Saturday, January 30, 2021

Thinking About Out of School Time Programs and Transfer

Don Siegel


When viewing the OST world as an aggregate, it is probably safe to say that program directors and parents believe that kids reap valuable benefit from participating.  Given the variety of programs, it is also probably true that some benefits are clear and immediate, while others are hypothesized to become manifest in some other context or at some future time. Immediate benefits may include such things as learning a new skill, keeping kids safe and engaging in such things as getting homework done or starting a new school assignment. Longer term benefits may be acquiring certain attitudes and developing a set of social-emotional skills that can be deployed in a variety of activities and contexts.


What is the meaning of transfer?

In essence both short and longer-term anticipated benefits have to do with beliefs about transfer. This notion is shown in Figure 1, and hypothesizes that experience in Activity A (e.g., OST Programs) has an effect on how well an individual can perform Activity B (e.g., shooting a basketball, getting superior grades in school, being socially competent with peers, obtaining a better paying job in the future). Actually, the potential exists for the effect of Activity A to be positive, negative, or null, but whether stated or not, program directors invariably believe that their programs have value and that kids will ultimately benefit in Activity B.


Figure 1. What are the effects, if any, of having done Activity A on performance in Activity B?


While it is hard to argue that most OST programs have a variety of actual and potential benefits for kids, it is much more difficult to precisely show the connectivity between what kids are learning and doing in Activity A and how this impacts how they perform in Activity B. Yet, given the time, money and effort expended on organizing and implementing OST programs, it is certainly worth thinking about this question and attempting to clarify why we chose to do what we do, how we do it, and what anticipated benefits will accrue to kids in our programs. 


Near Transfer

Perhaps, the concept of near transfer, is the easiest to grasp as it relates to engaging in Activity A that is very similar to what youth will ultimately be asked to do in Activity B. When a basketball coach has her team practice a specific offense in anticipation of playing a team that will play a specific defense the coach and players expect that when game time arrives what they practiced earlier in the week (Activity A) will help them perform certain plays that their opponents will have difficulty defending against. Activity A was theoretically designed and practiced to maximize offensive capability against the scouted opponents (Activity B). Surely, not everything during the game will be as anticipated. There may be some unruly fans in the gym, the game ball may feel different than the one used in practice, or defensive players may be a bit faster or slower than expected, but there should be more that was anticipated and prepared for than not anticipated so that game performance will have definitely benefited from preparation. Near transfer has a lot in common with Thorndike’s (1914) notion of transferring identical elements between tasks. These elements include such things as the perceptual, movement, and conceptual elements that the two tasks have in common, and the more similar these are between Activity A and Activity B, the more likely positive transfer will occur. Another way of viewing this notion is from a specificity perspective. Succinctly, the advice for those who wished to maximize transfer would be to make Activity A as similar in every detail to Activity B as possible, and performance and learning on Activity B will be maximal. 


Besides examples from sports, in which coaches view films of opponents ad nauseum  in order to prepare one’s team for every possible eventuality in an impending game, we also can point to pilot training in which million dollar simulators that mirror real world conditions, in meticulous detail, are used to prepare students for any conditions that might arise. Such training is so realistic and comprehensive that pilots can earn aircraft type ratings with most of their training done in such simulators. Another example of near transfer comes from the military in which navy SEAL teams create mockups of locales in which they anticipate missions. The notion again is to practice with as many identical elements as possible between their training activities (Activity A) and their mission requirements (Activity B). 


From an OST perspective, programs with sports, theater, and musical core themes provide examples where near transfer would be expected to occur. That is to say, one would expect enhanced performance in a future contest or production from having practiced identical activities on a regular basis during program time. In a program such as Project Coach, practicing how to communicate with individual players and one’s team as a whole, or teaching a particular activity during practice pedagogy sessions have powerful performance benefits when teen coaches actually run practices and competitions with their players. Similarly, rehearsing scenes in a play, or repeating sections of a dance element or piano piece will show positive transfer in the targeted performance.


Assessing program effectiveness for near transfer is fairly straight forward as leaders can examine such things as whether practice sessions (Activity A) were delivered with fidelity, whether participants acquired the targeted knowledge and skill that they were intended to produce, and how well they perform on Activity B. Invariably, OST programs are not organized as an experimental randomized control design, but at a minimum, it could be hypothesized that if participants did not engage in Activity A they would not perform as well in Activity B, as those that did. This conclusion is often born out when natural circumstances (e.g., illness, transportation issues, etc.) prevent a youth from engaging in Activity A, while others are able to do so. The results are evident.


