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Middle School head at Sacred Heart Greenwich

Eighth Grade Is a Movie About Middle School That Will Leave Adults in Tears


Bo Burnham’s funny, original debut feature is astonishingly mature.

A teenage girl in a swimming pool.
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade.

“The topic of today’s video is being yourself,” stammers 13-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) in one of the self-recorded advice videos she periodically posts to her YouTube channel. It’s hard to imagine any topic on which this insecure, awkward girl, with her apologetically slumped shoulders and digitally airbrushed-out acne, would make for a less convincing expert. As her generally unhappy middle school experience enters its final excruciating week, Kayla contends with some standardly bad teenage experiences: being awarded the superlative of “Most Quiet” at an end-of-year ceremony, being invisible to the “Best Eyes”–winning classmate she’s crushed out on (Luke Prael), and being pestered by her loving, hovering single dad (Josh Hamilton) to—get this—stop looking at Instagram over dinner and talk to him.

Eighth Grade never strains for topicality or hand-wrings at the state of Today’s Youth.

Kayla will later deal with scarier and dodgier situations than these run-of-the-mill indignities, even if Eighth Grade mercifully never goes as dark as first-time writer-director Bo Burnham sometimes seem to hint it will. The funny, heartfelt, and utterly original Eighth Grade is a movie about middle school starring real middle school–age kids, to which one might enjoyably take actual middle schoolers—so long as they and their parents are willing to tolerate a reasonably high degree of shared comic embarrassment. Whether or not you currently have a preteen child, every adult has been one, and it’s almost neurologically impossible not to avert your face in burning-cheeked sympathy when Kayla, face to face with the popular girls she both longs to impress and fears like the ego-destroying monsters they can be, can only summon the emptiest sycophantic banter. “By the way, I like your shirt a lot. It’s, like, so cool.” Long pause. “I have a … shirt … too.”

Eighth Grade alternates such moments of hyperreal cringe comedy with more stylized scenes filmed from Kayla’s point of view. A visit to her boorish beloved’s Instagram feed sends her down a social media spiral, captured in a montage of Snapchat selfies and BuzzFeed quizzes set to Enya’s hypnotic New Age classic “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).” These dreamlike passages often end abruptly with the forced removal of headphones from Kayla’s ears, emphasizing the break between banal everyday reality and the curated fantasy space of social media. But Eighth Grade never strains for topicality or hand-wrings at the state of Today’s Youth: There’s a lightness and simplicity to this affectionate portrait of a girl dipping a first toe in the rushing waters of 21st-century teenagerdom.

Kayla’s omnipresent iPhone can be a vector of social anxiety and low self-esteem, but, like the YouTube videos she posts into the apparent void, it can also serve as a medium of connection. After she’s paired with a high school student (Emily Robinson) for a daylong tour of the school she’s about to move on to, the two become unexpectedly friendly, and a dazzled Kayla gets a glimpse of the only good thing about her current phase of life: Eventually, it ends. “Now I can’t wait to grow up,” she confides to her trusty webcam. But her newfound faith in the future is tested, heartstoppingly, by an encounter with an older boy (Daniel Zolghadri) who tries to pressure Kayla into a too-much-too-soon round of truth or dare.

A scene toward the end will do a thorough job of flushing out any eye irritants that might have been bothering you on the way in to the theater.

The 27-year-old Burnham, making a graceful and assured debut as a writer-director, already has a devoted following as a stand-up comedian. In fact, his career began at age 16 in exactly the place we first see Kayla: YouTube. In his most recent Netflix special Make Happy, Burnham uses his considerable versatility—he can sing, dance, take to the keyboard to pound out his own satirical pop ballads, and generally shift genres and tones on a dime—to mount a protest against stand-up comedy as a form. By the end of the hour, he’s exposed both the raw desire for approval that drives him to perform in the first place and the need for mass catharsis via entertainment that fills seats at comedy shows. At first glance, this kind of confrontational virtuosity would seem at odds with the emotional directness of Eighth Grade, which, though it showcases many acts of intentional and unintentional cruelty, is a deeply kind movie, curious and nonjudgmental even about the characters who in most coming-of-age films would be hissable villains. But some of the same themes that animate Burnham’s stand-up—his willingness to look at aspects of the modern experience that tend to be omitted from the stories we tell, his glee at subverting audience expectations—are also at play in his first feature.

