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Top 5 diversity trends for 2020s

 

At the verge of the new decade, some racial rows have sparked here in the U.K.. In late December 2019, two elite schools in the U.K. were embroiled in controversy after rejecting scholarship donations, earmarked for white working class boys. A Twitter announcement from the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to encourage young black women to apply for a creative programme has been met with accusations of him being raciston the cyberspace. Last but not least, on New Year’s Day, BBC News reports that a record number of primary school children are being excluded from school for racist bullying.

 

This is quite a tense start to the decade, with the diversity and equality debate getting more and more polarized – even among the very young. How will the decade pan out, from the perspective of diversity and inclusion?

1) It is still time to talk about race

Race has been a major point of discussion in the U.S. for a long time, but across the Atlantic, the topic has been fairly muted. For the U.K., which is also racially diverse and has a colonial history, race only came to the government’s attention after the Race Disparity Audit, first published by the Cabinet Office in 2017. Race is now an everyday discussion, after popular figures in music, such as Stormzy, and in football, such as Raheem Sterling, spoke out against racism. In France and Germany, the two biggest European economies also with histories of colonialism, these conversations are starting to become more prominent.

At the BMW Foundation’s Berlin Global Forum in October, the ending plenary featured a crowd-sourced poll from the 200 attendees from all over the world, to answer the question, “What structural factors prevent more inclusivity?” The top ones included: Racism, capitalism, sexism, governments, power, education, hierarchy, prejudice, fear, and white supremacy. Race-related factors are featured twice among the top ten.

While there is more awareness about racial inequality across Western Europe, there is increasing backlash, mainly from white people. Writer Robin DiAngelo has summarised this response as “white fragility”, a reaction in which white people feel attacked or offended when the topic of racism arises. These tensions will likely continue as discussions on race gain traction in popular discourse, through the 2020s.

2) Gender is not just about women

The 2010s have seen a progress in discussions about gender equality, with the #MeToo movement and the intersectionality discourse. LGBTQ activists have also looked back on the 2010s as a decade with huge success, including the increase in trans visibility. Moving into the 2020s, these nuanced debates will likely continue and finally, discourse on gender will not be equated to women; instead, discussions will likely encompass broader issues, including issues relating to men and boys such as men’s health and fatherhood.

3) Re-emergence of class as a rallying cry

During the Cold War, when the dividing line was socialism versus capitalism, class was a rallying political cry in the world – or at least in the socialist world. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, class has retreated as a front and centre political issue, until its comeback in the latter half of the 2010s with the astonishing election of Trump and win of Brexit. The woes of the white working class were a central tenet of both the Trump and Brexit campaigns, and they will continue to preoccupy voters’ minds. On the New Year’s March in Hong Kong, which is entering into its seventh month of anti-government protests, protestors added a new chant about forming unions, which have traditionally been the organizing force of the working class. Increasingly, discussions about diversity will include class.

4) Age: The old versus the young

In the Brexit vote, and the subsequent general elections, has seen the old and the young occupying the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Traditionally, voting preferences are divided along class or racial lines, but age has now become the dividing line – not least because of the economic disparity betweeen the young and the old. A recent research showed that spending by retirees in the U.K. rockets while spending by youth has decreased. When it comes to the issue of climate change, the conflict between the young and the old becomes more apparent. Greta Thunberg, the face of climate activism, has long condemned the inaction of older generations. Last week, in Germany, a satirical song (#Omagate) mocking a fictional grandmother’s environmental habits was released, including lyrics that say “my grandma is an old environmental pig”, causing a huge controversy. The generational conflict will most likely continue and intensify in the 2020s.

5) More focus on cognitive diversity

In the past year, the world has grown more aware of how social media channels are creating echo chambers for all of us – people on one’s Facebook news feed may look diverse, but they all think the same. Cognitive diversity has always been on executives’ agendas, but the latest recruitment drive by Dominic Cummings, the aide to U.K.’s Prime Minister, has brought this to the limelight. He has called for the need for “true cognitive diversity” by hiring for a wide range of talent, including “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”.  It remains to be seen how successful he will be in pushing for cognitive diversity, but it will certainly be a word on people’s minds for 2020.