Far Transfer


A second, more abstruse form of transfer is also hypothesized to occur from participation in OST programs. This might be labelled far transfer and is illustrated in Figure 2. Essentially, attributes that are included in this domain include an array of social-emotional assets along with a cluster of positive attitudes. These are thought to support the development of near transfer skills, as well as to generalize to other activities in participants’ lives that transpire in other important contexts, and, possibly, at future times. An example of a social-emotional asset is developing communication skills that impact the near transfer activities, but also contributes to success in such things as school, meeting people from backgrounds different than the participant, and being better able to advocate for one’s interests in a variety of situations. Developing emotional and attentional regulatory skills also affects how a participant performs in the OST program, and, presumably, in other contexts in which having self-awareness and self-control contributes to success. From an attitudinal perspective, perhaps no asset is more important than acquiring a growth mindset which is foundational in the tasks individuals choose to tackle, and how they process feedback and persevere in their quest to improve. Other general attitudinal qualities that OST programs hope to foster include such things as developing positive social values, valuing diversity, caring for others, and working as a team member.  



Figure 2. Far Transfer occurs when exposure to certain activities in one context (Activities A) is hypothesized to transfer to other activities that can be executed in other contexts and at other times.


As one can probably surmise, the development of far transfer assets are conceptually more general and complex than near transfer items, as they are more amorphous and believed to permeate virtually all activities in which participants engage, or are predicted to encounter in the future. While it is one thing to practice specific skills for an impending performance, it is quite another to acquire communication skills that can be used in disparate contexts with people having diverse backgrounds. Similarly, conceptualizing the value of developing a growth mindset is much simpler than learning how to invoke it on tasks and situations that are difficult, and often not even identified until some time in the future.


Pedagogy of Near Transfer and Far Transfer?


Given the disaggregation of near and far transfer assets identified above, a critical question relates to how best to teach these to OST participants. Seemingly, one might argue that near transfer assets should be taught with identical elements in mind, in that the closer to the targeted tasks (Activities B), Activities A should be. In an athletic context drills are typically used in which skills are identified, explained, and demonstrated, and then participants spend time repeating them while being provided feedback about the discrepancies between what was modeled and what actually happened. 


In sports one could also differentiate activities that are closed (i.e., activities like bowling, archery, diving, and gymnastics) in which the objective is to repeat movements precisely, and those that are open (e.g., soccer, basketball, and football) in which a particular movement form is partially determined by what others are doing. Seemingly, pedagogy for closed skills would require more repetitions that approximated the modeled skill than open skills in which variations on a basic movement class would make sense. In PC, since our activities are predominantly open in nature, we have opted for a games-based pedagogy in which various sports skills, such as shooting a basketball, or dribbling a soccer ball, are taught within game (or scenario) contexts. That is, skills are taught with the understanding that a basic form exists, but variations of that form need to be crafted as game situations evolve.


While near transfer pedagogy seems fairly straight forward, depending on the activity, the pedagogy for teaching far transfer assets is a bit more complicated. One could argue, for example, that the teaching of far transfer assets is not necessary or sufficient for success in an activity like sports, as technical skills and tactical knowledge are the key elements that determine athletic outcomes. Yet, it seems that such thinking is short sighted. The acquisition of high levels of technical skill and tactical knowledge, requires many hours of dedicated practice during which participants must cooperate with team mates and coaches, be able to communicate their observations about challenges, understand how to accept and operationalize feedback, set and operationalize short and long-term goals, control their emotions when frustrated, and behave appropriately after both victory and defeat.


Consequently, one might argue that although far transfer assets are not necessary or sufficient for success at any particular activity, they are essential for framing one’s psychological and social environments that support the acquisition of requisite near transfer technical and tactical knowledge and skills. Without having a growth mindset, why would one endure the frustrations and setbacks that invariably accompany higher level skills that are difficult to acquire and take years of sustained effort? Likewise, without understanding how one’s emotions can be regulated or attention sustained, over long practice periods, it is also difficult to understand how an individual can master the critical elements of a particular discipline. Being able to set and operationalize short and long-term goals along with an array of other far transfer assets that clearly supports a long-term process of learning and development cannot be overstated.


