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Posted at 01:50 PM ET, 07/17/2012

The hard bigotry of poverty: Why ignoring it will doom school reform


This was written by Brock Cohen, a teacher and student advocate in the Los Angeles Unified School District who contends that we can no longer afford to trivialize the critical role that poverty plays in a child’s learning experiences – and that true school reform begins with social justice. Brock’s students were recently featured in an NPR piece that charts some of his students’ daily struggles as they pursue their education.


By Brock Cohen


We have only climbed halfway up the mountain, and halfway isn’t good enough. We want all our children to see the view from the top, to see the world of possibilities that stretch out before them.

-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg


We can’t allow another generation of kids to fall by the wayside while we take our time trying to build consensus in the interest of harmony among adults. That isn’t going to happen on my watch.

-Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee


We want to come back year after year and continue to add resources and fund more. But at the end of the day, the money is really helpful, but frankly, a lot of this is about courage. It’s about telling the truth.

-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan


Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.

-President Barack Obama


Beware the lure of warm and fuzzy platitudes. As an English and Humanities teacher at a high-poverty public high school in Los Angeles for the past 11 years, lofty talk by opinion-makers unleashes the skeptic in me. It’s ironic that I should despise such exemplars of oratory. As one who spends the better part of each day hard-selling the written word to struggling young readers and writers, I should be able to appreciate the expert phrase-turnings of some of our nation’s best and brightest when they talk nonsense.

Except that I’ve seen the pain and misfortune they’ve caused. I see it every day.


When I was first hired at the dawn of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) behemoth, I had virtually no interest in the lofty pronouncements made by politicians who hadn’t seen the inside of an urban high school classroom since “Dangerous Minds.” I had a job to do, and I was going to succeed – with or without the government’s help.

In reality, however, I personified a system that foisted its most undesirable, unreachable students onto teachers with the least ability to address the origins of their struggles. It was a system that shuffled high-needs kids around like so many dog-eared playing cards, without any pushback from well-connected parents. Sitting in rickety desks embedded with countless vulgarities, they were yet again faced with a newbie teacher who was convinced that the riddle of reaching reluctant learners could be solved through exposure to great literature, vibrant class discussions, and provocative questions. Cue the laugh track.


Students showed up to my class intoxicated, perpetually ill, or without basic school supplies. Campus security and police removed kids from my class to execute wand-searches; some kids were subsequently taken into custody. One constantly sleep-deprived student divulged to me that he’d been kicked out of his apartment following a squabble with his stepmother, which meant he was now living in his car. Hunkered down each night in a nearby Target parking lot, he was too afraid to fall asleep. (I later confirmed this information with the school’s dean.) At one point, my classroom felt more like a revolving door, as students paraded in and out due to expulsion or relocation.

Despite, in many cases, being less than a school year away from graduation, many of my students were not doing – or even attempting to do – even the simplest assignments. And yet some of my most apathetic kids routinely offered to straighten up my cluttered desktop or sweep my classroom. What I was gradually seeing was that many of them wanted to take pride in doing something well; maybe they’d just surmised that academic success was too far beyond their grasp. I started to wonder if at least some of their apathy was actually a white flag being waved in the face of repeated failure.

I also wondered what role their parents were playing in this tragic narrative. Prior to submitting my first mid-semester progress reports, I called home to alert the parents of my failing students. Because well more than half my kids were failing, the task consumed an entire weekend.


What I learned was that a good number of these families were barely scraping by. Many parents were cobbling together livelihoods by working multiple low-wage jobs that often took them away from home for the critical late-afternoon and evening hours during which kids rely heavily on caregivers for guidance and discipline. Others were dealing with their own personal demons wrought by drugs, alcohol, or destructive relationships. Some were simply M.I.A., and I never found out why. Because many of my students were saddled with learning disabilities — a frequent characteristic among high-poverty populations of children — I attended scores of I.E.P. meetings in which my special needs students were left to discuss their challenges, progress, and goals without a caregiver in the room. In these instances, I attempted to play the role of surrogate parent, knowing full well that I was a sad excuse for the real thing.

What had grown increasingly clear to me was that my students’ academic struggles did not simply stem from inaction, ineffective parenting, drug use, or neglect. While these elements were usually present in various forms, or to greater or lesser degrees, they weren’t the root causes of their failure; they were the effects of poverty. What I’d learned in less than a semester of teaching was that poverty wasn’t merely a temporary, though unpleasant, condition — like a hangover or the sniffles. It was a debilitating, often generational, epidemic.

While my teaching credential classes were perpetually bogged down with trivialities like journal reflections, acceptable formatting options for the three-tier lesson plan, and tales of woe that rivaled A.A. meetings, discussions or assignments that sought to unravel the poverty-learning conundrum never took place. In pursuit of other alternatives, I commenced my own research.

Study after study validated my experiences and observations from spending the past five months with disadvantaged teens. Healthy children require a nutritious diet, ample sleep, stable households, regular physical exercise, and access affordable health care. They require regular cognitive stimulation to give them the neurological foundations required for complex learning tasks. And they require affection and positive reinforcement to engender them with self-worth.

Most jolting to me was a 1995 study that remains every bit as relevant today. Published by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risely, Meaningful Differences details the magnitude of a child’s early learning environment. It concludes that low-income children are typically burdened with a 32-million word gap by age 4, as well as deficits in “complexity” and “tone,” which measure the depth and intensity of verbal exchanges.  

While I continued searching for answers, either Congress or the Bush administration could have thrown me a life preserver. They opted for an anchor. Rather than instantly improving the state of public education by proposing legislation that attacked poverty at its core, they put their bipartisan muscle behind one of the most onerous, ineffectual, and wasteful slabs of federal legislation in decades.


