Last month, a new study in Nature revealed a key predictor of economic mobility: connectivity. Specifically, Opportunity Insights researchers found that connections with high-income students significantly improved low-income students’ chances of upward mobility in adulthood, even more than traditional measures of success such as grade. from school.
The Opportunity Insights team has received praise for the sheer size of the dataset they built to reach their conclusions: their Social Capital Atlas consists of a staggering 21 billion connection data points, extracted from anonymized Facebook data of 72 million users. The analysis also produced a new species of school-level data, describing the degree of economic connectivity within individual high schools and colleges across the country.
This new research raises a larger question for education leaders working to achieve more equitable outcomes: what kinds of relational data do schools need to understand their students’ trajectories, as well as the relationships and resources available to them?
Unfortunately, older education data systems rarely contain much relationship data.
This does not mean that schools are flying entirely blind. Schools can track which students are paired with which teachers. They can assign counselors or mentors to students who are having difficulty. They can administer culture and belonging surveys that measure how students and staff experience and perceive their community.
But lists and climate surveys only get you so far. They are centered on the institution rather than the student. In other words, they rarely reveal the real relationships and networks at play in students’ lives. Moreover, they tell schools nothing about students’ relationships with family, friends, coaches, neighbors and others who make up a young person’s real network, and often contain valuable assets that schools could exploit.
Map student knowledge
How could schools go about finding out who students know? An obvious strategy for getting a more complete picture of student networks is to ask students themselves.
This often takes the form of an activity called relationship mapping, which I describe in more detail in a new report for the Christensen Institute, Hidden Student Networks: Relationship Mapping as a Strategy to Build Asset-Based Pathways.
Relationship mapping has low-tech roots. For decades, social workers have created paper-and-pen “eco-cards” with clients to reveal their social supports and stressors.
“Network mapping, eco-mapping, relationship mapping — it’s the whole idea of trying to get on paper, ‘Who are the people in your life?'” said Sarah Schwartz, clinical psychologist and mentorship researcher I interviewed. “When I do this with young people, I use a blank sheet of paper, write their name in the middle and start drawing lines and asking them, ‘Who is in your school? Who is in your community? Who’s in your neighborhood? Who are your caregivers’ friends? Who is in your religious community? ,” Schwartz explained.
This practice has been slow to migrate from paper to digital. Even fairly popular programs like Harvard’s virtual Making Caring Common program Relationship Mapping Strategy rely on simple spreadsheets.
Pen and paper and worksheets may suffice for short activities and small programs. But they risk a static approach to relational data. With better tools, this data could prove to be both a powerful and dynamic indicator over time. Fortunately, a series of entrepreneurs are beginning to create tools that could boost schools’ ability to access and store secure data on student networks in a way that helps both young people and the institutions that serve them track their connections.
Make the invisible visible
Some tools have emerged from researchers focused on the power of network science to improve outcomes. For example, a new open source search tool Network canvasdeveloped by the Complex Data Collective, streamlines the process of designing network surveys, interviewing subjects, and analyzing and managing social media data.
Another tool built by researchers at the Visible Networks Lab (VNL) called PARTNERme uses an interactive interface where children and parents can draw their social connections, identify who helps them with the things they need, and highlight their most pressing needs with the least social support.
The resulting map aims to make “invisible networks” visible, according to VNL founder Danielle Varda, a researcher and professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver.
“By visualizing these types of things, we make a very complex problem easier to see and therefore more tangible to solve,” Varda said.
For the past two years, VNL has worked with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to support young researchers who are leading qualitative research on how the PARTNERme assessment can best detect social supports in young people’s lives.
Map networks as you go
Other tools are beginning to emerge to help young people identify and maintain connections. Palette is a startup focused on promoting greater communication between student support networks. The goal, in the words of founder Burck Smith, is to “better connect and manage the adults who have the most influence on a student’s success.” Palette is still in beta, but will launch half a dozen pilot programs this fall across consulting, coaching, mentoring, and counseling programs.
Other startups combine relationship maps with a networking program. My Opportunities Platform (MyOH), an app in development by Edward DeJesus, founder of Social Capital Builders, Inc., inspires young people to keep the connections in their lives (teachers, family members, and mentors) up to date on their progress and to make new connections with those of the industries that interest them. The tool goes hand-in-hand with DeJesus’ Foundations in Social Capital Literacy curriculum, which teaches young people how to create and mobilize networks. The app aims to make maintaining connections more manageable. At all times during the Social Capital Builders experiential curriculum, youth keep five to six select individuals, what DeJesus and his team dub “Opportunity Guides,” up to date on their successes and challenges.
Tools like MyOH demonstrate the potential of combining a relationship building program with data and visualization tools. Others are beginning to take a similar approach. For instance, I could be, an online mentoring program and a college and career curriculum, is developing a “Connection Map” for students where students can visualize their networks on an ongoing basis. (Notably, students served by iCouldBe prefer the term “connections” to “networks”). As students progress through the program, the card will automatically populate any connections with teachers, coaches, and counselors that students identify, and urges students to develop new relationships with people they would like to meet.
For iCouldBe, this marks a promising shift from data-driven mentoring to building data-driven networks. “We have this huge database on the backend of the program and use data science tools to really see how mentees are engaging with the program. For each week of the program we see a weekly score based on engagement mentees and mentors,” said Kate Schrauth, Executive Director of iCouldBe. “We’re going to be looking to use these data science tools and add all the metrics from the Enhanced Connections Map so we can understand how mentees interact with these larger networks over longer periods of time.
Improving relationship-centred approaches in schools
Better tools to assess and maintain connectivity offer myriad benefits when it comes to the complex challenges facing schools this year. First, as researchers like Danielle Varda of VNL have long documented, connectivity and mental health are deeply linked. Since concerns about the mental health of students are on your mind among district leaders, schools would be wise to invest not just in interventions, but in data focused on social connections.
Second, network mapping can help create more resilient systems. During the first months of the pandemic, some school districts were described as innovative for initiatives that ensured that someone – anyone – from the district reached students daily. Herculean as these efforts were, they also reflected how ill-prepared schools were to leverage and coordinate the connections that exist in students’ lives. If further crises upend the school as we know it, data about who students know and turn to provides an invaluable safety net for centralized systems trying to operate under decentralized conditions.
Of course, limited time, financial resources, and network science expertise in schools can hinder the adoption of these types of tools. Startups hoping to gain a foothold may need to be as much into relationship mapping development as they are into change management and consulting (which most of the tool providers above offer) . Others are betting on adoption first outside mainstream systems. “The first step in our strategy toward greater district adoption of PARTNERme is to partner with community organizations that provide services to schools to prove the value of using the tool,” Varda told About VNL’s approach.
But if the recent buzz around economic connectivity is an indication there is significant interest from schools and the communities that support them in doubling down on the crucial role that connections play in the lives of young people. The relationships and resources they can provide, often referred to as social capital, support healthy development, learning, and access to opportunity. It’s time these connections became an integral part of the data schools collect to monitor and measure their progress.