While the pedagogy for teaching near transfer knowledge and skill tends to conform to some version of identical elements, teaching far transfer assets is less clear, and very much open to debate. In general, they tend to be more abstract and more generalizable to more situations and contexts as illustrated in Figure 2. Nonetheless, a few ideas that can be helpful here, from several decades of trying to teach these, are offered.


First, it is important to clearly define in both conceptual and operational terms what the far transfer entity is. Again, using growth mindset as an example, it can be conceptually defined as the belief that knowledge and skill in any particular endeavor can be developed through dedication and hard work, and that brains and talent, although important, are just the starting point. But, teaching this as an abstraction is not enough. It needs to also be taught in the context of near transfer practice activities as shown in Figures 1 and 2. Coaches and teachers need to believe in growth mindset. When their players and students struggle with what they are teaching in their specific contexts, they must reinforce this belief in their students by providing not only specific feedback on how to close the gap between where they are at, and where they need to be, but to also convey that the gap will become smaller as he or she perseveres. Becoming one’s best self in any endeavor is not something that is fixed, but highly malleable, and controllable by the learner. 


Second, most OST programs have a culture which can be operationally defined as a community of practice. In short, the group has a common interest, and, hopefully, a passion for the activities in which members participate. In such a community, interactions among members, including participants, staff, and directors, happen frequently, and are both formal and informal. When everyone is on-board, understands the values and assets promoted by the organization, lives these every day, and communicates them within and across groups it is more likely for them to become inculcated by all community members. As with so many things that involve social interactions and social learning, it is much easier to be swimming downstream together than swimming upstream alone. 


Third, just as it is critical to operationalize how to embed far transfer assets in near transfer activities, it is also critical to practice how they might be deployed in situations and contexts that are beyond the OST program. Early on, we at Project Coach believed that such assets would transfer osmotically to what ever endeavors participants would encounter. While we have, on occasion, heard from current and former participants that what they had learned in PC all of a sudden began to click in the situation in which they currently found themselves, most participants often find applications beyond Project Coach problematic (i.e., the reason for the dotted lines in Figure 2). Here, I would suggest that we draw from what great coaches do in sports, airlines do to train pilots, the military does in planning a mission, and psychologists do to help patients with anxiety disorders. That is, they identify an array of anticipated scenarios that individuals are likely to encounter and have them practice and work through them until they understand how to deploy assets that they either need to develop or already posses. Using growth mindset again as one example, after a coach and a team’s community of practice in an OST context has reinforced the notion that the acquisition of knowledge and skill are related to the energy, enthusiasm, and guidance provided in practice, and not fixed by inflexible predetermined factors, the participant could engage in scenarios not part of the main themes of the OST program (i.e., Activities B, C, and D in Figure 2). For example, if a team participant is struggling with math in school, a scenario tailored to that student’s specific issues with math, say, solving quadratic equations, can be simulated, and a growth mindset invoked to demonstrate that just as she may have had trouble at first mastering the coordination required in making a lay-up in basketball, the same approach, which applied then, applies now. Of course, just as in the basketball example in which a coach helped a player master the technical aspects of lay-up shooting (i.e., near transfer), the OST program would need to provide a math coach to assist with the technical aspects of solving quadratic equations. Whereas growth mindset, a far transfer asset may provide the energy and willingness to persevere, alone, it is not sufficient. Yet, it, along with many other far transfer assets, is critical for success across a wide range of activities embedded in a multitude of contexts. 




What I have attempted to convey in this blog comes from a combination of philosophical beliefs, psychological theory, educational practice, and several decades of experience observing and coaching young people in an OST setting. My primary goal was to attempt to untangle the many things that we attempt to teach in a way that also informs our pedagogical designs. Essentially, I articulated what programs like Project Coach teach into two classifications. The first, I label near-transfer elements, which relates to very specific knowledge and skill that a participant must master in order to perform a specific task, such as teaching a group of young children how to play soccer or basketball. For near-transfer, I propose that practice activities should come as close to game activities as possible, since it is this that players will ultimately be asked to do. The notion of identical elements was mentioned, as was the games-based approach. 