Impressive as Burnham’s achievement is, Eighth Grade could never hit the heights it does without the right actress in the demanding lead role. Elsie Fisher—who was only 14 when the movie premiered at Sundance, with experience as a child voice actor in the Despicable Me franchise—delivers her “like”-heavy dialogue with such naturalism you might think the lines are improvised. But Burnham has said in interviews that the film is more scripted than it appears, and the story beats that it hits in its brisk 90-minute runtime are too precisely timed to be the result of adolescent ad-libbing. Though they get less screen time than Fisher, the rest of the teen actors, especially Jake Ryan as an earnest, geeky boy who takes a shine to Kayla at a pool party, are uniformly wonderful. And as Kayla’s devoted but confounded father, who’s alternately commanded to talk more, smile less, “stop looking weird and sad,” and just shut up and drive her to the mall, Josh Hamilton gives an exemplary performance, funny and sensitive and quietly soul-baring. A late scene by a campfire, in which Kayla’s dad struggles to articulate what watching her grow from babyhood has meant to him, will do a thorough job of flushing out any eye irritants that might have been bothering you on the way into the theater.

Eighth Grade doesn’t overstay its welcome or beg for the viewer’s approval. As Kayla records her last advice video of the school year, mortifying catchphrase and all, you’re sad to see her go, glad for the gains in self-confidence she’s made, and curious to know what she’ll do next. The same is true of Bo Burnham, who, unlike his tentative protagonist, arrives on the big screen already fully grown.


How Rwanda Tidied Up Its Streets (And The Rest Of The Country, Too)


The people of Rwanda are required to take part in the national clean-up day, Umuganda, on the last Saturday of every month. Above: getting grass under control in Kigali, the capital city.  Forster/ullstein bild via Getty Images


At 8 a.m. on a sunny morning in April, people are sweeping the hilly streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, with straw brooms and picking up stray bits of litter.

The roads are empty of cars and all vehicles and shops are shuttered here — and across the country.

This is “Umuganda,” a community clean-up held on the last Saturday of every month. It’s one reason that Rwanda is renowned in Africa for its cleanliness.

It’s not a volunteer project. Police monitor the streets – and can stop Rwandans who aren’t participating and make them clean up on the spot. Rwandans who don’t participate in the clean-up can be fined 5,000 francs, nearly $6, not a small sum when average income is about $150 a month.

The name of the event is a Kinyarwanda word that translates as “coming together in common purpose.” But this seemingly positive definition belies a dark legacy. In the 1970s, Umuganda was the term used for a form of forced labor. And during three bloody months of the 1994 genocide, leaders exhorted ethnic Hutus to do Umuganda, to do their nefarious “job” of killing minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Indeed, to outsiders with fleeting knowledge of Rwanda, the country is synonymous with the 1994 genocide, when at least 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. But much has happened since then. The government has rebuilt the ravaged country through strict governance. President Paul Kagame’s repressive administration is controversial. Yet it has maintained stability in this poor country and spurred development in a region dogged by turmoil and corruption. The streets are quite safe — no small thing given violent crime is common in nearby countries like Kenya and Tanzania. In Rwanda, rules and laws are largely enforced. And one striking consequence is its remarkable cleanliness, well-paved main streets and sheen of order.

That wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, in the early 2000s, garbage was more common in Rwanda. Today the country lacks the moldering roadside rubbish piles and the ditches choked with plastic bags that plague many low-income countries — and wealthy ones too. (New York’s subways suffer delays from garbage fires erupting on train tracks.) Rural areas in Rwanda are also clean.

One reason for the country’s cleanliness is a decade-long ban on plastic bags. Other countries like Kenya have also outlawed plastic bags and though last year’s ban there is largely enforced, litter still blights parts of Rwanda’s larger neighbor.

The other reason for Rwanda’s tidiness, of course, is Umuganda.