January 2020, CICO writer: CICO  Staff Reporter Bonnie Chiu
 

Highsnobiety: From Niche Blog To The Height of Hype

 

Creating shoppable content that people actually buy from has been an elusive goal for brands, retailers, publishers and influencers alike. Conde Nast’s style.com, a luxury e-commerce business, was shut down just after 9 months, despite a hyped launch. Influencers, whose recommendations used to be trusted in the early days of Instagram, now often serve as a source of amusement when featuring products they are clearly paid to promote.

Yet if the purpose of going to a website is to get inspiration on what to buy and read product reviews, does it not make sense for the publisher to make its recommendations shoppable? Incentives make this area murky and blunt execution erodes audience trust, thus ultimately damaging the publisher.

Some companies are doing this well however, notably Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop, which focusses on women’s wellness and Highsnobiety, a streetwear media and e-commerce destination for men.

Highsnobiety began as a blog for male sneaker fans in 2005. To put this in context, YouTube was founded just three months before, so the company grew its audience on, and along with, the big social media channels.

“I had to make money before I could spend money,” said David Fischer, Highsnobiety founder when we met at the Wired Smarter conference in London. Unlike many of the other Berlin-based digital companies, Highsnobiety was self-funded for the first 13 years.

Fischer describes the company’s early stages as “normal slow business growth,” which is a stark contrast with the break neck growth of venture funded companies. He made his first hire two years into running the business, and added the team gradually as revenues and audience climbed.

A growth spurt began in 2012, when Highsnobiety moved from a traditional advertising-based revenue model, to making branded content. For the past 5 years, the business has seen strong double digit growth and headcount went from 20 to 200. In 2018, venture capital firm Felix Capital, led by Frederic Court, became Highsnobiety’s first investor. It is no accident that Felix has invested in other businesses that have blended content and commerce well, including goop.

Keeping trust

I asked Fischer how Highsnobiety managed to grow its revenues via branded content, while also keeping their audience’s trust. Fischer says that as a content first company, as opposed to a retailer, which grew up in the digital age, Highsnobiety had experience in making trending content. They also understood the behavior of the sneaker obsessed young male audience because this is who they spoke to every day.

Perhaps the issue with failures like style.com is that traditional publishers were going into a digital world, which they were not familiar with, and were tin-eared to the changing needs of their target audience.

To keep trust, Fischer says that Highsnobiety only creates branded content about products they genuinely think have the cool factor that their audiences crave. Authenticity is at a premium, because in an age of rising audience distrust, one false move could place Highsnobiety in jeopardy.

Competing with clients

When the company evolved from being a publisher and branded content studio into e-commerce, another set of issues arose. By selling products, Highsnobiety put itself into competition with its branded content clientele of brands and retailers.

While Amazon has no qualms about turning its clients into competitors on Amazon marketplace, as a smaller player, Highsnobiety had to be more careful. They opted for the drop model, whereby a limited edition collection of sneakers is sold on Highsnobiety media properties.

Building hype around the upcoming limited edition sale, and playing on consumers’ desire for scarcity, the company sells product, limits inventory risk and also boosts the brand value of its clients. Fischer says that product drops on Highsnobiety lead to increased sales on their brand and retail clients’s sites. “When we do a Nike drop, people spend more time with Nike content. This means we can continue being a true partner to these brands.”

Highsnobiety has proven that the branded content and product drop models can work well together, and now Fischer’s task is scaling the offering. For brands, retailers and publishers competing in the content and commerce space, the lesson is that they need a team who thinks digital first. That team needs to understand their target audience and be empowered by the CEO. It is no use hiring people who know what to do and not listening to them, which is what often happens when established companies hire a Chief Digital Officer.

Consumer trust is what helps Highsnobiety win in this competitive space, because consumers do not mind getting product recommendations, as long as they are good and relevant. As retailers and legacy publishers consider their options after a turbulent year, Highsnobiety’s experiments are worth learning from.

December 2019, CICO writer: CICO  Staff Reporter Sophia Matveeva.
 