While the teaching of near transfer elements are necessary, and perhaps, sufficient, for making it possible for young children to play the games that we utilize in Project Coach, I also contend that far transfer elements, while not necessary or sufficient for guiding game play, are critical to teaching near transfer elements. Far transfer elements are also critical to many other important endeavors in which the acquisition of knowledge and skill are required, and in which a similar learning journey, from novice to expert follows. Here, I contend that a pedagogy that is designed to specifically show how to operationalize the far transfer elements in near transfer context is critical, since how to deploy such general assets in specific situations is not always clear cut. As well, to foster inculcation of far transfer elements, I propose that the community of practice in which the OST program exists, be sensitized and reinforced for teaching far transfer elements both formally and informally in normal day to day interactions.


Finally, I hypothesize that if we want participants to generalize the use of far transfer elements to situations and contexts that are beyond the OST Program, a pedagogy that deploys scenario-based practice is essential. Again, while participants may conceptually understand what far transfer elements are, and why they are important, it is difficult for them to operationalize these elements in novel contexts. Scenario based practice seems like a powerful pedagogical strategy for deconstructing conceptual knowledge into actual behavior that can then be deployed to support learning across a range of activities that go beyond a participants OST life.   






Sunday, December 6, 2020

          Keeping Kids engaged and Learning in Virtual Classrooms

                                          Don Siegel


In today’s pandemic world, in which virtual classrooms have become the default mode of instruction, I am hearing from teachers and students that school is a lot more challenging than normal. Most never imagined that they would be spending hours on-end sitting in front of a computer screen, staring into little Zoom rectangles as the means to interacting with their teachers and fellow students. While it may have been a novelty at first, it did not take long for this approach to become laborious, fatiguing, and down-right aversive. As Edward Thorndike conveyed over a century ago in his law of readiness, learning is best done when kids are ready to learn, not when they have waning energy, increasing disinterest, and are fatigued 1. But this is what we have for the moment, and it behooves us to make the most of the situation in which we all find ourselves.


With this in mind, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, we should not let a good crisis go to waste. In essence, our current situation, which certainly is a crisis, provides us with an opportunity to experiment in ways that we may not have before, in order to make things work a bit better. One such idea that has been around for a while, and used successfully in classrooms, pre-pandemic, is that of brain breaks[a]. The notion for these is to insert some type of a change of pace into classroom activities when things start to flag, and tedium starts to distract from learning. By so doing kids get an opportunity to relax and refresh themselves so that they can subsequently refocus on the topics and tasks that teachers are presenting.


While brain breaks may have been around for a while and evolved over the years in a trial and error fashion, an increasing number of research reports supports their value as a stimulant to engagement and learning, especially for elementary aged students. Seemingly, if brain breaks added value to classrooms prior to our current plight, it certainly seems worth exploring how they may be deployed today in order to rehabilitate what appears to be a devolving virtual educational enterprise.


What Do We know about Brain Breaks


As any seasoned youth worker, teacher, coach, or camp counselor knows, when kids in their schools, camps, or sports, start to lose their focus and have diverted attention, pressing on is a losing proposition. Youth may not only start to tune-out, but opt for alternative ways to entertain themselves, often becoming unruly and causing trouble. At such times, changing things up, and adding a bit of novelty to a situation can make all the difference in getting them back on track. Taking a break and resetting things at such times also makes your interactions with kids more fun, as they learn that you are attentive to their needs, and that you will come up with something to help them negotiate situations that are not particularly enjoyable to them.


While there are many strategies for altering a devolving situation, one that seems to align with kids enduring long sedentary hours in a classroom is to insert short movement breaks. Jumping, twisting, stretching, and exerting muscular strength in various ways, optimally in the context of some type of game or dance routine, seems to reenergize kids and helps them refocus in the post movement period; normally, priming their readiness to resume normal classroom activities. Two popular in-classroom programs are Take 10!3 and Energizers4. Although, brain breaks are becoming increasingly popular, I was wondering what was known about their impact on kids’ classroom behavior, learning, and well-being. 


Perhaps the thing that teachers are always striving for is attentional focus from their students. While there is no guarantee that students will learn what a teacher is teaching when students are engaged and focusing on the material being presented, it is certain that nothing good is going to happen in a classroom when kids are distracted, bored, and inattentive. Clearly, teachers need to be aware of their students’ engagement, and students need to be focused on what teachers are presenting and challenging them to do. When both are aware of each other’s attentional state, it seems most likely that optimal learning can occur. As well, when such a mix exists, it is very unlikely that students will engage in any form of off-task disruptive behavior, since attentional focus on task specific information (time on task, TOT) typically precludes attending to irrelevant stimuli that will impede learning.