What was then billed as a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), No Child Left Behind made quick work of common sense, setting multiple-choice standardized tests as the touchstone by which the nation’s students, schools, and, in many cases, teachers would be evaluated. The law’s founders assured Americans that what high-poverty kids needed was not better health care, smaller class sizes, expanded access to pre-K education, or supervised instruction in using 21st-century technology. They needed to be tested more. Teacher and school accountability, tied to test scores, would rescue poor children from the brink of failure. (After all, it wasn’t cynical policymakers or a misguided electorate who were failing our nation’s public schoolchildren: The real bogeyman was “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”)

Put another way, a first-generation El Salvadoran teenager, crammed into a Van Nuys apartment while acting as the primary caregiver for three younger siblings, would ultimately be held to the same performance-level expectations on the same high-stakes tests as a girl from Palo Alto whose parents attended Dartmouth. Failure of schools to ensure this would (and has) lead to monetary sanctions, mass firings, state and private takeovers, and school closings.

And so, with the stroke of our President’s pen, the act of leveling the playing field was ostensibly underway.

But then the National Alliance for Educational Progress (NAEP) started producing stacks of data that divulged what many educators had already predicted: Testing the bejesus out of high-needs kids probably wasn’t going to make them smarter. Given to a cross-section of the nation’s public school students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade each year, NAEP test results perennially revealed that the policies of NCLB have had no discernable impact on bridging the still seismic math and literacy gaps between low-income children and their wealthier counterparts.

Rather than reversing the wayward course of NCLB, however, President Obama’s approach has proven even more ineffectual — and draconian.

In fact, Obama’s Race to the Top initiative — which posits a child’s education as a cutthroat district-versus-district death race rather than a growth process necessitating patience, insight, collaboration, and compassion – has been derided by some critics as “NCLB on steroids.” As bestselling author and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch writes, “It’s even more demoralizing for teachers and principals than NCLB,” adding, “He wants the teacher-bashing to end, but I wonder if he knows that the worst teacher-bashing started because of his and Arne Duncan’s rhetoric about firing teachers if their students got low test scores?”

Perhaps the most ironic failing of NCLB (and its subsequent mutations) has been its role in blockading a generation of high-needs children from learning experiences that are deemed by our nation’s elite as gateways to becoming a truly educated person. 

Consider, for instance, that the daughter of one of my former professors has been assigned a summer reading list that includes 1984, Great Expectations, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. The list was compiled by her soon-to-be 9th-grade English teacher at the private school she’s slated to attend this fall. Which makes me wonder what percentage of our nation’s low-income and minority public school kids are ever given a chance to explore Orwell, Dickens, and, ironically, Zora Neale Hurston.


And here the term “disadvantaged” takes on an additional meaning. Not only are high-needs students often raised in communities that are segregated by socioeconomic and racial lines; they also typically find themselves attending what Stanford Professor of Education Linda Darling-Hammond and others refer to as “apartheid schools,” where an inferior curriculum featuring the incessant drill-and-kill of test prep is the norm.

Darling-Hammond has galvanized opposition to the brigade of privateers, economists, public officials, and think-tankers who insist that poverty is not a towering roadblock to a child’s cognitive development. In a piece that rails against the government’s fusillade of sanctions aimed at so-called failing schools, she writes:  

Poverty rates make a huge difference in student achievement. Few people are aware, for example, that in 2009 U.S. schools with fewer than 10 percent of student in poverty ranked first among all nations on the Programme for International Achievement tests in reading, while those serving more than 75 percent of students in poverty scored alongside nations like Serbia, ranking about fiftieth.

Sadly, few voices as learned and potent as Darling-Hammond’s were in a position to combat the eventual runaway train of NCLB while it was still in the station. And due to my school’s widespread diversity and poverty, my students were almost instantly subject to the legislation’s litany of fiats. This was actually a mixed bag for me because I was forced to confront the reality that many of my kids’ struggles were actually being codified by the small ideas of powerful people whose lives and minds existed worlds away from my classroom. I no longer had the luxury of ignoring the machinations of education policy.

As the culture of standardized testing took root around me, I eventually joined forces with a handful of compassionate innovators scattered about campus who were as deeply troubled about the direction of public education as I. Together, we pushed to revive a Small Learning Community (SLC) whose objective had wavered over the years. We kept the collaborative's original name (Humanitas) but sharpened its mandate, which would be to help students acquire the array of cognitive skills necessary for them to excel in and, more importantly, beyond high school.

In the years since, Humanitas has become one of LAUSD’s most unheralded success stories. In our drive to elevate literacy, we’ve infused the curriculum with high-interest books, essays, timely news articles, and poems that bolster the classics. (Few teenagers roll out of bed in the morning with a visceral craving for The Republic.) Reading and writing occur across disciplines, and students are routinely challenged to articulate thematic connections (i.e. What is life?) among subjects through concise, coherent prose. Socratic seminars, role-playing, oral presentations, mock trials, and debates are also common modes of assessment. In continually challenging our students to think independently, critically, and holistically, we make every effort to teach beyond the state test’s call for proficiency in basic cognitive skills. In other words, our program is where little bubbles go to die.

But our program is no panacea. Sometimes our students fail. Which means sometimes we fail. Some kids fall victim to drugs, gangs, mental illness, abuse, or ineffably bad choices. Some lose hope. Despite exhaustive efforts to stem the tide of negative, or, in some cases, tragic outcomes, our collective efforts in Humanitas will never be enough to plug all the cracks that some of our students end up falling through.

