What Schools Miss When They’re Missing Relationship Data

Jeanne A. Curley

Last month, a new study in Nature revealed a key predictor of economic mobility: connectedness. Specifically, researchers at Opportunity Insights found that relationships with higher-income students dramatically improved low-income students’ chances of upward mobility in adulthood, even more than traditional success metrics like school quality.

The Opportunity Insights team garnered praise for the sheer size of the data set they built to reach their findings: Their Social Capital Atlas consists of a staggering 21 billion data points on connection, mined from de-identified Facebook data from 72 million users. The analysis also yielded a new species of school-level data, charting the degree of economic connectedness within individual high schools and colleges across the country.

This new research begs a bigger question for education leaders striving for more equitable outcomes: What kinds of relationship data do schools need to understand the trajectories their students are on, and the relationships and resources at their disposal?

Unfortunately, legacy education data systems rarely contain much in the way of relationship data.

That’s not to say schools fly entirely blind. Schools can keep track of which students are paired with what teachers. They can assign advisors or mentors to students who are struggling. They can administer culture and belonging surveys that measure how students and staff experience and perceive their community.

But rosters and climate surveys only get you so far. They lean institution-centric, rather than student-centric. In other words, they rarely reveal the actual relationships and networks at play in students’ lives. Moreover, they tell schools nothing about students’ connections with family, friends, coaches, neighbors and the like that make up a young person’s actual network, and often contain valuable assets that schools could tap into.

Mapping Who Students Know

How might schools go about discovering who students know? One obvious strategy to gain a more complete picture of students’ networks is to ask students themselves.

Often, this takes the form of an activity called relationship mapping, which I describe in greater detail in a new report for the Christensen Institute, Students’ hidden networks: Relationship mapping as a strategy to build asset-based pathways.

Relationship mapping has low-tech roots. For decades, social workers have created pen-and-paper “ecomaps” with clients to reveal their social supports and stressors.

“Network mapping, ecomapping, relationship mapping—it’s all the idea of trying to get on paper, ‘Who are the people in your life?’” said Sarah Schwartz, a clinical psychologist and leading mentoring researcher whom I interviewed. “When I do it with young people, I use a blank piece of paper, put their name in the middle and start drawing lines and asking them, ‘Who’s in your school? Who’s in your community? Who’s in your neighborhood? Who are your caregivers’ friends? Who’s in your religious community?’” explained Schwartz.

This practice has been slow to migrate from paper into the digital realm. Even fairly popular programs like Harvard’s Making Caring Common’s virtual Relationship Mapping Strategy rely on simple spreadsheets.

Pen-and-paper and spreadsheets may suffice for short activities and small programs. But they risk a static approach to relationship data. With better tools, that data could prove both a powerful and dynamic indicator over time. Luckily, a range of entrepreneurs are starting to build tools that could supercharge schools’ ability to access and store secure data on students’ networks in ways that help both young people and the institutions that serve them keep track of their connections.

Making the Invisible Visible

Some tools have emerged from researchers focused on the power of network science to improve outcomes. For example, a new open-source research tool Network Canvas, developed through the Complex Data Collective, streamlines the process of designing network surveys, interviewing subjects, and analyzing and managing social network data.

Another tool built by researchers at Visible Networks Lab (VNL) called PARTNERme uses an interactive interface where kids and parents can draw their social connections, identify who helps them with things they need, and highlight their most pressing needs with the least amount of social support.

The resulting map aims to make “invisible networks visible,” according to VNL’s founder Danielle Varda, a researcher and faculty at University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs.

“By visualizing these types of things, we make a very complex problem easier to see and therefore more tangible to address,” Varda said.

For the past two years, VNL has worked with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to support youth research fellows conducting qualitative research on how the PARTNERme assessment can best detect social supports in young people’s lives.

Mapping Networks As You Go

Other tools are starting to emerge to help young people identify and maintain connections. Palette is a startup focused on fostering more communication across students’ support networks. The goal, in founder Burck Smith’s words, is to “better connect and manage the adults that are most influential in a student’s success.” Palette is still in beta, but will launch a half dozen or so pilot programs this fall in advising, coaching, mentoring and counseling programs.

Other startups are pairing relationship maps with network-building curriculum. My Opportunity Hub (MyOH), an app in development by Edward DeJesus, founder of Social Capital Builders, Inc., nudges young people to keep the connections in their lives—teachers, family members and mentors—updated on their progress, and to build new connections with those in industries they are interested in. The tool goes hand in hand with DeJesus’s Foundations in Social Capital Literacy curriculum, which teaches young people about building and mobilizing networks. The app aims to make maintaining connections more manageable. At any given time in the course of Social Capital Builders’ experiential curriculum, young people are keeping a select five to six individuals, what DeJesus and his team dub “Opportunity Guides,” up to date on their successes and challenges.

Tools like MyOH demonstrate the potential of pairing relationship-building curriculum with data and visualization tools. Others are starting to take a similar tack. For example, iCouldBe, an online mentoring program and college and career curriculum, is currently building a student-facing “connections map” where students will be able to visualize their networks on an ongoing basis. (Notably, students served by iCouldBe prefer the term “connections” to “networks”). While students make their way through the curriculum, the map will automatically populate any connections with teachers, coaches, and counselors that students identify, and urges students to develop new connections with people they would like to meet.

For iCouldBe, this marks a promising evolution from data-driven mentorship to data-driven network building. “We have this enormous database on the backend of the program and use data science tools to really look at how mentees engage in the program. For every single week of the program we see a weekly score based on mentees and mentors engagement,” said Kate Schrauth, executive director of iCouldBe. “We’re going to be looking to take these data science tools and add all of the metrics from the enhanced connections map so that we can understand how mentees are engaging with these broader networks over longer periods of time.”

Enhancing Schools’ Relationship-Centered Approaches

Better tools for assessing and maintaining connectedness offer myriad upsides when it comes to the complex challenges schools are facing this year. First, as researchers like VNL’s Danielle Varda have long documented, connectedness and mental health are deeply intertwined. Given concerns about students’ mental health are top of mind among district leaders, schools would be wise to not just invest in interventions, but data focused on social connectedness.

Second, mapping networks can help create more resilient systems. In the early months of the pandemic, some school districts were lauded as innovative for initiatives that ensured someone—anyone—from the district reached out to students daily. As Herculean as those efforts were, they were also a reflection of how ill-prepared schools were to leverage and coordinate existing connections in students’ lives. If more crises upend school as we know it, data on who students know and can turn to offers an invaluable safety net for centralized systems trying to operate under decentralized conditions.

Of course, limited time, financial resources, and network science expertise in schools may hamper adoption of these kinds of tools. Startups hoping to gain a foothold may need to be as much in the business of relationship mapping development as in the business of change management and consulting (which many of the tool providers above offer). Others are betting on adoption first outside of traditional systems. “The first step of our strategy toward greater district adoption of PARTNERme is to partner with community-based organizations that provide services to schools to prove the value of using the tool,” said Varda of VNL’s approach.

But if the recent buzz around economic connectedness is any indication, there’s significant interest from schools and the communities that support them in doubling down on the crucial role that relationships play in young people’s lives. Relationships and the resources they can offer—often dubbed social capital—drive healthy development, learning and access to opportunity. It’s time these connections become part and parcel of the data that schools collect to drive and measure their progress.

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