What do we know about the relationship of short, in-class, physical activity breaks and attentional/behavioral control? Actually there are a number of studies that have found that approximately 10 minute bouts of physical activity embedded during 3-5th grade classes significantly improves students’ TOT post activity in general 5–9, and for such subject areas as math, language arts, and spelling 10 in particular. As well, student affect is improved 11, and the impact may be most important for kids who were initially lower on TOT (improved 20% vs. 8% average in TOT), who were higher in BMI 8, or lower income12,13.  Some research also shows that post activity effects can last for as long as 45 minutes 7.

While short activity breaks appear to enhance a student’s attentional focus, cooperative behavior, and academic performance during the post-break period, they also can make a significant contribution to the amount of physical activity that a child gets during the day. Current guidelines state that children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 years should do 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily, and that most of the 60 minutes or more per day should be either moderate- or vigorous 14Unfortunately, only 24% of kids are attaining this level 15. Yet, by a relatively modest in classroom physical activity intervention it has been shown that three – ten minute sessions a day increased student step counts by 1500 16. As well, these sorts of physical activity breaks were found to be in the moderate intensity category (greater than 3 METS) 10. Research has also estimated 10-minute activity bouts to burn between 25 – 35 kcals. If we were to put these data together and project the incremental physical activity outcomes over a 180-day school year (assuming 3 – 10-minute bouts/day), children would walk roughly an additional 135 miles during that period (2000 steps/mile) and burn an additional 16,200 kcals. While not the panacea to redressing youths’ failure to meet physical activity goals, such breaks certainly contribute to redressing the problem.

What Does all of this Mean?

Overall, what we learn from the research on short physical activity brain breaks in classroom settings is that they help kids reset their attentional focus when it has waned and increases their TOT behavior post-break. This, in turn, is associated with increased learning, especially for kids having the greatest needs. Furthermore, while modest, such breaks have a positive impact on helping children come closer to reaching national standards for daily physical activity. Not surprisingly, both students and teachers report positive feelings associated with incorporating short physical activity breaks into their school days 10

Given that the benefits of brain breaks appear to exceed any costs identified by researchers or teachers they seem like something we should pilot. Although there have been no studies that have assessed their impact in virtual settings, now might be the time to give them a try. Seemingly, kids are more sedentary than they were pre-pandemic, and their need for activity greater. One of the observations made across studies is that for activities to be done with fidelity teachers need training on how to lead them. In a virtual world, this could also be the case, but one can imagine activity leaders being presented by video clips. Other unknowns include space and equipment availability that kids have or do not have at their disposal from within their homes. How parents and peers might react and support more active, but less supervised kids is another question. Nonetheless, physical activity brain breaks seem like a worthy endeavor to try as we attempt to make the lives of students and teachers a bit less stressful during virtual learning sessions.


1.   Hilgard, Ernest R., Bower, Gordon H. Theories of Learning. vol. Third Edition (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966).

2.   Immordino-Yang, M. H., Christodoulou, J. A. & Singh, V. Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education ,  Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 7, 352–364 (2012).

3.   ILSI Global. TAKE10: Bringing Physical Activity into the Classroom. (2015).

4.   Mahar, M. T., Scales, D. P. & Ed, M. A. Department of Exercise and Sport Science College of Health and Human Performance. 58.

5.   Maykel, C., Bray, M. & Rogers, H. J. A Classroom-Based Physical Activity Intervention for Elementary Student On-Task Behavior. J. Appl. Sch. Psychol. 34, 259–274 (2018).

6.   Howie, E. K., Beets, M. W. & Pate, R. R. Acute classroom exercise breaks improve on-task behavior in 4th and 5th grade students: A dose–response. Ment. Health Phys. Act. 7, 65–71 (2014).

7.   Mahar, M. T. et al. Effects of a Classroom-Based Program on Physical Activity and On-Task Behavior: Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 38, 2086–2094 (2006).

8.   Grieco, L. A., Jowers, E. M. & Bartholomew, J. B. Physically Active Academic Lessons and Time on Task: The Moderating Effect of Body Mass Index. Phys. Act. 6.

