much has been written recently about such human flourishing, including studies on happiness by AEI’s Arthur Brooks (see his great NYT op-ed here); but there are also classics by the likes of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Claremont psychology professor, on contentment and “flow.”

I get nervous when people point to the overwhelming out-of-school factors influencing kids’ learning. I worry that this can serve to undermine efforts to make necessary changes to our K-12 systems. But it’s also myopic to ignore the community needs, social factors, and cultural forces affecting students and their schools.

These resources have certainly helped me think through these issues. I hope you find them as useful.

– Andy Smarick

This first appeared on Ahead of the Heard.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College