Science Imitates Life


In “Got Empathy?” and “What Fuels Passion for Mission?,” we shared our thoughts on why high performance requires as much focus on empathy and love as on data and measurement. This month, we’re going to build on this theme with new insights from the fields of neurology and psychology, thanks to education writer Paul Tough.

In his new book Helping Children Succeed, Tough mines recent scientific findings to get a deeper understanding of why we’re making so little progress in closing the education gap in America and how we can do better. Empathy and love are at the very core of his thesis.

America has a large and growing number of students whose psyches have been etched deeply by early and persistent stress, from divorce, neglect, violence, homelessness, a parent’s mental illness, and a wide range of other sources. These students, who are quite literally “disadvantaged” but not necessarily poor, typically have hyperactive fight-or-flight mechanisms, which show up even at the level of gene expression.

Being on high alert for danger is a good strategy for coping with immediate stressors, but it’s a real impediment to learning. “A highly sensitive stress-response system … can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating: fighting, talking back, acting up in class, and also, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers and resistant to outreach from teachers and other adults,” writes Tough.

As a result, children need adults who meet fight or flight with empathy and love. Yes, they need highly qualified teachers who are great at teaching cognitive skills like reading and math. But just as important, they need compassionate teachers, parents, mentors, coaches, and other adults in their lives who communicate, “I care about you,” “You belong,” “I have high expectations for you,” and “I know you can succeed.”

Mario’s own life story provides anecdotal support for Tough’s thesis. Mario grew up in a tough, blue-collar neighborhood in Southeast Cleveland. His mom cleaned other people’s homes and ironed shirts to keep the family afloat, because his dad’s temper made holding a job difficult. In retrospect, it’s obvious that Mario (and his dad) had the same hair-trigger fight-or-flight impulses that Tough writes about. But Mario “made good” as a result of an environment full of caring family members, coaches, teachers, community workers, and neighbors—support his dad didn’t have as a young immigrant from Sicily.

When Mario drives through his old neighborhood today, it’s clear that so many elements of the supportive community Mario knew have now disappeared, partly as a result of the collapse of the city’s manufacturing core. A kid today growing up on Mario’s old street—a kid born with intelligence and drive and a caring parent—doesn’t have nearly the same opportunities he had. Based on current statistics, that young boy or girl has less than a five percent chance of graduating from college.

There are no silver bullets in the work we all do. But empathetic, loving relationships are always golden. In the words of The New York Times‘s psychologically attuned David Brooks, “Social policy has to find a hundred ways to nurture loving relationships.” Science is affirming what so many of already know deep in our hearts.

And now for brief updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • We can’t pretend to be policy experts, so we won’t comment on the merits of House Speaker Paul Ryan‘s framework for addressing poverty. But we were delighted to see that the plan gives a prominent role to “Moneyball for Government” principles. It includes a big embrace of program evaluations, Pay for Success, and “tiered evidence” (increased funding for programs with higher levels of evidence of effectiveness). In the words of Brookings senior fellow Ron Haskins, who was recently tapped to co-chair of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy, “My number one thought when I saw it was that for the Speaker of the House to include something on evidence in his plan is a huge triumph. I can’t imagine any other Speaker doing that.”
  • We recommend Dan Cardinali‘s SSIR commentary “Beyond the Holy Grail: Private Innovation, Public Funding, and What Comes Next,” in which he worries aloud about the fate of an evidence-based model he helped develop at Communities In Schools (CIS). Under Dan’s leadership, CIS invested deeply in internal performance management and in 13 (you read that correctly!) external evaluations of its work—demonstrating that CIS’s model mitigates “the effects of poverty on K-12 students, resulting in lower dropout rates and improved graduation rates.” Thanks to this evidence, the CIS model is now eligible for billions in federal education spending. But will bureaucratic funding rules, which have made life hell for other evidence-based programs like nurse-home visitation, kill the program by a thousand cuts? “If you change the recipe by skimping on training, supervision, and data-driven decision-making, the results simply won’t live up to expectations,” Dan writes. We hope Cardinali, who becomes CEO of Independent Sector on July 5, will use his new perch to help the federal government become a more flexible funder.
  • In related news, Patrick Lester‘s comprehensive Performance Partnerships: Increasing Program Flexibility to Improve Outcomes provides a detailed look at a federal initiative specifically aimed at increasing funding flexibility. The Performance Partnership Pilots (P3) for Disconnected Youth gave federal agencies wide latitude to dispense with red tape that could undermine grantees’ ability to produce positive outcomes. (For example, instead of sticking to rigid age requirements, P3 administrators could decide to fund efforts that take a preventative approach and work with youth who are below the age threshold.) Unfortunately, Lester finds that “most of the approved waivers appear to be modest, both in numbers and in scope.” The good news is that Lester’s findings prompted almost immediate action from Senate appropriators, who pushed the Administration to improve its efforts to encourage flexibility and also extended the flexibility provisions by up to an additional five years.
  • Thank you to Glyn Northington and his colleagues at the Nonprofits Assistance Fund for highlighting the ways in which they are using The Performance Imperative (PI) and Leap of Reason to help nonprofits in Minnesota thrive. We hope that the examples they cited—from a learning series on each of the PI’s pillars to a presentation at the Nonprofit Finance and Sustainability Conference to a book group for nonprofits in the Twin Cities—will provide some actionable ideas for others interested in inspiring higher performance in their communities.
  • In a newsletter on high performance, we can’t help but include a quick mention of the stunning performances we witnessed in the NBA Finals. All of the ads for the series played up the battle between Steph Curry and LeBron James. But we were just as interested in the story of each team’s performance culture. It’s no accident that both were built by coaches mentored by the same legendary culture master, Phil Jackson, whose unequaled 11 NBA titles as a coach stemmed from his ability to meld strong personalities into even stronger teams.

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

Best wishes,
Mario and Lowell