9.   Perera, T., Frei, S., Frei, B. & Bobe, G. Promoting Physical Activity in Elementary Schools: Needs Assessment and a Pilot Study of Brain Breaks. J. Educ. Pract. 6, 55–64 (2015).

10. Kibbe, D. L. et al. Ten Years of TAKE 10!®: Integrating physical activity with academic concepts in elementary school classrooms. Prev. Med. 52, S43–S50 (2011).

11. Howie, E. K., Newman-Norlund, R. D. & Pate, R. R. Smiles Count but Minutes Matter: Responses to Classroom Exercise Breaks. Am. J. Health Behav. 38, 681–689 (2014).

12. Amin, S. A. et al. The Physical Activity Environment and Academic Achievement in Massachusetts Schoolchildren. J. Sch. Health 87, 932–940 (2017).

13. Hollar, D. et al. Effect of a Two-Year Obesity Prevention Intervention on Percentile Changes in Body Mass Index and Academic Performance in Low-Income Elementary School Children. Am. J. Public Health 100, 646–653 (2010).

14. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. 118.

15. CDC | Physical Activity | Facts | Healthy Schools. (2020).

16. Adams-Blair, H. & Oliver, G. Daily Classroom Movement: Physical Activity Integration into the Classroom. Int. J. Health Wellness Soc. 1, 147–154 (2011).


[a] Actually, the term brain breaks is a misnomer since the brain really never takes a break. What they are is a break from what one is currently doing to doing something else. 2

Monday, November 20, 2017

Another Context for Project Coach: Dream Hoarder’s by Richard Reeve

Don Siegel

Many years ago when I was coaching squash at Smith College, I learned something important that permeates the work that I currently do in Project Coach. We were playing at the end of the season tournament at Yale, known as the Howe Cup. Our team was made-up of relative novices, who had just started playing squash that year, or, at most, a year or two earlier. Players worked hard all season, and were excited to be competing against others who they thought were at about the same stage of development. However, they had a rude awakening when matched against some other teams that virtually blew them off the court. In several matches, my players struggled to get a single point, and often lost their matches without winning a game. Clearly, my team and I were discouraged by our showing. What we originally had hoped would be an exciting and competitive event, turned out to be a very striking lesson about how unfair life can be.

Being a relatively inexperienced and naïve coach going into the season, I had assumed that we would be competing against other schools whose teams were filled with players at a similar developmental level. Given that the luck of the draw may produce some players with greater aptitude or work ethic for the sport than others, I thought that competition among athletes would still be close, with many matches going down to the wire. Why did things turn out so differently?

I spent some time during the off-season investigating this question by talking to coaches and players from some of the teams that had beaten us handily. What I discovered was a phenomenon that went well beyond squash. Players on these teams were not novices, but had played squash in clubs and/or at private schools for many years. Several of them had been to camps, played in regional and national tournaments as juniors, and some had even been mentored by world-class coaches. One player told me that when she was little her parents had enrolled her at a day-care center that just happened to have a few squash courts. Without intent, the kids gravitated to the courts where they happened to connect with a variety of coaches who worked with the older children. Over the years, they continued to attend the center, and as they grew up they naturally morphed into the developmental program where they were coached, played each other several afternoons each week, and were taken to occasional tournaments. During the years that I coached, 13 of the top 20 collegiate players, had grown up at this club!

This anecdote from my past dovetails with why I see programs like Project Coach as so critical. It is also what Richard Reeves is writing about in his new book Dream hoarders: How the American upper middle-class is leaving everyone else in the dust, why that is a problem, and what to do about it. The essence of his thesis is that we are living in a meritocracy, and that those who have the requisite knowledge and skill are entitled to reap their due rewards. But, the problem that he describes is that the playing field is very distorted when it comes to acquiring the knowledge and skill needed to compete. Like my squash players who were relative novices, and were unknowingly scheduled to compete against much more seasoned athletes, they really could not compete against others with more sophisticated training and years of experience. Underserved youth today are facing the same challenge as they compete with children from the upper middle-class who have many more opportunities to cultivate the array of capacities valued by colleges, and subsequently, future employers. While Reeve argues that we all value the virtues of fair competition in a merit based society, we do not all support providing every child, despite their circumstances of birth, a fair and equal opportunity to develop the sorts of capacities needed to compete.