The Best And Worst Advice For Job Seekers And Interviewers In A Neurodiverse World

 

This piece is full of tips, but it also takes a more holistic look at work, who we hire and why exuding confidence and embracing difference is what brands (and people who build them) need most in 2020. In addition to offering job interview advice you’ve probably never heard put in quite this way, my hope is to reboot the way the corporate world sees ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, executive function and processing deficits and the people who live, work and succeed with them. These are basic tips—for both job seekers and interviewers—to get a difficult conversation about thinking and working differently started:

Tips for Job Seekers

  1. Don’t Label Yourself. Be Yourself. Medical labels are only your friend when you are seeking a diagnosis or treatment. In the workplace, there’s no need for you to talk about them unless you want to.
  2. Quit Trying On Normal. If you’ve been raised with a learning disability, the number of times you have been shamed as a young person for your behavior may be indelibly etched in your brain. One way to gain confidence is to openly talk about those battles in the past tense. They are successes. 
  3. Purposely Position Yourself As Different. Why shy away from it? Who do you know who gets excited about meeting a super-average person? Unique is very 2020. Talk about your flexibility or creativity, your self-awareness and your empathy for others. You’ve survived all the crap doled out in high school and beyond. That means you had to be resilient, make frenemies, use humor as a shield or empathy to gain buy-in. Reframe learning disabilities as leadership qualities in the workplace.
  4. Question Monoculture. Maybe you’ve noticed—the world has no normal these days, whether you are talking politics, bioethics or work-family balance. Think of the business world as being in its teenage years when it comes to disruption. If you have a teenager who asks constantly at school functions, you’ve heard: Can’t you just act normal for once? Of course normal isn’t possible, few parents seem normal to high schoolers. Unless you can self-destruct and disappear in a Lebron-style poof of colored chalk or arrive in JVN style to the parent-teacher conference, they’ll have to deal with you.
  5. Zig When Others Zag. The worst five words my parents ever said to me as a teen? We’re not like other families. Thankfully, times are changing. Standing out and standing up is becoming the new normal. Some people say that not doing things the way other people do makes you uniquely qualified to bring new solutions and ideas to work. If so, maybe you rolled your eyes as inRight, who would believe that line? Interviewees need to be sure they tell their story in a unique way but make their point clear, instructive, interesting and relevant. Most interviewers haven’t yet enough outwardly proud neurodiverse candidates to understand where you are coming from. When they do, you’ll be unforgettable in a good way. No interviewer forgets a great story of redemption, change or caring.
  6. Know Your Craft or Be Enthusiastic About Learning. You will need the hard skills to back up those soft ones. But you may already be a curious, lifelong learner. The more adept you are in your field, the less anxious stressed or blindsided you’ll feel when change happens at work.

Tips for Hiring Managers 

As an interviewer, you also need to get comfortable with neurodiversity. This can’t come from a training webinar alone. It comes from talking to real people who are neurodiverse. Meet with or speak with as many different sounding, different-thinking, different looking candidates as you can.

  1. Know About Neurodiversity. Five years ago, Steve Silberman’s award-winning examination of autism, Neurotribes, was published. In it, he explains the idea of neurotypical behavior as existing on a spectrum. He reframes the word normal in positive, human, understandable ways. Another respected researcher and writer, Judy Singer,  Neurodiversity: The Birth of An Idea   also discussed diverse behaviors that make up a spectrum. The Australian sociologist became well known best for coining the word neurodiversity. In the 1990s, she coined the term as shorthand for a way to explain how there is a variation in the way the human brain socializes, learns and functions. Since then, another word for differentiation has emerged—neurodivergence. Still, many companies persist in wanting to boil their brand and the people who create it down into one culture—one norm. I don’t think one company culture will thrive in 2020.
  2. Don’t Dwell On Labels Or Personality Tests. From a business standpoint, I think it’s important to know about these terms, but also not to dwell on them when it comes to assessing or learning more about different types of employees. More important to me than a label is an intention. Your why? and how? may be different than mine. But the least-acceptable way to use it as a source of discrimination. That discrimination, bias (or ok, unconscious bias) still runs rampant in the business community. Start talking about bias openly.
  3. Listen Or Ask About Preferred Language. Take cues on language from interviewees. Some people want to be referred to as people with disabilities (people-first language) while others want to be referred to, for example, as autistic (vs. a person with autism) because it’s proudly part of their identity. I lean toward not separating a diagnosis and the person. One way is to think about whether you are coming at language in a respectful way or with a positive or negative bias. Do you set up firewalls or create bridges? Businesses today have a lot of firewalls. Build more bridges.
  4. Quit The Normal Business.  The rebel leader in me often asks: Why would anyone want to be normal? The disruptor in me asks: What does it mean when something is normalized? In the future, it will mean powerful teams creating more relevant, useful products through collaboration. Few organizations will be in the business of trying to be normal. It even sounds ridiculous when you say it today. Our mission is to save lives and be normal. Our vision is a normal world. We are in the business of creating normal things for normal people. If I was normal, I would say, good luck with that normal project. But proudly, I am not.