In education, there are choices to be made that can indeed move the needle of student achievement. Developing a collaborative model, for example, can lead to improvements in the skills and study habits of disadvantaged children. But closing the so-called achievement gap between rich and poor will first require Americans to recognize a far more uncomfortable reality: The policies employed to purportedly address the struggles of low-income children have ushered in a new era of school segregation. Claiming that poverty is no excuse for student failure trivializes the damage caused by years of actions and inactions that have widened the gaps between rich and poor communities. Good schools aren’t molded through harsh sanctions, private takeovers, or even soaring rhetoric. They emerge from healthy, stable communities. That is, they emerge from a commitment to justice.




Testing, Evaluations Don't Reform Schools

By SCARLETT CARROLL | FRESH TALK The Hartford Courant,0,86749.story

7:09 p.m. EDT, July 29, 2014

As the state and federal government continue to make attempts at education reform, many initiatives have been created, most notably creating more comprehensive teacher evaluations, revising teacher tenure and implementing a national standardized performance test called Smarter Balance.

These interventions have been implemented with the vision and hope that ineffective teachers will be weeded out and correspondingly, student performance will improve. While such efforts clearly advocate for quality instruction and increased academic achievement, they unfortunately have fundamental, deeply embedded flaws.

Revisions in teacher tenure and teacher evaluations are intended to try to remove supposedly ineffective teachers from the classroom. The state Board of Education adopted a plan that will incorporate the result of the Smarter Balance test and at least one other as 22.5 percent of a teacher's evaluation. The tests are being tried out and likely will not be included in teacher evaluations for at least another year. The Smarter Balance tests, based on meeting the Common Core State Standards, are replacing the state's mastery and academic performance tests. Although these policies when implemented may help alleviate poor instruction, they do not address the myriad other factors that contribute to low achievement in schools.

Decades upon decades of scholarly research indicate that there are much more comprehensive, system-wide factors that contribute to low performance in school. Some of these factors include extreme poverty, unemployment, neighborhood crime and disorganization, high mobility rates among families, disturbed parent-child relationships, abuse, neglect and lack of access to quality health care — among many others.

These risk factors at the family, neighborhood, community and societal level lead to low achievement among children. This assertion is not only supported by empirical data, but also sound psychological theory. Urie Bronfenbrenner, Albert Bandura and Abraham Maslow all introduced models of child development from an ecological perspective, emphasizing that there are many diverse factors that influence child learning and psychological functioning.

If true education and school reform is to take place, it needs to be addressed at the family, neighborhood and community level. That is, instead of focusing solely on teachers, education interventions would be much more effective if they addressed all areas and risk factors that lead to poor learning outcomes. For example, increasing community supports and resources for families, improving public transportation, expanding academic resources and programs at local libraries, opening up affordable access to basic health care services and family counseling, and creating programs to make healthy foods more affordable and accessible are just some ways the state and federal government could help improve academic achievement.

Low academic achievement is a multifaceted problem that political leaders are trying to address with a very, very narrow solution. Revising teacher evaluations to improve instruction may be well intended but it is not going to change the effects of extreme poverty, poor health care, neighborhood crime, parental neglect and abuse, neighborhood drug prevalence or disturbed child-family relationships. For these issues, we need a more comprehensive reform. Clearly, reforms regarding teacher evaluation and tenure are shortsighted, as they fail to examine so many other risk factors and influences that contribute to poor achievement.

Education reform needs to be conceptualized and implemented on a broader level. By investing in neighborhoods, communities and societal systems at large, our efforts to reform education will be more effective and enduring. Until then, we will continue to find our turnaround efforts frustrating, misguided and highly demoralizing for children, teachers and families.

Scarlett Carroll, 23, of Berlin, is a graduate student in school psychology at Southern Connecticut State University.

The Courant invites writers younger than 30 to write essays of 650 words or less containing strong views. Please email your submission to, with your full name, hometown, daytime phone number, age and occupation (or your school's name and your level in school). You can also fax op-eds to 860-520-6941.


Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant


Teaching with Poverty in Mind

by Eric Jensen

Table of Contents

Chapter 2. How Poverty Affects Behavior and Academic Performance

In Chapter 1, we were introduced to history teacher Chris Hawkins. The family Mr. Hawkins grew up in was far from poor: his father was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and his mother was a store manager. He had no clue what growing up in poverty was like, and he was shocked to learn about what typically goes on (and doesn't go on) in the homes of his kids. He has learned that there's far more behind the apathetic or aggressive behaviors, commonly attributed to a lack of politeness or dismissed as "lower-class” issues, than he had assumed. What he's learned about his students has depressed and discouraged him. The mantra that gets him through the year is the thought that retirement is only six years away.

The Risk Factors of Poverty

There is no shortage of theories explaining behavior differences among children. The prevailing theory among psychologists and child development specialists is that behavior stems from a combination of genes and environment. Genes begin the process: behavioral geneticists commonly claim that DNA accounts for 30–50 percent of our behaviors (Saudino, 2005), an estimate that leaves 50–70 percent explained by environment.

This tidy division of influencing factors may be somewhat misleading, however. First, the effects of the nine months a child spends in utero are far from negligible, especially on IQ (Devlin, Daniels, & Roeder, 1997). Factors such as quality of prenatal care, exposure to toxins, and stress have a strong influence on the developing child. In addition, the relatively new field of epigenetics—the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in primary DNA sequence—blurs the line between nature and nurture. Environment affects the receptors on our cells, which send messages to genes, which turn various functional switches on or off. It's like this: like light switches, genes can be turned on or off. When they're switched on, they send signals that can affect the processes or structures in individual cells. For example, lifting weights tells the genes to "turn on” the signal to build muscle tissue. Genes can be either activated or shut off by a host of other environmental factors, such as stress and nutrition. These switches can either strengthen or impair aggression, immune function, learning, and memory (Rutter, Moffitt, & Caspi, 2006).