Rwanda institutionalized Umuganda in its current form in 2009. It’s compulsory for all able-bodied people ages 18 to 65, and the president and cabinet members pitch in too for this monthly community service.

Not everyone participates, especially in cities where it’s harder to keep track of the citizenry. Some are excused because they’re caring for their children or are ill. Others simply stay at home until 11 a.m.

Rwanda’s government also employs professional street sweepers, gardeners and road crews. But ordinary citizens definitely do their part. And since litter is now so scarce, for Umuganda people often do other community service, such as building roads, repairing houses or cultivating vegetable gardens.

Not everyone is a supporter of Umuganda.

On a mundane level, shopkeepers in Kigali grumble about lost business during Umuganda, and people who must travel are inconvenienced by the ban on driving.

The concerns go far deeper than that.

An oft-debated question is what is gained or lost by the country’s steely governance.

Some people, especially outsiders, say Umuganda is forced labor imposed by a harsh regime that represses any dissent – part of a veneer of order and modernity that masks authoritarianism.

And in a country with no compulsory military service, is mandatory clean-up OK?

Without such stringent rules, could Rwanda revert to the turmoil and ethnic violence that nearly destroyed it 24 years ago? Would corruption and dysfunction take hold as with other countries in the region?

Whatever the answers, cleanliness seems to have seeped into the country’s consciousness. Many Rwandans simply see Umuganda as community service – albeit mandatory. “Now it has become like a lifestyle. People are used to it,” a Rwandan man tells me matter-of-factly.

Ignace Gasimba, a Rwandan doing Umuganda that Saturday in April, admits he used to litter. Now if he buys something and has packaging to dispose of, he waits to find a trash can. “I have to think twice,” he says.

For this Umuganda in April, Beathe Uwizeye, an office manager at the African Institute for Mathematical Science (AIMS) in Kigali, is shepherding about 20 graduate students who hail from across Africa. For many of them, it was their first community clean-up. Uwizeye recalls the surprised reaction of students from Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. “They asked, ‘How can you unite people like this?'”

When Uwizeye visits neighboring countries like Uganda and sees litter, “It drives me crazy! I wish I could tell them, please come to Rwanda and see,” she says.

Sylivera Massawe, a student from Tanzania, marvels at how Rwandans come together for Umuganda, “given their history.”

In another part of town, the Kigali Genocide Memorial bustles with people trimming lush grass with machetes and mopping suds over a brick pathway. Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s state minister for foreign affairs, also joins the grass-cutting. They are beautifying the grounds for the annual commemoration of 100 days of Rwanda’s genocide. The memorial period starts in April and ends on July 18.

The Memorial’s manicured, idyllic surroundings contrast with its bloody foundation. More than 250,000 people are buried here in mass graves. Many were killed by ordinary people wielding machetes and farm tools to slaughter neighbors, colleagues, friends and children.

Inside the Memorial’s museum, skulls of victims are enshrined in glass cases. Photos of victims – their wedding pictures, school portraits, smiling snapshots – are displayed in shadowy alcoves. One exhibit recalls Kigali during the genocide’s horror: “The streets were littered with corpses. Dogs were eating the rotting flesh of their owners. The city smelt of the stench of death.”

That is all a stark contrast to the streets of Kigali in 2018.

When the students and I finish Umuganda and troop back to their school, I notice a stray cigarette packet and a plastic bottle on the side of the road. I exclaim at this unusual sight, like a safari tourist who spots a rare animal. “Don’t worry,” says one unperturbed student. “It will soon disappear.”

Amy Yee has written for The New York TimesThe Economist, NPR and other outlets. She is a former staff journalist for the Financial Times.

The War on Admissions Testing

The Wall Street Journal

What’s behind the move to drop ACT and SAT scores for college entry?

The War on Admissions Testing

The “test optional” movement has won its most high-profile convert in the University of Chicago, which announced last month that applicants to the school would no longer need to submit ACT or SAT scores.

The University of Chicago has become known in recent years for its commitment to academic rigor and resistance to coddling and group think. But in this decision it has increased the momentum of a fashionable but damaging ideology overtaking elite education: That standardized metrics of any kind are discriminatory and elitist, and that each student is so special that he or she can only be evaluated according to uniquely personal traits.