November 2019, CICO writer Denise Brodey – Staff Reporter.
 

Google may have just ushered in an era of ‘quantum supremacy

 

Google says that it has achieved quantum supremacy, a major milestone towards the development of quantum computers. At least, it seems to have. The announcement came in a paper that was reportedly published on the NASA website before being pulled, according to the The Financial Times which retrieved a copy before it disappeared. “To our knowledge,” Google’s paper read, “this experiment marks the first computation that can only be performed on a quantum processor.” The Google research paper was titled “Quantum supremacy using a programmable superconducting processor.”

Google’s quantum computer was reportedly able to solve a calculation — proving the randomness of numbers produced by a random number generator — in 3 minutes and 20 seconds that would take the world’s fastest traditional supercomputer, Summit, around 10,000 years. This effectively means that the calculation cannot be performed by a traditional computer, making Google the first to demonstrate quantum supremacy.

Despite hitting the milestone, it’s likely that quantum computers capable of tackling practical tasks are still years away. However, once developed, the computers are expected to have huge implications for areas as diverse as cryptography, chemistry, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Google expects the power of quantum computers to expand at a “double exponential rate,” whereas traditional computers have long been pegged to Moore’s Law, which saw power double every 18 months or so.

Google previously said that it hoped to achieve quantum supremacy by the end of 2017, however the 72-qubit system it developed proved too difficult to control. Following this, Google developed a 53-qubit design called Sycamore, which was used to achieve the recent breakthrough.

However, the significance of Google’s announcement was disputed by at least one competitor. Speaking to the FT, IBM’s head of research Dario Gil said that Google’s claim to have achieved quantum supremacy is “just plain wrong.” Gil said that Google’s system is a specialized piece of hardware designed to solve a single problem, and falls short of being a general-purpose computer, unlike IBM’s own work.

IBM is a fierce competitor of Google’s in the race to develop quantum computers. Earlier this year it unveiled the Q System One. Although it was still far from being a practical computing device, IBM’s breakthrough was to make it much more reliable than previous quantum machines. Quantum computing chips are very unstable, and prone to interference from heat and electricity. IBM’s new design was able to minimize this interference, the company said.

Others were more optimistic about the development. “Google’s recent update on the achievement of quantum supremacy is a notable mile marker as we continue to advance the potential of quantum computing,” the director of quantum hardware at Intel, Jim Clake, said. “We along with the industry are working to quickly advance all of those areas to realize the true potential of quantum computing. And while development is still at mile one of this marathon, we strongly believe in the potential of this technology.“

The University of Southern California’s Daniel Lidar also praised the way Google’s system reduced the problem of “crosstalk,” which is where a quantum computer’s qubits interfere with one another. “[Google has] demonstrated a path to scalable quantum computing,” he told the FT, “Once you have a fully error-corrected quantum computer, the sky’s the limit.”

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 
October 2019, CICO writer   – Staff Reporter.