Recent evidence (Harris, 2006) suggests that the complex web of social relationships students experience—with peers, adults in the school, and family members—exerts a much greater influence on their behavior than researchers had previously assumed. This process starts with students' core relationships with parents or primary caregivers in their lives, which form a personality that is either secure and attached or insecure and unattached. Securely attached children typically behave better in school (Blair et al., 2008). Once students are in school, the dual factors of socialization and social status contribute significantly to behavior. The school socialization process typically pressures students to be like their peers or risk social rejection, whereas the quest for high social status drives students to attempt to differentiate themselves in some areas—sports, personal style, sense of humor, or street skills, for example.

Socioeconomic status forms a huge part of this equation. Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance. Let's revisit the most significant risk factors affecting children raised in poverty, which I discussed in Chapter 1 (the word EACH is a handy mnemonic):

  • Emotional and Social Challenges.
  • Acute and Chronic Stressors.
  • Cognitive Lags.
  • Health and Safety Issues.


Combined, these factors present an extraordinary challenge to academic and social success. This reality does not mean that success in school or life is impossible. On the contrary, a better understanding of these challenges points to actions educators can take to help their less-advantaged students succeed.

Emotional and Social Challenges

Many low-SES children face emotional and social instability. Typically, the weak or anxious attachments formed by infants in poverty become the basis for full-blown insecurity during the early childhood years. Very young children require healthy learning and exploration for optimal brain development. Unfortunately, in impoverished families there tends to be a higher prevalence of such adverse factors as teen motherhood, depression, and inadequate health care, all of which lead to decreased sensitivity toward the infant (van Ijzendoorn et al., 2004) and, later, poor school performance and behavior on the child's part.

Theory and Research

Beginning at birth, the attachment formed between parent and child predicts the quality of future relationships with teachers and peers (Szewczyk-Sokolowski, Bost, & Wainwright, 2005) and plays a leading role in the development of such social functions as curiosity, arousal, emotional regulation, independence, and social competence (Sroufe, 2005). The brains of infants are hardwired for only six emotions: joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear (Ekman, 2003). To grow up emotionally healthy, children under 3 need

  • A strong, reliable primary caregiver who provides consistent and unconditional love, guidance, and support.
  • Safe, predictable, stable environments.
  • Ten to 20 hours each week of harmonious, reciprocal interactions. This process, known as attunement, is most crucial during the first 6–24 months of infants' lives and helps them develop a wider range of healthy emotions, including gratitude, forgiveness, and empathy.
  • Enrichment through personalized, increasingly complex activities.


Children raised in poverty are much less likely to have these crucial needs met than their more affluent peers are and, as a result, are subject to some grave consequences. Deficits in these areas inhibit the production of new brain cells, alter the path of maturation, and rework the healthy neural circuitry in children's brains, thereby undermining emotional and social development and predisposing them to emotional dysfunction (Gunnar, Frenn, Wewerka, & Van Ryzin, 2009; Miller, Seifer, Stroud, Sheinkopf, & Dickstein, 2006).

The need for human contact and warmth is well established. A study of infants in Irish foundling homes in the early 1900s found that of the 10,272 infants admitted to homes with minimal or absent maternal nurturing over a 25-year period, only 45 survived. Most of the survivors grew into pathologically unstable and socially problem-ridden adults (Joseph, 1999).

In many poor households, parental education is substandard, time is short, and warm emotions are at a premium—all factors that put the attunement process at risk (Feldman & Eidelman, 2009; Kearney, 1997; Segawa, 2008). Caregivers tend to be overworked, overstressed, and authoritarian with children, using the same harsh disciplinary strategies used by their own parents. They often lack warmth and sensitivity (Evans, 2004) and fail to form solid, healthy relationships with their children (Ahnert, Pinquart, & Lamb, 2006).

In addition, low-income caregivers are typically half as likely as higher-income parents are to be able to track down where their children are in the neighborhood (Evans, 2004), and frequently they do not know the names of their children's teachers or friends. One study found that only 36 percent of low-income parents were involved in three or more school activities on a regular basis, compared with 59 percent of parents above the poverty line (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000).

Low-SES children are often left home to fend for themselves and their younger siblings while their caregivers work long hours; compared with their well-off peers, they spend less time playing outdoors and more time watching television and are less likely to participate in after-school activities (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Unfortunately, children won't get the model for how to develop proper emotions or respond appropriately to others from watching cartoons; they need warm, person-to-person interactions. The failure to form positive relationships with peers inflicts long-term socioemotional consequences (Szewczyk-Sokolowski et al., 2005).

The human brain "downloads” the environment indiscriminately in an attempt to understand and absorb the surrounding world, whether that world is positive or negative. When children gain a sense of mastery of their environments, they are more likely to develop feelings of self-worth, confidence, and independence, which play heavily into the formation of children's personalities (Sroufe, 2005) and ultimately predict their success and happiness in relationships and in life in general. Economic hardship makes it more difficult for caregivers to create the trusting environments that build children's secure attachments. Behavior research shows that children from impoverished homes develop psychiatric disturbances and maladaptive social functioning at a greater rate than their affluent counterparts do (McCoy, Firck, Loney, & Ellis, 1999). In addition, low-SES children are more likely to have social conduct problems, as rated by both teachers and peers over a period of four years (Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994). Unfortunately, a study of negative emotionality and maternal support found that low-income parents were less able than were well-off parents to adjust their parenting to the demands of higher-needs children (Paulussen-Hoogeboom, Stams, Hermanns, & Peetsma, 2007).