As with the much more experienced squash players against whom we were matched, Reeve conveys that upper middle-class children have a very different upbringing than those coming from working-class families. In particular, they develop the skills, attributes, and credentials valued in the labor market. By the time Americans are old enough to drink, their place in the class system is clear. Upper middle-class parents obviously have more money to spend on their children and many ways to spend it. But this is also a social fracture. A class is not only defined in dollars, but by education, attitude, and zip code; not only by its economic standard of living, but by its way of life. On average, they come from more stable homes, have parents with higher levels of education, live in great neighborhoods, go to better schools, and have the opportunity to acquire a wide range of skills and credentials from participating in an array of out of school and summer programs. Upper middle-class youth also attend college and graduate school at a much higher percentage than their poor and working-class peers. Not surprisingly, when it comes to competing for jobs in our meritocracy, they are the clear winners. But, how fair is the competition for those kids with fewer resources and opportunities to acquire the sorts of capabilities that would make them viable in such a system? The clear answer is that the deck is stacked in favor of the more well-off. The birth lottery favors some and disadvantages many!

The gist of Reeves argument is that for social and economic mobility to work, those at the top must be willing to give up some of the unfair advantages to which they cling. As he points out, relative mobility is a zero-sum game. A child can only rise in rank, if another falls. Exposing my players to squash at an earlier age, inviting them into clubs where they could train, supporting their travel to compete, and connecting them with higher-level coaches when they were younger would have gone a long way into making their Howe Cup competition fairer. Of course, there would be an opportunity cost for others if this occurred; some of the more well-off kids would lose their places in the squash development system. Something, they and their parents would strongly resist.

By the same token, Reeve suggests a number of things that might be done to level the playing field in the race to acquire requisite knowledge and skill for competing in the meritocracy. His argument is that opportunity hoarding occurs when valuable, scarce opportunities are allocated in an anticompetitive manner: that is, influenced by factors unrelated to an individual’s performance. He differentiates between knowledge/skill based criteria that are used for attaining certain opportunities, despite the advantages that some have in acquiring such, and other less objective criteria that gives someone a helping hand, when they really have not earned it. A specific example of this might be using SAT performance as a criterion for admittance to a selective college vs. gaining acceptance with mediocre SATs because an applicant is a legacy. He advocates for eliminating the latter as a hoarding mechanism. Reeve mentions many other things that we could eliminate to make human capital development more equitable; all of which have financial or personal costs, mostly to those from the upper decile who pay the most in taxes and/or utilize their positions to provide enhanced opportunities for their kids.

Three examples of what he discusses includes:

Getting the Best Teachers to Work at Weaker Schools: Reeve points out that the most seasoned teachers typically gravitate to places that have the best working conditions and highest salaries. Normally, this also happens to be in the wealthiest communities where property taxes and parent groups plow more money into schools. From a public policy perspective Reeve and many others believe that if poor and working-class kids are going to catch up to their more privileged peers they need to attend schools and have teachers who can help them to acquire requisite knowledge and skills. Simply meeting proficiency standards is setting the bar rather low when one observes what wealthier kids who attend well-resourced public and private schools are being exposed. Consequently, providing significant incentives for more seasoned and effective teachers to work in struggling schools would seemingly provide a semblance of equity in the education all children receive. But, it is also probably true that there are only so many superior teacher available, and such a redistribution of teacher expertise would mean a decreasing percentage of more effective teachers working at the better schools; not something that wealthier parents would readily accept.

Somewhat aligned with this proposal is loosening zoning regulations for children to attend better schools. Reeve argues that it should not be necessary for poor families to purchase an expensive home in a neighborhood that has better schools for their children to attend those schools. Here Reeve points out that there is a strong connection between the quality of schools available to kids, and the neighborhoods in which they live. This is partly driven by the culture of the population in a neighborhood, and the amount of money that parents are able and willing to plow into its schools. Linked to this is the notion that a child’s access to better schools is greatly determined by the value of the house in which he lives, and that poorer families cannot afford to live in the neighborhoods in which they would like their children to attend school. Reeve also notes that tax policies put wealthier people at an advantage here as interest on housing loans is tax deductible, making it even more possible for wealthier people to create enclaves that further advantage their children. While not optimal, loosening districting regulations for who may attend a school would help to decrease educational disparities. But doing such would also require wealthier communities to expand the capacity of their schools, and/or require families to send their kids to other schools in order to make room for kids coming from less advantaged circumstances. Clearly, this proposal for educational equity is conceptually understandable, but not something that will probably get widespread support, irrespective of how progressive a community happens to be.