No test is perfect, but the ACT and SAT are powerful predictors of college performance. As psychology professors Nathan Kuncel and Paul Sackett wrote in The Wall Street Journal in March: “Longitudinal research demonstrates that standardized tests predict not just grades all the way through college but also the level of courses a student is likely to take.”

Standardized tests are especially important in a time of severe grade inflation, especially in more affluent high schools. That doesn’t mean students who don’t test well can’t succeed, or that students with high scores are guaranteed to graduate summa cum laude. But it’s clear scores are at least as valid a predictor of college performance as a students’ roster of carefully selected extracurricular activities or “personal essays,” which may be rewritten by tutors.

So what’s behind the campaign against standardized assessments? A University of Chicago spokeswoman says the test “may not reflect the full accomplishments and academic promise of a student.” This is true but could be said of any single part of a college application, including high school grades.

Grades may be the next metric to fall out of fashion. Last year a coalition of private high schools, including Phillips Academy, joined a campaign to eliminate grades on grounds that “a GPA shaves off a lot of humanity,” in the words of one prep-school principal. One wonders if the aim isn’t really to shield well-off students from rigorous assessments so they can skate by on testimonials and extracurriculars alone.

The University of Chicago also says eliminating testing requirements “levels the playing field” for “under-resourced and first-generation students,” who may not have access to test-preparation courses. But contrary to myth, most such courses produce only modest gains. And last year Khan Academy and the College Board unveiled a free course they say boosts SAT scores for students at all income levels. By contrast, low-income students are unlikely to have access to exotic summer internships or other activities that impress admissions offices.

What really gives students an advantage on tests, in addition to studying hard and reading widely, is attending a good school and having parents who value education. On that score, when will leading college admissions offices become a voice for changing the status quo in poorly performing urban public schools? Simply scrapping an admissions requirement won’t make students from disadvantaged backgrounds more prepared.

The case that test-optional policies increase diversity is mostly speculative. But they do have their uses in the race-in-admissions game: Schools accused of discriminating against Asian-Americans, who tend to score higher, may find them a convenient way to conceal their use of racial preferences.

Universities like Chicago should enroll students from a variety of backgrounds—even if the academic-bureaucratic conception of diversity now in vogue is stilted and narrow. The University of Chicago’s “Empower” initiative in its admissions office contains some admirable reforms to further that objective.

But the momentum of the “test optional” campaign is not a win for diversity in higher education. It looks more like an opportunity for universities to game the college-ranking system. If test scores are optional, only high-scoring students will submit them and this will make schools like Chicago rank higher. It might also lower their acceptance rates because more students will apply. Accolades for “increasing access” are undeserved.

The Flexibility of Computational Thinking


Three middle school projects—in English, math, and history—use computational thinking skills to address social justice topics.


Two students looking at data on a laptop with worksheets scattered in front of them
Courtesy of Eli Sheldon
Students carefully plot their next maneuver to grab land in the simulation Scramble for Africa.

Computational thinking (CT) is a set of skills students can leverage to tackle hard problems of all kinds using ideas from computer science. These skills include:

  • Algorithmic thinking: using a well-defined series of steps to achieve a desired outcome
  • Decomposition: approaching a complicated problem by focusing on one piece at a time
  • Abstraction: representing a complicated system with a simple model
  • Pattern recognition: analyzing data and using trends to inform solutions

CT can be used to address issues far beyond computer science, and projects with a social justice emphasis provide a platform for students to apply these skills to engaging, authentic learning opportunities. As Sydney Chaffee says in her TEDx talk on social justice in schools, “Authentic learning enables students to see and create connections in the world around them,” helping students understand why what they’re learning is vital.

Here are three examples of projects that teach social justice topics through a computational thinking lens.


In this English language arts unit, seventh-grade students study the American criminal justice system while reading Walter Dean Myers’s Monster, a novel about a teen’s trial and imprisonment. In tandem with reading the novel, students conduct a mock trial of the familiar character Batman, using a flowchart to demonstrate the steps (the algorithm) that criminal suspects encounter. Batman is a useful defendant because students generally know about him and agree that his actions are illegal, though they disagree on whether he should be punished for those actions.