Low-income parents are often overwhelmed by diminished self-esteem, depression, and a sense of powerlessness and inability to cope—feelings that may get passed along to their children in the form of insufficient nurturing, negativity, and a general failure to focus on children's needs. In a study of emotional problems of children of single mothers, Keegan-Eamon and Zuehl (2001) found that the stress of poverty increases depression rates among mothers, which results in an increased use of physical punishment. Children themselves are also susceptible to depression: research shows that poverty is a major predictor of teenage depression (Denny, Clark, Fleming, & Wall, 2004).

Effects on School Behavior and Performance

Strong, secure relationships help stabilize children's behavior and provide the core guidance needed to build lifelong social skills. Children who grow up with such relationships learn healthy, appropriate emotional responses to everyday situations. But children raised in poor households often fail to learn these responses, to the detriment of their school performance. For example, students with emotional dysregulation may get so easily frustrated that they give up on a task when success was just moments away. And social dysfunction may inhibit students' ability to work well in cooperative groups, quite possibly leading to their exclusion by group members who believe they aren't "doing their part” or "pulling their share of the load.” This exclusion and the accompanying decrease in collaboration and exchange of information exacerbate at-risk students' already shaky academic performance and behavior.

Some teachers may interpret students' emotional and social deficits as a lack of respect or manners, but it is more accurate and helpful to understand that the students come to school with a narrower range of appropriate emotional responses than we expect. The truth is that many children simply don't have the repertoire of necessary responses. It is as though their brains' "emotional keyboards” play only a few notes (see Figure 2.1).


Figure 2.1. The Emotional Keyboard



The proper way to deal with such a deficit is first to understand students' behavior and then to lay out clear behavioral expectations without sarcasm or resentment. Understand that children raised in poverty are more likely to display

  • "Acting-out” behaviors.
  • Impatience and impulsivity.
  • Gaps in politeness and social graces.
  • A more limited range of behavioral responses.
  • Inappropriate emotional responses.
  • Less empathy for others' misfortunes.


These behaviors will likely puzzle, frustrate, or irritate teachers who have less experience teaching students raised in poverty, but it's important to avoid labeling, demeaning, or blaming students. It is much easier to condemn a student's behavior and demand that he or she change it than it is to help the student change it. Every proper response that you don't see at your school is one that you need to be teaching. Rather than telling kids to "be respectful,” demonstrate appropriate emotional responses and the circumstances in which to use them, and allow students to practice applying them. To shift your own responses to inappropriate behavior, reframe your thinking: expect students to be impulsive, to blurt inappropriate language, and to act "disrespectful” until you teach them stronger social and emotional skills and until the social conditions at your school make it attractive not to do those things.

It's impossible to overemphasize this: every emotional response other than the six hardwired emotions of joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear must be taught. Cooperation, patience, embarrassment, empathy, gratitude, and forgiveness are crucial to a smoothly running complex social environment (like a classroom). When students lack these learned responses, teachers who expect humility or penitence may get a smirk instead, a response that may lead teachers to believe the student has an "attitude.” It's the primary caregiver's job to teach the child when and how to display these emotional responses, but when students do not bring these necessary behaviors to school, the school must teach them.

What all students do bring to school are three strong "relational” forces that drive their school behaviors (Harris, 2006):

  1. The drive for reliable relationships. Students want the safety of a primary safe and reliable relationship. Students would prefer parents, positive friends, and teachers, but they'd take an "iffy” friend if no one else were available. The relationships that teachers build with students form the single strongest access to student goals, socialization, motivation, and academic performance. For your school to foster high achievement, every student will need a reliable partner or mentor.
  2. The strengthening of peer socialization. Socialization is the drive for acceptance that encourages students to imitate their peers and join groups, from clubs to cliques to gangs. Students want to belong somewhere. Evidence suggests that it is peers, not parents, who have the greatest influence on school-age students (Harris, 1998). If your school aims to improve student achievement, academic success must be culturally acceptable among your students.
  3. The quest for importance and social status. This is the quest to feel special. Students compete for attention and social elevation by choosing roles that will distinguish them (e.g., athlete, comedian, storyteller, gang leader, scholar, or style maverick). Kids are very interested in what other kids do, whether others like them, and how they rate on the social scale (Harris, 2006). Every student will need to feel like the "status hunt” can just as well lead to better grades as better behaviors.


Each of these forces shapes behaviors in significant ways. Schools that succeed use a combination of formal and informal strategies to influence these three domains. Informally, teachers can incorporate classroom strategies that build relationships and strengthen peer acceptance and social skills in class. This is a fair warning to all administrators: do not dismiss the so-called "soft side” of students' lives, the social side. It runs their brains, their feelings, and their behaviors—and those three run cognition! There is a complex interplay between cognition and emotions. When students feel socialized and accepted, they perform better academically. However, pushing students harder and harder into performing well academically may conflict with social/relational success. You will hit a test score ceiling until you include students' emotional and social lives in your school "makeover.” Accordingly, throughout the remainder of this book, I offer specific strategies that address all three of the relational forces.