 

Diversity Trainings Usually Fail. Here’s What You Can Do To Create Lasting Changes

 

While diversity and inclusion trainings have been around for a considerable amount of time, the focus of these trainings and workshops has evolved and changed over time. Companies now invest millions of dollars on these trainings as well as dedicating valuable time and resources to better understand how to eradicate bias in each part of the employment process. Unconscious bias trainings have also become extremely popular in the last decade and the go-to when companies are facing public scandals; Starbucks and Sephora are just a few examples. But with the rise in popularity of these types of trainings, it’s imperative to understand how to derive the return on investment that companies are expending. Researchhas shown that many of the diversity trainings that are currently conducted are ineffective. In addition, organizations are struggling to understand how to overcome the implicit biases that impact employment procedures and processes. With greater recognition comes greater doubt and skepticism.

regarding the effectiveness of these bias trainings. There has also been a lot of pushback and resistance to these trainings. Recently, a CBS News investigation revealed that many police departments across the United States are struggling to overcome racial bias. What can be done to ensure that the trainings and workshops that are implemented to overcome bias and discrimination are actually effective? Training 4 Transformation (T4T) might be the answer. Brandon Lee is one of the founders of T4T, a company that works with government, private, civic, and non-profit sectors to foster a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. Brandon sat down with Forbes to discuss what sparked his desire to start T4T, the unique strategies that can be used to address bias, and why he decided to write a book to help bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community.

Janice Gassam: What was the catalyst to you starting T4T?

Brandon Lee: I would have to say the catalyst would begin with…the birth of my daughters. I had a son that was born in 2012 and twin daughters that were born in 2015 but for my daughters I had the opportunity to stay home with them and at the time…there were a lot of videos on social media in regards to police-involved shootings with Black and brown community members…there was a lot going on and I remember vividly Oscar Grant because that occurred in Oakland a few years prior and then Trayvon Martin, and then Michael Brown, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, but then Sandra Bland definitely struck a chord because she was stopped on a highway next to a historically Black college, Prairie View A&M University, where my grandfather attended college and graduated…I used to drive up those same roads to college myself…because I was home with my girls, seeing women, transgender, Black and brown, Native women, being treated similarly [to] how I felt targeted growing up in Oakland, that’s what invoked me to do something.

Gassam: In your experiences, what are some best practices when conducting bias workshops and trainings?

Lee: I would have to say that many of our workshops culminate in some style of role-playing activity, depending on the topic. We focus on bringing law enforcement and community members together in what we refer to as community-conscious policing workshops. An example in a role-play—I think the two significant things are being able to participate as first the observer. So, participants in a small group can act out a real-life scenario…similar to meditation where you’re being the observer—you’re not the actor in it. You’re able to press pause and ask for collective wisdom from the group on how to navigate a certain scenario and you can do it with less emotional attachments and really glean some really useful insights that may be useful moving forward. The other piece is to actually be the role player, where you’re able to actually practice these insights that you’ve gleaned and see how someone might respond to that…I think role-playing has been really critical in helping folks see other perspectives.

Gassam: A lot of times people say it’s really hard to change deeply engrained values and long-held beliefs. How do you go about trying to shift people’s perspectives?

Lee: That’s a great question…we believe in the collective responsibility and the culture of reciprocity…what impacts one impacts another…we’re all interconnected one way or another. In that perspective, we don’t spend a lot of time with those that are on the polar ends of the spectrum, meaning folks that are so engrained in their racists ideas that they’re not open to any other perspectives. That’s not where we spend a lot of our time and energy. We’re more focused on those that we refer to as…in the middle. I’m thinking of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and him focusing on people who are working every single day, just trying to raise their families the best they can with what they know. This is the area where we’ve found success and where we spend our time and really trying to provide the tools, the spaces, for folks to be able to challenge their own ideas and biases and ultimately we build a shared vision of community…what we found when we trained law enforcement and community together and we evaluated the evaluations: trauma was the theme that seemed to be recurring. Whether it was based on historical traumas such as racism or growing up in a house of substance abuse. So, folks were engaging with one another through these filters that really stemmed from different levels of trauma. In order to make any systemic change in these types of environments, it’s been important for us to have more of a healing-centered and multi-pronged approach. In the context of the work that we offer, with community-conscious policing workshops, we don’t just engage the community directly for the sake of doing so but we tailor the curriculum to gain their insights to then be able to go back with the leadership of law enforcement and infuse the insights that we learned from them…so that the department gets to reflect more of what the community desires.