Harnessing the power of decomposition to break down our complicated legal system, student teams design their own justice systems. They establish policies on 12 topics, including drugs, mandatory minimums, body cameras, and juvenile detention. Using Twine, a platform for interactive storytelling, teams apply their laws to six real criminal cases. The outcome of each case is determined by that team’s previously established policies, which can be revised at the conclusion of the case.

Students come to realize that decisions that initially seemed obvious lead to unexpected consequences when applied in different real-world scenarios. They walk away from this unit having internalized the need for major reform in our criminal justice system, as well as why some policy changes are not as straightforward as they first appear.


In this social studies simulation adapted from a lesson by Andrew Patterson, students in grades 7–9 represent the interests of major European powers in the colonization of Africa. Using abstraction with a simplified set of objectives (e.g., resource types, geographic regions, and climates) and a gridded map of the continent, students choose specific squares to claim each round. The amount of land they claim is dependent on their country’s relative strength and colonial focus in that era.

At the end of the game, students compare their results with the true outcome of African colonization at the start of the 20th century. Despite the simplistic nature of the simulation, the correlation between maps is typically strong. The political and logistical nuances have been abstracted away, helping students understand the high-level motivations and decisions involved.

During the first run, students let their competitive nature show without hesitation. However, they are then tasked with confronting the deeper impact of their colonizing efforts—for instance, what it really meant for these European armies to claim African land, abduct slaves for labor, and exhaust natural resources. In subsequent rounds, teams struggle to balance the morals behind their actions with their desire to “win” the game.


In this series of math lessons on probability and population sampling, seventh-grade students calculate rates of drivers of different races being searched at traffic stops. They compare their findings to census data to determine if the numbers represent random sampling or show evidence of racial bias.

To set context, students learn about their legal rights during traffic stops and why race matters during interactions with police. Next, they create tree diagrams with data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics to determine probabilities of being stopped by race, which they contrast with general population data. Using pattern recognition, students interpret the data (e.g., 10 percent of all drivers are African American, but 23 percent of all searched drivers are African American) and form evidence-backed conclusions about racial bias in traffic stops across the nation.

Finally, students again use random sampling on local police data to compare search rates in their county against their national results, bringing the issue even closer to home.


Activities tied to issues of social justice can bolster learning in any class, and by approaching these topics with a CT lens, students can more easily draw connections across disciplines. Here are some tips to be successful:

  • Establish a respectful, safe atmosphere in your classroom by allowing yourself to be vulnerable and by ensuring that all students feel heard.
  • Current events are a valuable source of ideas that students will naturally connect with.
  • Consider allowing students to voice what issues matter most to them.
  • Don’t shy away from controversial topics, as these can lead to the richest discussions.

What We Can Learn from Higher Education: A New Era of Collaboration and Exploration


A study by strategy consultancy EY-Parthenon titled “Strength in Numbers: Strategies for Collaborating in a New Era for Higher Education” recently caught my attention. Many analyses of higher education portray an industry in decline, with a forecast of many institutional closings, but this study suggests a potentially different outcome if higher education institutions adopt a strategy of collaboration. Although not new, this strategy’s day has come, and in my opinion, not just for higher education but for K–12 as well. The study’s authors, however, note that not every institution may be a candidate for collaboration if too many risk factors are currently present; in that case, institutions may need to look at complete transformation if they are to survive. The authors describe those risk factors as:

  • Enrollment under 1,000 students
  • No online programs
  • Annual tuition increases of more than 8 percent
  • Tuition discount rates higher than 35 percent
  • Dependent on tuition for more than 85 percent of revenue
  • Endowment that covers less than 33 percent of expenses
  • Debt payments more than 10 percent of expenses
  • Deficit spending

Trends Driving Demographic and Economic Changes

Let’s take a step back and review the trends that are cause for concern:

