First Person

Polls convinced me Hillary Clinton wouldn’t lose. As an education researcher, the result was a wake-up call

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Neon Tommy
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Like a lot of Americans, I watched the election returns in shocked disbelief. All of the major polls had offered me confidence in a Hillary Clinton victory.

But while I was surprised by the results, I should not have been. I study school segregation, and my research has taught me one thing over and over: numbers alone are not enough.

To get an accurate understanding of situations, qualitative researchers like me believe that we must talk to humans. We must be out in the field forming respectful relationships, conducting ethnography and in-depth interviews. This effort to understand people’s lives and circumstances, interactions, beliefs, and social processes is important so that researchers — often ensconced with like-minded individuals and within liberal cities and universities — don’t miss what is actually happening on the ground.

I’ve seen the importance of this time and again in my own work. When conducting research for my book, “Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City,” I wanted to understand why some groups opted out of their neighborhood school while others did not. To do that, I had to be deeply embedded in the community, talking to people about their complicated feelings about race and class and schooling.

If I had conducted a survey with questions about parents’ desire for “diversity” in their children’s schools, the results would have been misleading at best, since people use that word in so many different ways.

As I work to understand school segregation, I’ve also seen how the constant reliance on test scores to describe schools can alter the schools themselves and affect people’s choices. I have found that while advantaged parents in gentrifying communities would like to send their children to schools with “good” test scores, they also do not want their children in schools that are explicitly test-centered. This puts administrators of schools that must improve test scores in a bind and can reduce opportunities for integration.

Yet in education, we continue to place great value in numbers to judge the quality of schools, teachers, and student learning. We discount other factors and make decisions about teacher tenure, merit pay, the creation of charter schools, and school closings based on these flawed measures. Parents leave cities, buy real estate in certain communities, and select schools based on numerical school rankings.

We do that because numbers are powerful in their ability to convince us that they represent the truth.

That’s what happened to me this election cycle, when the poll numbers lulled me into missing the whole story. My parents had reported to me that wealthy, well-educated friends from their country club in the swing-state of Ohio, where I grew up, were Trump supporters. I heard about large parts of North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania with nothing to see but Trump yard signs; of Catholic-educated, one-issue voters from my childhood parish choosing Trump; and of a friend whose black grandson and his roommates were for Trump, too.

I paid this no attention. The numbers were very clear.

I don’t share these anecdotes to imply that they were valid research findings. But they do remind me how much qualitative research, done in a systematic, neutral way, might have contributed to the conversation before the election.

Pollsters, pundits, and I placed too much value on numbers alone while discounting the nuanced feelings on the ground in parts of middle America. We failed to explore this dynamic and how it could result in a Trump victory.

We can’t lose sight of this truth as it connects to education research. We must do our best to create new ways to understand school, teacher, and student success that are not oversimplified or misleading, and then advocate for their use.

We also need to support the work that gets us there. In education research, grants are far more lucrative and jobs far more plentiful for those who use quantitative methods. That data, when used well, has real value. But qualitative research cannot be overlooked.

Qualitative data is often wrongly disparaged for its alleged subjectivity, lack of reliability, or its cost. I would argue that the over-reliance on quantitative data in this election proved incredibly costly. Let’s not make the same mistake in education.

Molly Vollman Makris is assistant professor of urban studies at CUNY’s Guttman Community College. She holds a doctorate in urban systems and is the author of “Public Housing and School Choice in a Gentrified City: Youth Experiences of Uneven Opportunity.”

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.