The one [time] trainings probably aren’t going to cause a paradigm shift culturally, but we like to view it as watering seeds and there needs to be constant and regular opportunities for seeds to be watered where people can come together and confront whatever biases and heal from the trauma.

Gassam: Why do you think so many diversity trainings and workshops fail to produce long-term results?

Lee: Many diversity trainings don’t require participants to shift their approach to problem-solving…emotional intelligence is a core of 21st century leadership. Trainings need to be able to cultivate that skill in particular. Many diversity trainings…are simply outdated. They’re kind of a one-size-fits-all and I think that’s the reason why many of these don’t make an impact. They’re useful to check boxes, but when it comes to cultural paradigm shifts, I think that’s where it meets challenges. It requires an organization’s investment to sustain change over years by shifting beliefs.

I’m here to uplift not to tear down and not to take away from but I think what was really revealing to me was…I began to understand the Implicit Association Test from Harvard University, which is really at the core of many of these implicit bias trainings. It just seems as though…there was a disconnect between the intended use versus the public perception…it seemed like there was a “causal link” between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior. The more that we begin to unpack that [we find that] the causal link is actually very weak, if there at all. Researchers from the University the Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard University and the University of Virginia examined about 500 studies over 20 years, involving about 81,000 participants that have used the Implicit Association Test and other similar measures. The two things that stood out to me was that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought and they also concluded that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in person’s behavior…it kind of brings us back to the drawing board thinking ‘what next?’

There was a police department that had collected roughly 2,500 complaints over four or five years regarding implicit bias and not one of them had been founded out of 2,500. As someone who has run a lawsuit against a police department, I won my lawsuit because there was a violation of police misconduct. Yes, racial profiling was a part of it but that was difficult for me to prove in the court of law. These are the reasons why there is a disconnect between what is being offered and what’s needed and essentially that is the gap that we have to step up and fill.

Gassam: So, it’s clear that there is a gap in understanding that you are hoping to fill. You have a new book, Best Practices in Community Conscious Policing, that came out this past summer. Could you share with the Forbes readers a little bit more about the new book and what readers can expect?

Lee: I think what’s important about [the book] is, it’s an educational resource that culminates in 25 recommendations of what I would consider to be “best practices” in community conscious policing from around the country…and around the world. [Much] of it has to do with responding to the use of excessive force and bias in policing. What’s motivated me to write this book and to take my time to do it as best that I could was based on my own experience of being racially profiled and having to fight for my own civil rights…and also being able to transfer my energy and skills to being an advocate for others and their civil rights…being able to build bridges between community and institutions like law enforcement. The lived experience, my professional experience and my educational experience all culminates. I really hope that this effort prevents others from experiencing harm or violence…I hope that it aids in reducing trauma and providing some healing in the world.

October 2019, CICO writer  Janice Gassam – Staff Reporter.
 

To Address Inequity, Let’s Do More Than Eliminate ‘Gifted And Talented’ Programs

 

New York City has an extensive network of programs for “gifted and talented” students, most of whom turn out to be white or Asian. A new report aims to make the system more equitable by getting rid of the programs, but it overlooks a root cause of the imbalance in academic achievement.

Earlier this year, there was a wave of outrage over New York’s system of selective schools when its crown jewel, Stuyvesant High School, admitted only seven black students into a freshman class of 895. (Black and Hispanic students make up nearly 70% of the city’s school system but just 10% of those admitted to any of its selective schools.) But criticism of both the selective schools and the gifted-and-talented programs that feed them had been brewing for a while. By late 2017, it was strong enough that Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a task force—the School Diversity Advisory Group—to figure out what could be done.

This week, the SDAG released a report that is creating a fresh wave of outrage—but from a different constituency. The panel recommended that the city get rid of its screening and tracking systems, stop using the term “gifted and talented,” and create “equitable enrichment alternatives”—because, the members explained, “we believe all students deserve to be challenged.”

