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The Art of Nudging Eighth Graders

In 2008, behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein popularized the idea of “choice architecture”—research-based methods for nudging individuals who have choices to make the most beneficial ones—for example, how to help nudge young workers to save prudently for retirement. Their work has won them a Nobel Prize.

They should probably talk with Stephanie Read. This week, she is the Partnership’s lead nudge agent, and watching her work is a delight.

Stephanie oversees the Partnership Schools’ High School Placement program.  She shares with many other individuals in our schools the quest to help each eighth grade student find, apply for, be accepted at, receive the funding needed for and matriculate to the “best fit” high school for each of them. There are lots of ways to measure the effectiveness of high school placement advising—the percentage of students accepted to high performing high schools in New York, the amount of scholarships students are awarded (she has helped triple the 4 year scholarship awards our students receive)—and we’ll share some of that good news in later Posts.

But this is decision week for many students who have been admitted to multiple schools, and all of Stephanie’s work with students—in most cases, across their sixth, seventh and now nearly halfway through the eighth grade school year—comes down to choices happening this week, choices in which eighth graders are key participants.

If you’ve ever parented or worked with a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old, you may understand why Stephanie’s work takes the subtlety of a seasoned diplomat and the savvy of a Nobel-prize-winning economist. While there are still some young people that age who will do what their parents tell them—clean up their rooms, finish their homework, go to a particular high school—just because their parents say so, the number of kids who function that way is perhaps smaller than it used to be. And as Catholic schools, we aren’t aiming merely for obedience from students; we are aiming for virtue—the habit of freely choosing the good. We don’t just want students to go to the best school for them; we want our students to want to attend those schools. We know they will be more successful if they play a role in the choice.

Three friends graduate from Sacred Heart-Highbridge, pre-covid.

In between calls with parents, school team members, and students, Stephanie shared with us one story from this week that helps highlight the role that all middle school educators do as choice architects. It’s the story of a boy who has been accepted into two high schools. [For reasons that should become clear, we’re not going to identify the student or the schools involved.] Both schools are strong; the key difference is that one is smaller than the other. Stephanie and the outgoing young man’s mother are convinced that he is more likely to be able to focus, succeed, and flourish in a smaller school setting. The young man has been focused on one very different point: most of his friends are going to the bigger school.

So here’s the first key of Stephanie’s work: the focus on best fit. It’s not that the bigger school is a less desirable choice in every case; she is in the process of helping other students and families to choose it. It’s just that for this young man, the smaller school is a better fit. When it comes to truly helpful high school placement advising, Stephanie and our other colleagues who serve our students and families function in a much more complex web of choices than good/bad. They don’t want students to go to the “best” school they got into; they want students to attend the best school for them.

Here’s the second reason why Stephanie excels: she knows that relationships make all the difference—with both parents and students. In this case, the mom was prepared to be the heavy—ready to inform the young man “you’re going because I said so” about the school she thought best. But she reached out to Stephanie, with whom she has been working for over a year, in the hopes that she could avoid ultimatum parenting. The mom knew enough about Stephanie’s work with both her and her son by this point to be hopeful that careful collaboration might help peace reign in her home during what could otherwise be a really stressful week.

So the high school placement support we provide is, we hope, as useful to parents as it is to their children, and nuanced in its approach to each student’s best fit.

Now, the third and key point: Stephanie’s nudging strategy. She needed to make the smaller school seem a compelling choice—but without seeming to force it on the young man. Her first tactic: honesty. She was clear with the young man that she hoped he’d choose the smaller school.

Honoring the dignity of middle schoolers is crucial in savvy nudging. Many teens are like the Six-Figured Man in The Princess Bride:

By being frank with students, Stephanie avoids arousing their suspicion that she’s trying to trap them into a choice they wouldn’t otherwise make, and she continues to earn their trust, which is crucial for her next move: using the natural craving for independence among young people for the forces of good.

“But all my friends are going” to the other school, the boy protested.

Stephanie’s response: “You don’t think with your friends’ brain.” She knows the young man well enough to know that pride in his self-reliance is as important to him as his friends. Having piqued his pride, she proceeded to her next move: cultivating a “we’re in this together” consensus about how he learns best.

Stephanie drew from the young man a shared understanding of situations where he is most successful in school—situations where having teachers notice his work and follow up with him provides just the little extra push he knows he needs. Stephanie has been in the school, talked to the teachers, and observed students in class—and they know it. Like all our students, this young man has also been used to teachers who give him rigorous work—an implicit endorsement of each student’s capacity for it. So this young man has a vision of himself that includes pride in academic work, and he has reasons to trust Stephanie’s sense of the best conditions for him to produce it. Stephanie, then, just reminds him that the vision she has of his success is one he has too.

Just when those approaches are opening a window in the young man’s thinking, his principal walks in the room where Stephanie and the student are meeting. Stephanie takes immediate advantage of the opportunity that presents itself: she asks the principal what they think of the smaller school as a fit for the particular student. Sure enough, the principal’s talking points about the school align perfectly with the ones Stephanie had already made. Enlisting a chorus of voices when appropriate helps.

Finally, Stephanie does the hardest part of nudging: she ends the conversation. Again, the hope at this point is that the young man chooses for himself what we want for him—and in order to do that, a little space is crucial—if a tad excruciating for the adults involved.

Later that day, Stephanie spots him. Amid a crowd, he smiles, gives her a thumbs up and whispers, “I do want to go to—” and named the school she thought best for him.

This week, many parents are working with their middle schoolers on high school decisions and a thousand other choices we hope our young people make. We wish them all well with these sometimes difficult conversations. And at the Partnership, we’re taking a moment this week to be glad parents have nudgers like Stephanie Read on their side to help.