Weekend Open Thread: The Machine That Helps Impoverished Students Succeed in School

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Larval Version of the Machine

Evolutionary ancestor of “the educational facilitation machine,” from around Lincoln’s time.

This is both a “feel-good” story and a “smack-yourself-in-the-head-for-not-realizing-this first” story about how the solutions to major social problems — like student absenteeism among poorer students — may not actually be so much a matter of building character or increasing parental involvement or keeping kids away from drugs or giving them free MacBooks or anything else discussed in academic papers or legislative chambers.

To find out what those solutions are, though, you may have to do something unusual — even radical.  You have to find out what’s really going on in people’s lives.

As I occasionally have to remind people, before I became a lawyer I had an academic career as a social and political psychologist.  One continual theme I recognized in the fields, which share a focus the study of human motivation, is that a major motivation often omitted from standard motivational models (which tend to be economically driven because it’s easier and more amenable to quantification) is that people want to avoid embarrassment.  Social psychological studies show that people will literally choose paths far likelier to lead to their own deaths in order to avoid embarrassment.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: we’re social creatures, we use bonds with others to protect us and advance us in society, and the potential or actual infliction of embarrassment is a main way to enforce — and cause people to internalize — social norms.  It’s also a top  way to enforce stratification in social status.  Essentially, infliction of pain and embarrassment are the main tools of bullying — but that takes us away from today’s topic.

As an aside, the most repulsive aspect of the political blogosphere — highly visible at Cunningham’s blogs and Chmielewski’s debased post-Prevatt version of Liberal OC — involves using anonymous personas (who may be rewarded in coin or access to power, or who may be people using sock puppets to rally agreement for themselves) to gratuitously insult those who violate social norms (by, for example, fighting against corruption by the powerful.)  The point of the exercise is to signal to bystanders how much they will suffer if they too take such public positions.  And, of course, most people comply — because, again, people will often go more to extreme lengths to avoid embarrassment than actual physical pain.

Literally training oneself not to give a ripe goddamn about what those sorts of people say is one of the most important steps in becoming an activist.  “Whisper campaigns” will destroy you if you let them; but so will the fear of them.  Public anonymous attacks, making one wonder who in your circle could be making them, are in some ways worse.  But if you learn to let go of worries about embarrassment, emanating from people for whom such attacks are probably their best chance at winning what they want, then you become free.  And demonstrating that one need not be destroyed by rabid anonymous haters in turn helps free others from their influence.

Zzzzzz … HUH?  I think that I may have passed out for a couple of paragraphs there.  I remember typing something about “stratification in social status,” and then I woke up with a start just now and there are a couple of extra paragraphs on the page!  How strange — I’ll go back and read them later.

Anyway, what I wanted to talk about today before that brief reverie was this story, which tells a heart-warming and hope-fueling tale of brilliance and heroism by a public school official.  That official, Dr. Melody Gunn, would probably not admit to either brilliance or heroism — she was just doing her job the way that it should be done — but she’s certainly a brilliant hero in my book, and (my guess is) in the books of many of the parents of the children that she has helped.

Dr. Melody Gunn, the former principal of Gibson Elementary in St. Louis, couldn’t figure out why student attendance was on the low side. All of Gibson’s kids were provided free or reduced lunches, and the school facilitated transportation.

In talking to parents, Gunn discovered that many didn’t have easy access to washing machines. Or if they did have machines, they couldn’t always use them because they couldn’t afford detergent, or their electricity had been shut off. For these families, laundry had to take a backseat to more pressing needs such as food and rent.

It turned out that when students didn’t have clean clothes, they often stayed home from school out of embarrassment. Logan, an eighth-grader, spoke about how difficult it is for others to understand his problem: “I think people don’t talk about not having clean clothes because it makes you want to cry or go home or run away or something. It doesn’t feel good.”

Gunn reached out to the Whirlpool company to see if it could help, and it donated a washer and dryer to her school. She then invited students who had missed more than 10 days of school to bring in their clothes for laundering. Whirlpool later gave 16 more schools in districts in St. Louis and Fairfield, California, washers and dryers through a new program.

“After just one month, we saw an impact,” Gunn tells CityLab. The more long-term results of the program have actually been remarkable. The first year saw over 90 percent of tracked students increase their attendance, with those most in need of the service averaging an increase of almost 2 weeks. Teachers surveyed reported that 95 percent of participants showed more motivation in class and were more apt to participate in extra-curricular activities. The results support research demonstrating that chronic absenteeism isn’t because of kids’ lack of smarts or motivation, but is largely due to coming from a low-income household.

I swiped one more paragraph than I should have — I’m guessing that the publication won’t mind too much — so click on that link to read the rest.

Let’s be clear on one more thing: yes, as you may infer, this absolutely IS “socialism” — albeit socialism writ very small.  Whirlpool theoretically sells fewer washing machines as a result (although it’s pretty clear that the families of these children can’t afford them.)  It might also be called nanny-statism as well, by some definitions.  But look:  kids who are perfectly capable of learning and are held back only because poverty leads them to embarrassment are learning now — and anyone who values a less uneducated population, which I’m afraid not everyone does, should be celebrating this.

What can you do?  Well, a bunch of people are running for school board over the next ten weeks or so.  Maybe you can ask them what they think of this story!

This is your new, clean, and fresh-smelling Weekend Open Thread.  Talk about this story, or whatever else you’d like, within reasonable bounds of decency, decorum, and discretion.


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)