No one will disagree that our education system should be equitable and that all students should be challenged. But the panel’s proposed solution will inevitably enrage the students and families—admittedly, most of them white or Asian—who have counted on being able to escape the city’s many struggling public schools by winning admission to its relatively few selective ones. In the case of low-income Asian families, that escape valve has come at a high cost: parents scrimp to pay for academic afterschool programs, where their kids spend many hours each week, year after year.

Aside from the political obstacles, the SDAG’s well-intentioned prescriptions for reform are no more likely to work than another recent attempt to create educational equity by fiat. In a mirror image of the panel’s recommendation to ban gifted-and-talented programs, several high schools in the largest school district in Maryland have decided to eliminate standard courses and put all students in honors classes. The reason: the standard classes were filled with black and Hispanic students, and the honors classes with white and Asian ones. Similar imbalances are evident in school systems across the country.

In New York, gifted and talented programs begin in kindergarten, which has led to test prep for four-year-olds. The SDAG panel is right that—with the possible exception of true prodigies—young children should not be labeled and tracked in this way. But the SDAG report only denounces elementary-level tracking that “separates students by ‘academic ability’ into different classrooms (i.e., an elementary school honors program).” It overlooks a far more pervasive problem: the tracking that goes on within virtually every elementary classroom in the country. It’s particularly entrenched in New York City, home to some of its leading advocates.

This widespread system of tracking is known as leveled reading. The theory is that each child has an individual “reading level” that can be determined by testing and could be years below her grade level. Children spend hours every week reading a random variety of books at their own levels—basically, easy enough to read on their own—supposedly practicing comprehension “skills” that are largely meaningless. Sometimes children read at a low level because they haven’t been taught to decode words in a way that is likely to work; sometimes they can decode but lack the background knowledge and vocabulary that would enable them to understand what they’re reading. Often, it’s a combination of both.

Whatever the reason, the children who start out at low reading levels are generally condemned to stay there. In most elementary schools—and especially those where test scores are low—the curriculum has been narrowed to math and reading. The result is that children who are the most dependent on school to build the knowledge that is crucial to reading comprehension—children from less educated families, who are unlikely to acquire that kind of knowledge at home—are the least likely to get it there. Without an opportunity to gain knowledge, the low readers continue reading simple books, with low-level vocabulary and concepts, while the higher readers enjoy access to increasingly more sophisticated texts. In effect, the system maintains and reinforces existing inequities.

The SDAG panel dismisses the exams that determine admission to gifted and talented programs and selective high schools as though they were nothing more than arbitrary barriers erected to keep out deserving low-income children of color. Repeatedly, the report attributes the higher test scores of whites and Asians (including many from low-income families) to “test prep,” as though the tests had nothing to do with predicting students’ academic performance.

The tests may not be perfect—I haven’t seen them—and using a single test to determine admission sounds unwise (although the switch to that criterion was intended to advance equity by eliminating possible bias in teachers’ recommendations). But the reading tests presumably assess what virtually all standardized reading tests primarily measure: not general comprehension or “test prep” skills, but general knowledge and vocabulary. If students lack the knowledge to understand the passages on the tests, they can’t demonstrate their “skills.” And broad knowledge and vocabulary are crucial not only to doing well on tests but to doing well in school and, in most cases, in life.

That’s not to say that New York’s education system is fine the way it is. The SDAG panel is undoubtedly right that there are many African-American and Hispanic students in the system who would benefit from greater academic challenges and whose potential is being wasted. But the report has nothing more specific to propose than “creative, equitable enrichment alternatives” that the city’s community school districts should be encouraged to “develop” and “implement.”

“This is not about lowering the bar,” city schools chancellor Richard A. Carranza said when announcing the report on Tuesday, “it’s about giving all of our students what they need to meet the bar.” But what is that? You wouldn’t know it from the report, but the answer is pretty clear.

Despite many months of study by the panel’s 40 members and repeated claims that its recommendations are based in research, the report fails to mention the scientific evidence that reading comprehension—and, by extension, much of academic success—is largely dependent on knowledge. And the report skirts the question of why low-income Asian students often do so well on tests; if the SDAG members had looked into the afterschool programs so many of those students attend, they might have found they don’t just do test prep—they build knowledge.