Make College Funding More Equal: Reeve points out that most well-paying jobs today require a bachelor’s degree, with many now requiring graduate degrees. The demographics show a huge disparity between youth from the top economic quintile and those at lower levels attending and graduating from college. The reasons for this are complex, and probably related to such things as parental knowledge and experiences in counseling their children, the preparation and guidance that youth receive from the schools they attend, and the financial resources adolescents possess to support their post-secondary education. While everyone recognizes how costly a college education is, the relative costs for poor and working-class youth are typically greater than for their wealthier peers. Even after factoring in financial aid, poor families pay more as a percentage of their wealth than those from the upper decile. As well, poorer kids are also often expected to contribute financially to their families, even if they are in College. This is not a formula for leveling the educational playing field. Consequently, making college free, or at least lower cost than it currently is, for kids from poor, or even middle-class families, is an idea that has been floating around. Again, this is an expense that will most likely come from those most able to pay the costs, and it will go to support the education of other peoples’ children; something that remains controversial.

Another way to level the playing field with regard to college access is to eliminate legacy admissions. This is a practice that gives an admissions advantage to children of alumni irrespective of their qualifications. As an example, Reeve points out that at Princeton being a legacy amounted to adding 160 points to an applicant’s SAT (based on 1600). He asserts that this is clearly an example of dream hoarding, as it is a mechanism that gives one’s child an advantage, despite not earning the advantage based on merit. Accepting such a student is an opportunity cost in that it means not accepting a student who has better qualifications. If that child is from a poor or working-class family, then their quest for upward mobility may be thwarted by a practice that rewards wealth and the prospects of future donations to the college, rather than by rewarding kids who work hard and achieve on more objective criteria despite the many impediments they faced. While institutions must consider their own long-term financial health, giving up legacy admissions is something that Reeve, and may others support. Whether those who benefit from this practice would be willing to give it up is another question.

Internships: Another critical ingredient critical for upward mobility and future success is finding and being accepted into an Internship. internships are increasingly becoming the route to finding post college employment. They provide a way for a student to tryout a field of interest, and for an organization to assess the future fit of that individual with them. As is normally the case, having connections is very helpful in finding a desirable internship. We also know that more well-off families typically are better connected to people and organizations that can help their child find an internship than poorer families that live in, more isolated, working-class communities. Furthermore, many highly sought internships do not pay a stipend, making it, in all practicality, only available to youth whose family can afford to support them while so engaged. The idea here would be to make the selection process for internships more open and democratic, while requiring organizations to pay internees a stipend that makes it possible for them to pursue such opportunities. Again, enacting such an open process would mean that more well-off and connected families and their kids would need to give up an advantage that they currently enjoy.

While there are several other ideas that Reeve writes about, the essential theme is implementing policies that will help underserved youth to develop capabilities that will make them competitive with kids coming from wealthier families. Just as my squash players were unable to compete with kids who had had years of training, Reeve is proposing that impediments for poor kids to acquire the capacities to compete fairly be eliminated. Some of these entail a willingness by those who are wealthier and more connected to forego some of the advantages that their kids currently possess. Personally, my sense is that this sounds better in theory than in practice. Wealthier people may be willing to provide financial support to programs and organizations that help poor kids, but, for the most part, I do not see them forgoing the array of support that they give to their own kids, even if it means giving them what can be perceived by some as an unfair advantage.

Perhaps, this then becomes another reason for why Project Coach is so critical to the kids with which it works. In addition to training youth as coaches and running various sports programs for younger children, a web of adults surround adolescents who can serve as their life coaches, mentors, and advocates. For the most part program directors, various staff, Smith College students, and graduate students, know what it takes to acquire the requisite capacities to graduate from high school, and be accepted by and graduate from college. They also have thick webs of social and financial capital that can be deployed to help their mentees gain some of the advantages enjoyed by their more privileged cohorts. By analogy, a Project Coach like program was the element that was missing from my squash players’ earlier lives. It is a mechanism that can be deployed to level the playing field for adolescents in need of the sorts of enriching developmental experiences that will make it possible for them to compete fairly on the court, in the classroom, in the labor market, and in life.