  • From now through 2060, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the under 18 population is expected to experience the least amount of change of any population segment, with projected growth from 74 million in 2016 to 80 million in 2060, while during the same time period, the population over 65 is expected to double in size.
  • Young adults who are starting families today are projected to be downwardly mobile compared with previous generations at this time in life, due to rising costs, lesser attainment of wealth producing vehicles such as home ownership, and accumulation of student debt. That debt now stands at $1.48 trillion.
  • Sharp cuts in funding to higher education have driven tuitions up at public colleges and universities, and cuts in subsidies to both public and private higher education have shifted more of the tuition burden to students and their families, resulting in an ever-expanding debt burden for the consumer and more discounting for the institutions.
  • According to a study just released by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, in 2016–2017, the average discount rate for first-time, full-time freshmen reached 48.2 percent. By 2017–2018, it is expected to have reached the highest level recorded since the organization’s tuition discounting study began—49.9 percent. The discount rate for all undergraduates in 2017–2018 is also an expected all-time high, at 44.8 percent.

In response to these trends, Moody’s recently downgraded its rating of higher education from stable to negative, predicting that “the growth of the industry’s expenses will outpace revenue growth for the next 12–18 months, with public universities in particular facing money woes.” Independent schools face many of the same trends as higher education, resulting in enrollment declines and escalating financial aid in many corners of the industry.

There is no question that there is cause for concern as we look to the future, but there is also cause for optimism. There is still very strong support among the American public for quality education at all levels. However, if we are to be successful, K–16, over the long-term, we need to rethink our models.

Segmented Strategies for Collaboration

The EY-Parthenon study concludes that this new era “demands a significant shift in strategy for institutions around the idea of collaboration and the development of much deeper partnerships than higher education has ever seen before.” The authors frame the problem as too many institutions chasing too few students and the strategy as deep collaboration to cut expenses and to enhance the student experience. What most intrigued me about the approach was the division of the higher education market into four buckets, with a different strategy resulting from the market conditions for each segment. Here’s how they divided the higher education market:


Their categorization could easily be applied to the independent school world and the strategies resound as well. I would like to build off the recommendations from the school context.

  1. Strong niche: Schools in this category come from a position of strength, as they have a clear value proposition and a particular niche in the market. However, that may not be enough to keep them solvent in the years ahead. The study authors suggest that this group consider partnerships as an opportunity to further differentiate. For example, a successful single-sex independent school could partner with similar schools, as well as other nonprofits and corporate entities, to create a STEAM focused-school unrivaled in the marketplace. The partnerships could reduce costs and drive much larger fundraising dollars, thus making the school more accessible financially to a larger segment of the market.
  2. Large and thriving: These are also schools that come from a place of strength. The authors suggest that schools in this category should think enhancement. Like schools in group one, they grow stronger from collaboration, offering even greater opportunities for students. Collaborations could allow them to build on their current strengths or fill a gap for which there is a growing market. For example, a few independent schools have experimented with partnering with existing social service agencies to address student needs that they can’t fill within their own institutions. Schools also have partnered with colleges and universities to expand advanced curricular offerings.
  3. Small and at risk: These are perhaps the most vulnerable institutions for which survival is questionable. The authors suggest that these schools can’t cut or tweak their way to survival, rather they have to come up with a totally different strategy. Merger is certainly a potential option for these schools, but also there is the option to partner with one or more schools to come up with something completely different in the marketplace—the blue rather than the red ocean strategy. In the higher education world, think of Western Governors University. It was founded when a group of governors got together to solve this problem: “How can we ensure more of our residents have greater access to a college education that fits their schedule?” Could a group of independent schools collaborate to solve a problem such as a high-quality, affordable independent school within reach of the middle class?
  4. Large and languishing: There is probably a slower march to extinction for schools in this category, but the authors suggest that they need to adopt newer models of efficiency if they are to survive long-term. In the independent school world, schools in this category could think about partnering around infrastructure services such as database, finance, and human resources. Instead of launching new programs, they could partner with online programs or other schools. If they take a systems approach to structuring themselves and breaking down silos, they will no doubt find new efficiencies.