Action Steps

Embody respect. You can't change what's in your students' bank account, but you can change what's in their emotional account. It may require a considerable shift in your thinking. It is fruitless simply to demand respect from students; many just don't have the context, background, or skills to show it. Instead,

  • Give respect to students first, even when they seem least to deserve it.
  • Share the decision making in class. For example, ask students whether they would prefer to do a quick review of what they have learned to consolidate and strengthen their learning or move on to new material.
  • Avoid such directives as "Do this right now!” Instead, maintain expectations while offering choice and soliciting input (e.g., "Would you rather do your rough draft now or gather some more ideas first?”).
  • Avoid demeaning sarcasm (e.g., "How about you actually do your assignment quietly for a change?”).
  • Model the process of adult thinking. For example, say, "We have to get this done first because we have only enough time for these three things today.” Keep your voice calm and avoid labeling actions.
  • Discipline through positive relationships, not by exerting power or authority. Avoid such negative directives as "Don't be a wise guy!” or "Sit down immediately!” Instead say, "We've got lots to do in class today. When you're ready to learn, please have a seat.”


Embed social skills. At every grade level, use a variety of classroom strategies that strengthen social and emotional skills. For example,

  • Teach basic but crucial meet-and-greet skills. Early in the year, when students introduce themselves to other classmates, teach students to face one another, make eye contact, smile, and shake hands.
  • Embed turn-taking skills in class, even at the secondary level. You can introduce and embed these skills using such strategies as learning stations, partner work, and cooperative learning.
  • Remind students to thank their classmates after completing collaborative activities.
  • Implement social-emotional skill-building programs in the early years. Programs like the PATHS program, Conscious Discipline, and Love and Logic embed social skills into a classroom management framework.


Be inclusive. Create a familial atmosphere by using inclusive and affiliative language. For example,

  • Always refer to the school as "our school” and the class as "our class”; avoid using a me-and-you model that reinforces power structures.
  • Acknowledge students who make it to class, and thank them for small things.
  • Celebrate effort as well as achievement; praise students for reaching milestones as well as for fulfilling end goals. Pack acknowledgments and celebrations into every single class.


Acute and Chronic Stressors

Stress can be defined as the physiological response to the perception of loss of control resulting from an adverse situation or person. Occasional or "roller-coaster” stress is healthy for all of us; it supports our immune function and helps develop resiliency. However, the acute and chronic stress that children raised in poverty experience leaves a devastating imprint on their lives. Acute stress refers to severe stress resulting from exposure to such trauma as abuse or violence, whereas chronic stress refers to high stress sustained over time. Low-SES children are more subject to both of these types of stress than are their more affluent peers, but chronic stress is more common and exerts a more relentless influence on children's day-today lives. Children living in poverty experience significantly greater chronic stress than do their more affluent counterparts (Almeida, Neupert, Banks, & Serido, 2005) (see Figure 2.2). This kind of stress exerts a devastating, insidious influence on children's physical, psychological, emotional, and cognitive functioning—areas that affect brain development, academic success, and social competence. Students subjected to such stress may lack crucial coping skills and experience significant behavioral and academic problems in school.


Figure 2.2. Number of Stressors for Poor vs. Nonpoor Children



Source: Adapted from "Cumulative Risk, Maternal Responsiveness, and Allostatic Load Among Young Adolescents,” by G. W. Evans, P. Kim, A. H. Ting, H. B. Tesher, and D. Shannis, 2007, Developmental Psychology, 43(2), pp. 341–351.



Theory and Research

The biology of stress is simple in some ways and complex in others. On a basic level, every one of the 30–50 trillion cells in your body is experiencing either healthy or unhealthy growth. Cells cannot grow and deteriorate at the same time. Ideally, the body is in homeostatic balance: a state in which the vital measures of human function—heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and so on—are in their optimal ranges. A stressor is anything that threatens to disrupt homeostasis—for example, criticism, neglect, social exclusion, lack of enrichment, malnutrition, drug use, exposure to toxins, abuse, or trauma. When cells aren't growing, they're in a "hunker down” mode that conserves resources for a threatened future. When billions or trillions of cells are under siege in this manner, you get problems.

Although the body is well adapted to deal with short-term threats to homeostasis, chronic or acute stressors challenge the body differently. Among low-income families, stressors may include living in overcrowded, substandard housing or unsafe neighborhoods; enduring community or domestic violence, separation or divorce, or the loss of family members; and experiencing financial strain, forced mobility, or material deprivation (Evans & English, 2002). The frequency and intensity of both stressful life events and daily hassles are greater among low-SES children (Attar, Guerra, & Tolan, 1994). For example, in any given year, more than half of all poor children deal with evictions, utility disconnections, overcrowding, or lack of a stove or refrigerator, compared with only 13 percent of well-off children (Lichter, 1997). In addition, such factors as lack of proper supervision, physical neglect or abuse, inadequate day care and schools, difficulties in forming healthy friendships, and vulnerability to depression combine to exert inordinate and debilitating stress upon the developing child.

More often than not, low-income parents are overstressed in trying to meet the daily needs of their families. The resulting depression and negativity often lead to insufficient nurturing, disengaged parenting, and a difficulty in focusing on the needs of children. Compared with middle-income children, low-SES children are exposed to higher levels of familial violence, disruption, and separation (Emery & Laumann-Billings, 1998). Lower levels of parental education and occupation also correlate with greater incidence of neighborhood crimes (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). And compared with their well-off peers, 2- to 4-year-olds from low-income families interact with aggressive peers 40 percent more often in their neighborhoods and 25 percent more often in child care settings (Sinclair, Pettit, Harrist, Dodge, & Bates, 1994).

