‘Breakaway Learners’

Author discusses her new book about promoting success of at-risk students.

July 26, 2017

Many students arrive at colleges and universities at substantial risk of dropping out. They may lack the academic preparation, the money and the support structure to succeed. A new book, Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Postsecondary Success with At-Risk Students (Teachers College Press), offers a path forward for colleges to create paths for these students. The author is Karen Gross, a consultant who formerly was president of Southern Vermont College and senior policy adviser to the United States Department of Education. Via email, she responded to questions about the book.

Q: Many educators talk about "at-risk students" or "nontraditional students." Why do you favor the term "breakaway learners," and what does the term mean?

A: There is one more common term used (and I have used it along with the others listed above): “vulnerable students.” At some levels, all of the existing terms struck me as pejorative in some sense. Vulnerability, for example, is not seen as a strength in American culture. Being at risk suggests that something bad could happen -- as in land in jail or do harm to others or oneself. Nontraditional refers to something out of the norm, even though in real life, nontrads are overtaking trads in numbers. These terms, then, can each be seen as marginalizing students by making them seem less than. It is for these reasons that I use the term “breakaway learners” and why it is the title of my book. Breakaway learners are individuals who are both literally and figuratively breaking away from their prior experiences and the negative expectations of others. Breakaway learners are taking risks -- moving out of comfort zones into new places and spaces. They are to be applauded and lauded, and they needed a nomenclature that showcased their efforts.

Q: What do you see as the key issues with recruiting such students? What do colleges need to do to attract these students?

A: Would that there were easy answers to these two posed questions, because if there were, more breakaway learners would be populating our postsecondary education institutions. Before I answer, I also want to say that recruiting these students -- attracting these students -- is not the same as retaining and graduating these students. To be sure, if they do not even enroll, there is not a need to worry about graduation.

Here are three ways to improve recruitment and enable colleges/universities to enroll more breakaway learners: (1) think about and then activate education as a pipeline that runs from birth through adulthood and plants learning “seeds” early and often and ventilate the silos in which the institutions along the pipeline operate; (2) provide improved professional development opportunities that work across institutions so that teachers and professors stop complaining about not having students who look and act and perform like they did and start to become more understanding and accepting of students today and their enormous strengths, even among those who have experienced children trauma, abuse and toxic stress; and (3) improve guidance counseling, including improving the ratio of students to counselors and augmenting counselor knowledge of a wide range of educational institutions, not just those that are either local and/or elite.

Q: You discuss the stress that these students have. How serious are the stress and mental health issues?

A: The stresses are both real and serious, and they are often ignored, unrecognized and not understood. A growing number of students today in the educational landscape have high ACEs (adverse childhood experience scores) based on the standard quiz of that name. What this means is that students come into the educational system with a myriad of psychosocial issues that have made and currently make learning a challenge. It is not a question of smarts; it is a question of priorities and preparation. Think of the Maslow hierarchy. If you do not eat and are hungry, the best reading teacher in America cannot enable you to read. You need to eat first. If you do not sleep well at home (because you have no bed or no home or are listening to fights or gunshots or observing (and perhaps experiencing) the effects of drugs and alcohol), you will sleep in school or miss classes -- suboptimal, to be sure. Stress is, in a word, a killer; it affects both soft and hard wiring; it impacts learning; it impedes development of self; it harms growth; it fosters bad or compensatory habits. Surely we need more mental health professionals, but we also need, and this is emphasized in Breakaway Learners, institutions that are understanding of and capable of handling students who have high ACEs; that involve training of all individuals on a campus and a change in campus culture in most instances.

Q: What are some of the key strategies to promote retention and graduation of breakaway learners?

A: Breakaway Learners offers up a new concept, lasticity. Yes, it is a made-up word but one with real meaning. It describes a new process by which to promote student retention and graduation, and while designed for breakaway learners in particular, it will improve educational outcomes in general. While it is directed in the book mostly to postsecondary education, it has applicability across the educational landscape. Embedded in lasticity is a set of strategies that can and should be deployed systemically and systematically. There is no one-off solution here.