Exploration of New Models Also Needed

In addition to collaboration, I believe we need exploration. If we look at the problems that need to be solved in our society and partner around those, we may come up with novel educational approaches and business models. Consider MissionU, a partnership of academics and businesses trying to solve the problem of students graduating from college laden with student debt, yet finding it difficult to find a job because they do not have the requisite skills. They offer an intensive one-year program that charges no tuition up front, rather the student pays it back once they have achieved a certain earning level. WeWork’s WeGrow, an enterprise that is opening its first elementary school this fall, just purchased MissionU. It also acquired a coding bootcamp and developed a partnership with 2U, which operates online graduate programs. According to WeGrow CEO Rebekah Neumann, its mission will be to unleash every human’s superpowers, as opposed to every child’s. “The purpose of life, in our opinion, is to be a student of life, for life.”

It’s an interesting value proposition and an organization worth watching as we enter this third education revolution of continuous learning.


Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.

Research Insights: Independent School Health Check Examines Teen Support Systems


Summer 2018

By Rosemary Baggish and Peter Wells

At times, it might seem like teens want nothing to do with adults. But research from Independent School Health Check (ISHC) shows that the opposite is true. In 2007, we created ISHC, a computer-based survey, to more accurately gauge the experience of adolescents in independent schools. The ISHC assesses students’ perceptions, feelings, and behaviors regarding their schools, families, and friends as well as the risk and protective factors that affect their health and well-being. The survey assesses school attitudes and motivation, school pressure, parental supervision, social and emotional connections to adults and peers, substance use, sexuality, sleep, and diet.

Over the past 11 years, the ISHC has collected data from 80,816 middle and high school students in 102 independent schools; most schools have conducted the survey multiple times. Schools that conduct surveys typically use the data to develop and fine-tune health and wellness programs, to identify areas that need attention, as well as areas of particular strength.

One area of inquiry for the ISHC is a student’s relationship with adults. The survey asks students to rate “the adult(s) who is primarily responsible for caring for [them] on a daily basis” on behaviors such as “expresses interest in my life,” “expects me to ask if I can go out,” and “supports my efforts in sports, music, or other activities.” The survey also asks students to rate their perceptions of teachers including statements such as “teachers at my school pay attention to my personal needs, not just academic performance,” and “my teachers treat me with respect.”

Over the years, we have been impressed by the high level of engagement that so many parents maintain, and by the extent to which so many students feel that their teachers support their personal needs as well as their academic needs.

The Findings

Not all parents are supportive, however, nor do all students find encouraging adults in schools—perhaps because they were already wary about trusting an adult. Nevertheless, when we track what happens to adolescents without a reliable adult to talk to and depend on, we find that these are young people at greater risk. Conversely, when adolescents have an adult to talk with, there is benefit to both the student and to the school.

The ISHC asks several questions about students’ interactions with the adults in their lives. More than three-quarters say they “have an adult to talk to on a regular basis about what is going on in [their] life.” About 84 percent agree that “if faced with a really important question or serious problem, [they] would talk to an adult.” Mothers are the adults who students talk to the most (81.9 percent), followed by fathers (62.8 percent). Teachers (26 percent), counselors (24.6 percent), and coaches (15.4 percent) are also adults students turn to.

In high-stakes behavior, the absence of adult support is alarming. For those adolescents who think their parents are not interested or supportive, the likelihood of suicidal thoughts triples. Students who think their teachers are not attentive to their needs are twice as likely to report self-harm or suicidal thoughts. These students are also more likely to break school rules and have a much lower sense of belonging.

How Schools Can Help

What can schools do to encourage students to have attachments to adults in the community? They can build on the already effective outreach of the adults in the school community by supporting adviser programs. Offer advisers training, support, and accountability to guide them so they are able to productively engage with students and their parents. Schools can enhance their programs by offering training in communication strategies, scheduling regular adviser times, and expecting that advisers maintain contact with their advisees and their parents/guardians.

Building a working connection with families is another important strategy for enhancing students’ perception that adults are available to them. In addition to the standard parent meetings and activities that schools offer, it is important to encourage parents/guardians to reach out to their child’s adviser with any questions or concerns about their child, their family, or the school program. An effective adviser program can function as a safety net for all students when they experience academic, social, or personal problems in school and at home. ▪

To see schools that have participated, surveys available, and more, visit independentschoolhealth.com.