Abuse is a major stressor to children raised in poverty. Numerous studies (Gershoff, 2002; Slack, Holl, McDaniel, Yoo, & Bolger, 2004) document that caregivers' disciplinary strategies grow harsher as income decreases. Lower-income parents are, on average, more authoritarian with their children, tending to issue harsh demands and inflict physical punishment such as spanking (Bradley, Corwyn, Burchinal, McAdoo, & Coll, 2001; Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo, & Coll, 2001). One study found that blue-collar parents were twice as likely to use physical punishment with their 7-year-olds as white-collar parents were (Evans, 2004). Hussey, Chang, and Kotch (2006) found that poor children were 1.52 times more likely to report physical neglect and 1.83 times more likely to report sexual abuse than were well-off children. Abuse occurs with much higher frequency when the parents use alcohol or drugs, experience an array of stressful life events (Emery & Laumann-Billings, 1998), or live in decrepit, crime-ridden neighborhoods with limited social support networks (Jack & Jordan, 1999).

The cost of these constant stressors is hard to quantify. Exposure to chronic or acute stress is hardwired into children's developing brains, creating a devastating, cumulative effect (Coplan et al., 1996). Compared with a healthy neuron, a stressed neuron generates a weaker signal, handles less blood flow, processes less oxygen, and extends fewer connective branches to nearby cells. The prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, crucial for learning, cognition, and working memory, are the areas of the brain most affected by cortisol, the so-called "stress hormone.” Experiments have demonstrated that exposure to chronic or acute stress actually shrinks neurons in the brain's frontal lobes—an area that includes the prefrontal cortex and is responsible for such functions as making judgments, planning, and regulating impulsivity (Cook & Wellman, 2004)—and can modify and impair the hippocampus in ways that reduce learning capacity (Vythilingam et al., 2002).

Unpredictable stressors severely impair the brain's capacity to learn and remember (Yang et al., 2003). Child abuse, for example, is highly disruptive to such developmental processes as the formation of healthy attachments, emotional regulation, and temperament formation, and leads to a wide array of social-emotional and psychological disturbances in adulthood (Emery & Laumann-Billings, 1998). Neurobiological studies have shown considerable alterations in the brain development of neglected or abused children. The production of "fight-or-flight” stress hormones in these children atrophies the areas that control emotional regulation, empathy, social functioning, and other skills imperative to healthy emotional development (Joseph, 1999).

Chronic stress not only diminishes the complexity of neurons in the frontal lobe and the hippocampus but also increases the complexity of neurons in the amygdala, the brain's emotion center (Conrad, 2006). This increased complexity may make the stressed brain's neurons far more sensitive to memory modulation than neurons in nonstressed brains. In chronically stressed kids, the combined effects on the hippocampus and the amygdala may be precisely what facilitates emotional memory (the aspect of memory that encompasses highly salient memories of events such as divorce, abuse, trauma, death, or abandonment) and reduces declarative memory (the aspect of memory that stores standard knowledge and learning).

Chronic, unmediated stress often results in a condition known as an allostatic load. Allostatic load is "carryover” stress. Instead of returning to a healthy baseline of homeostasis, the growing brain adapts to negative life experiences so that it becomes either hyper-responsive or hypo-responsive. Szanton, Gill, and Allen (2005) found higher rates of chronic stress and allostatic load among low-income populations than among high-income populations.

Effects on School Behavior and Performance

Kids coming to your school don't wear signs that say "Caution! Chronic Stressors Live Here.” But stress has an insidious effect on learning and behavior, and you should recognize the symptoms in the classroom. Chronic stress

  • Is linked to over 50 percent of all absences (Johnston-Brooks, Lewis, Evans, & Whalen, 1998).
  • Impairs attention and concentration (Erickson, Drevets, & Schulkin, 2003).
  • Reduces cognition, creativity, and memory (Lupien, King, Meaney, & McEwen, 2001).
  • Diminishes social skills and social judgment (Wommack & Delville, 2004).
  • Reduces motivation, determination, and effort (Johnson, 1981).
  • Increases the likelihood of depression (Hammack, Robinson, Crawford, & Li, 2004).
  • Reduces neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) (De Bellis et al., 2001).

REDUCE the stress and anxiety levels as much as possible.

A child who comes from a stressful home environment tends to channel that stress into disruptive behavior at school and be less able to develop a healthy social and academic life (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). Impulsivity, for example, is a common disruptive classroom behavior among low-SES students. But it's actually an exaggerated response to stress that serves as a survival mechanism: in conditions of poverty, those most likely to survive are those who have an exaggerated stress response. Each risk factor in a student's life increases impulsivity and diminishes his or her capacity to defer gratification (see Figure 2.3) (Evans, 2003).


Figure 2.3. Cumulative Risk Factors: More Stress = Less Delayed Gratification = More Impulsivity



Source: Adapted from "A Multimethodological Analysis of Cumulative Risk and Allostatic Load Among Rural Children,” by G. W. Evans, 2003, Developmental Psychology, 39(5), pp. 924–933.



Students raised in poverty are especially subject to stressors that undermine school behavior and performance. For example, girls exposed to abuse tend to experience mood swings in school, while boys experience impairments in curiosity, learning, and memory (Zuena et al., 2008). And the stress resulting from transience—frequent short-distance, poverty-related moves (Schafft, 2006)—also impairs students' ability to succeed in school and engage in positive social interactions. Whereas middle-class families usually move for social or economic improvement, the moves of low-income households are typically not voluntary. In addition to increasing children's uncertainty about the future, these moves compound their stress load by disrupting their social interactions both within the community and in academic environments (Schafft, 2006).