There needs to be, for example, improvement in student choice architecture so they are better able to “pivot right” (not as in right wing, but as in choices that are personally enhancing and beneficial societally); we need to create reciprocity so that breakaway learners can feel more welcomed and at home in their postsecondary environment; this is not about a three-day orientation or a residential counselor for those living in the residential halls. No, this is about a deep commitment of those in an institution to engage with students in and outside of class and to come to those engagements with a deeper understanding of these students and their needs and wants. Reciprocity takes educators (broadly defined) off pedestals and places them in engaged relationships with students. This is a change in orientation for many who work on a campus who see reciprocity as pandering or catering or parenting. It isn’t. This isn’t about snowflake students and coddled children with helicoptering parents. Sure, they exist, but in small numbers (larger numbers of whom attend elite colleges and purchase books that speak to their needs). The vast majority of today’s students need the benefits of reciprocity, as the Compassionate School movement figured out some decades ago.

Q: You just used the word “lasticity,” a concept developed in your book. Could you briefly elaborate on how this new concept is distinguishable from grit, resiliency and mind-sets, among other descriptors of initiatives to foster low-income, first-generation student (your breakaway learners) success?

A: At first blush, it would seem as if lasticity is an effort to eradicate current efforts to improve breakaway learner success. Instead, it is more like an umbrella concept into which existing efforts can be housed. That is because existing efforts are, although ofttimes this is not recognized or acknowledged, limited in scope and insufficient to move the proverbial needle. Start with this realization: none of the concepts (except lasticity) put enough, or in some cases any, emphasis on the centrality of reciprocity between individuals or between individual and institution -- a requirement for breakaway learner success. Lasticity moves the locus of success from being housed within an individual (the learner) into an interpersonal and cultural dimension. Now, turning to popular existing interventions, begin with resiliency.

It is -- as its name implies and word root means -- about restoring the status quo ante, bouncing back. But, in truth, as the trauma literature makes abundantly clear (evidenced by the word “plasticity”), one is forever changed by trauma, and there is no bouncing back to what one was; one must bounce forward. And while one is changed, those changes are not all negative, although again we ofttimes ignore and do not develop the positives (like creativity and problem-solving skills and hyperawareness of the needs of others). Developing grit and a focus (mind-set) are not negatives, but they are not targeted at breakaway learners; they also ignore key additional concepts like belief in self or independent decision-making capacity. So, the best way to reflect on and understand lasticity, which has five foundational elements, is to approach it as a concept that encompasses existing as well as new constructs, which when taken and applied together, facilitate (not guarantee) student success, most particularly breakaway learner success.

Q: Many educators worry that accountability measures -- such as tracking colleges based on graduation rates -- may discourage colleges from enrolling at-risk students. Is this a valid concern?

A: Sure, rankings are a concern for elite colleges where numbers (are you No. 5 or 10) seem to drive choices among students and their parents (and even among institutions). Indeed, institutions hire consultants to improve their rankings. For some rankings in the past, there was even pay to play so the institutions that were highly ranked literally paid for the privilege. But, for me, rankings do a disservice (based on how they are calculated) to many institutions that may not have high alumni/ae giving and large endowments and famous Nobel-winning professors, because many of these lesser-ranked institutions serve their students well and help their students in ways that might be unimaginable at some elite institutions.

But, this whole ranking/rating discussion aside, what we really need are better measures of quality and success of education. That is not determined by a ranking. It is not determined by how much money graduates make. It is not measured by the size of the library or the number of new buildings. We don’t have a good measure for determining educational quality at present, and rankings are a poor surrogate. And, by the by, we do not have a shared understanding of what success is in education, a reality that makes educational improvement a problem. But, this much is clear, as described in Breakaway Learners -- we need to improve campus culture. We may not measure that at present in meaningful and published ways, but culture is what will impact student outcomes and student success while on campus and postgraduation.


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