Rosemary Baggish

Rosemary Baggish developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.


Peter Wells

Peter Wells developed Independent School Health Check, a project of BMW Consulting LLC.

There’s only one way to truly understand another person’s mind



By Ephrat Livni

It’s often said that we should put ourselves in another person’s shoes in order to better understand their point of view. But psychological research suggests this directive leaves something to be desired: When we imagine the inner lives of others, we don’t necessarily gain real insight into other people’s minds.

Instead of imagining ourselves in another person’s position, we need to actually get their perspective, according to a recent study (pdf) in the Journal of Personality and Psychology. Researchers from the University of Chicago and Northeastern University in the US and Ben Gurion University in Israel conducted 25 different experiments with strangers, friends, couples, and spouses to assess the accuracy of insights onto other’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and mental states.

Their conclusion, as psychologist Tal Eyal tells Quartz: “We assume that another person thinks or feels about things as we do, when in fact they often do not. So we often use our own perspective to understand other people, but our perspective is often very different from the other person’s perspective.” This “egocentric bias” leads to inaccurate predictions about other people’s feelings and preferences. When we imagine how a friend feels after getting fired, or how they’ll react to an off-color joke or political position, we’re really just thinking of how we would feel in their situation, according to the study.

In 15 computer-based experiments, each with a minimum of 30 participants, the psychologists asked subjects to guess people’s emotions based on an image, their posture, or a facial expression, for example. Some subjects were instructed to “consult their own feelings,” while others were given no instructions, and some were told to “think hard” or mimic the expressions to better understand. People told to rely on their own feelings as a guide most often provided inaccurate responses. They were unable to guess the correct emotion being displayed.

The second set of experiments asked subjects to make predictions about the feelings of strangers, friends, and partners. (Strangers interacted briefly to get to know one another before hazarding guesses about the preferences of they had just person they met.) The researchers wanted to see if people who had some meaningful information about each other—like spouses—could make accurate judgments about the other’s reactions to jokes, opinions, videos, and more. It turned out that neither spouses nor strangers nor friends tended to make accurate judgments when “taking another’s perspective.”

“Our experiments found no evidence that the cognitive effort of imagining oneself in another person’s shoes, studied so widely in the psychological literature, increases a person’s ability to accurately understand another’s mind,” the researchers write. “If anything, perspective taking decreased accuracy overall while occasionally increasing confidence in judgment.” Basically, imagining another person’s perspective may give us the impression that we’re making more accurate judgments. But it doesn’t actually improve our ability to judge how another person thinks or feels.

There were no gender differences in the results. Across the board, men and women tended not to guess another’s perspective very accurately when putting themselves in the other’s position. But this did increase self-confidence in the accuracy of their predictions—even when their insights were off.

The good news, however, is that researchers found a simple, concrete way we can all confidently and correctly improve the accuracy of our insights into others’ lives. When people are given a chance to talk to the other person about their opinions before making predictions about them—Eyal calls this “perspective getting” as opposed to perspective taking—they are much more accurate in predicting how others might feel than those instructed to take another’s perspective or given no instructions.

In the final test, researchers asked subjects both to try putting themselves in another’s shoes, on the one hand, and to talk directly with test partners about their positions on a given topic. The final experiment confirmed that getting another person’s perspective directly, through conversation, increased the accuracy of subjects’ predictions, while simply “taking” another’s perspective did not. This was true for partners, friends, and strangers alike.

“Increasing interpersonal accuracy seems to require gaining new information rather than utilizing existing knowledge about another person,” the study concludes. “Understanding the mind of another person,” as the researchers put it, is only possible when we actually probe them about what they think, rather than assuming we already know.

The psychologists believe their study has applications in legal mediation, diplomacy, psychology, and our everyday lives. Whether we’re negotiating at a conference table, fighting with a spouse, or debating the political motivations of voters, we simply can’t rely on intuition for insight, according to Eyal. Only listening will do the trick.

“Perspective getting allows gaining new information rather than utilizing existing, sometimes biased, information about another person,” Eyal explains to Quartz. “In order to understand what your spouse prefers—don’t try to guess, ask.”