While encouraging districts to create new approaches and calling for research on “enrichment curricula,” the report also fails to note that several such curricula already exist. Instead of the standard approach of focusing on largely illusory comprehension skills, these newly developed elementary literacy curricula aim to build children’s knowledge. They guide teachers to spend a couple of weeks or more on a particular topic—rather than choosing books on random topics because they lend themselves to demonstrating “skills”—giving kids a chance to absorb information and vocabulary.

Schools that have adopted such curricula have found that virtually all children—including those of color, those from low-income families, and those diagnosed with learning disabilities—blossom and thrive. Those classrooms are the very ones the report seems to be calling for, where children at a range of ability levels join in rich discussions of complex, challenging material.

There may always be a place for selective schools or accelerated programs at the high school level. Students inevitably develop different interests and abilities, and those who are ready to zoom ahead may at some point need a particular environment to allow them to do so. But if we provide all students with a solid foundation of both knowledge and skills in elementary and middle school, those from less educated families—who, in our society, are often those from black and Hispanic families—will have a fighting chance of demonstrating they would benefit from a rarefied environment in high school. And those who don’t make it into that group, or simply choose not to apply, would still be equipped to get a solid secondary education and lead fulfilling and productive lives.

September 2019, CICO writer Nathalie Wexter – Staff Reporter.
 

We Must Curtail Online Manipulation Before It’s Too Late: Here Are Four Things We Can Do

 

A new Netflix documentary called The Great Hack explores the Cambridge Analytica scandal from the perspective of several of the company’s former employees. Its title and narrative suggest we focus on how the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users wound up in Britain at a company whose mission was to support ultra-conservative causes like Brexit and political candidates like Donald Trump. The activity was so egregious that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission levied a $5 billion dollar fine against Facebook, the largest ever for a technology company. But it’s not the hack that should concern us, but the ability of all kinds of bad actors to manipulate us in ways that are not in our best interests.

There’s a plentiful supply of such manipulators and they are working relentlessly to impose their hidden agendas. In fact, on August 1, Facebook announced that it had just removed 259 Facebook accounts, 102 Facebook Pages, five Facebook Groups, four Facebook Events and 17 Instagram accounts for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that focused primarily on a number of countries in the Middle East. According to Facebook, the people behind this network were connected to marketing firms in Egypt and the UAE. They used compromised and fake accounts to run Pages, disseminate content, comment in Groups, impersonate public figures, pose as local news organizations in targeted countries and post frequently about local news, politics and elections. Said Facebook, “We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people.”

Manipulation isn’t new. Its godfather was Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations,” an Austrian-American whose pioneering techniques for influencing public opinion and behavior date all the way back to the first decade of the 20th century. (Fittingly, he was a double nephew of Sigmund Freud.) During World War I, Bernays worked with the U.S. Committee on Public Information crafting propaganda campaigns to build support among Latin American business leaders for the war. When Bernays realized that the wartime techniques for swaying opinion could be applied in peace time, war propaganda evolved into modern public relations.

 After the war, Bernays founded his own firm, which became legendary for its ability to spur consumer desires in order to scale demand for clients’ products. Early on, Bernays was hired by the Beechnut Packing Company to create more demand for its bacon. Polling physicians about healthy eating habits, Bernays latched onto the fact that many believed in the salutary benefits of a hearty breakfast. He framed the results of his informal inquiry as a full-fledged medical recommendation for bacon and eggs every morning, soon featured in Beechnut’s advertising. Business boomed and bacon has been a staple of American breakfast ever since.

The American Tobacco Company approached Bernays to help stimulate demand among women for cigarettes at a time when smoking was considered masculine. Getting women to light up would double demand. Bernays created a campaign called “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet,” fostering the impression that smoking aided weight loss. The campaign featured images of slender women smoking cigarettes. Much to the detriment of public health for a century to come, women bought into it.

August 2019, CICO writer Derek Lidow – Staff Reporter.