Students who have to worry over safety concerns also tend to underperform academically (Pratt, Tallis, & Eysenck, 1997). Exposure to community violence—an unsafe home neighborhood or a dangerous path to school— contributes to lower academic performance (Schwartz & Gorman, 2003). In addition, stress resulting from bullying and school violence impairs test scores, diminishes attention spans, and increases absenteeism and tardiness (Hoffman, 1996). It is discouraging, but many high school students either stay home or skip classes due to fear of violence.

Socioeconomic status correlates positively with good parenting, which, research has found, improves academic achievement (DeGarmo, Forgatch, & Martinez, 1999). Unfortunately, the converse is also true: the chronic stress of poverty impairs parenting skills, and disengaged or negative parenting in turn impairs children's school performance. Parents who are struggling just to stay afloat tend to work extra hours, odd shifts, or multiple jobs and are less able to provide attention and affection and to devote their time, energy, and resources to their children. These deficits have been associated with higher levels of externalizing behaviors and poor academic performance on children's part (Hsuch & Yoshikawa, 2007).

Fishbein and colleagues (2006) found that adolescence, a period accompanied by dramatic brain changes, is a particularly vulnerable time for children to be exposed to chronic stress. They found that risky decision making (such as alcohol or drug use) and poor social competency correlated with adolescents' previous exposure to highly stressful life events.

In addition, stress adversely affects cognition. One randomized, doubleblind, placebo-controlled study tested the effects of oral doses of cortisol (the stress chemical) on subjects (Newcomer et al., 1999). Cortisol treatment at the higher dose produced reversible decreases in verbal declarative memory in otherwise healthy individuals (Newcomer et al., 1999).

Exposure to chronic or acute stress is debilitating. The most common adaptive behaviors include increased anxiety (as manifested in generalized anxiety disorders or posttraumatic stress disorder) and an increased sense of detachment and helplessness. Students from low-income families who experience disruptive or traumatic events or who lack a measure of connectedness—to family, to the community, or to a religious affiliation—demonstrate increased hopelessness over time (Bolland, Lian, & Formichella, 2005). Nearly half (47 percent) of low-SES African American adolescents reported clinically significant levels of depressive symptoms (Hammack et al., 2004). Low-SES students are more likely to give up or become passive and uninterested in school (Johnson, 1981). This giving-up process is known as learned helplessness. It's not genetic; it's an adaptive response to life conditions. And sadly, it frequently takes hold as early as 1st grade. Many kids with learned helplessness become fatalistic about their lives and are more likely to drop out of school or become pregnant while in their teens.

It is well documented that the effect of stressors is cumulative (Astone, Misra, & Lynch, 2007; Evans, 2004; Evans & English, 2002; Evans, Kim, Ting, Tesher, & Shannis, 2007; Geronimus, Hicken, Keene, & Bound, 2006; Lucey, 2007). Children who have had greater exposure to abuse, neglect, danger, loss, or other poverty-related experiences are more reactive to stressors. Each stressor builds on and exacerbates other stressors and slowly changes the student. It is the cumulative effect of all the stressors that often makes life miserable for poor students.

When researchers provided classes in appropriate coping skills and stress-relieving techniques, subjects demonstrated a decrease in hostility (Wadsworth, Raviv, Compas, & Connor-Smith, 2005) or depressive symptoms (Peden, Rayens, Hall, & Grant, 2005). Unfortunately, these interventions, along with stress-relieving recreational activities, are largely unavailable to those living in poverty. For example, neighborhood parks and recreational facilities tend to be scarcer, in hazardous areas, or in disrepair (Evans, 2004). Poor children are half as likely as well-off children are to be taken to museums, theaters, or the library, and they are less likely to go on vacations or on other fun or culturally enriching outings (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002).

Action Steps

Recognize the signs. Behavior that comes off as apathetic or rude may actually indicate feelings of hopelessness or despair. It is crucial for teachers to recognize the signs of chronic stress in students. Students who are at risk for a stress-related disorder tend to

  • Believe that they have minimal control over stressors.
  • Have no idea how long the stressors will last, or how intense they will remain.
  • Have few outlets through which they can release the frustration caused by the stressors.
  • Interpret stressors as evidence of circumstances worsening or becoming more hopeless.
  • Lack social support for the duress caused by the stressors.


Share with other staff members why it's so important to avoid criticizing student impulsivity and "me first” behaviors. Whenever you and your colleagues witness a behavior you consider inappropriate, ask yourselves whether the discipline process is positive and therefore increases the chances for better future behavior, or whether it's punitive and therefore reduces the chances for better future behavior.

Alter the environment. Change the school environment to mitigate stress and resolve potential compliance issues with students who do not want to change:

  • Reduce the parallels with prison. For example, consider eliminating bells and instead playing songs for class transitions.
  • Reduce homework stress by incorporating time for homework in class or right after class.
  • Use cooperative structures; avoid a top-down authoritarian approach.
  • Help students blow off steam by incorporating celebrations, role-plays, and physical activities (e.g., walks, relays, or games) into your classes.
  • Incorporate kinesthetic arts (e.g., drama or charades), creative projects (e.g., drawing or playing instruments), and hands-on activities (e.g., building or fixing) into your classes.


Empower students. Help students increase their perception of control over their environment by showing them how to better manage their own stress levels. Instead of telling students to act differently, take the time to teach them how to act differently by

  • Introducing conflict resolution skills. For example, teach students a multistep process for handling upsets, starting with step 1: "Take a deep breath and count to five.”
  • Teaching students how to deal with anger and frustration (e.g., counting to 10 and taking slow, deep breaths).
  • Introducing responsibilities and the value of giving restitution. In schools that embrace restitution, students understand that if they disrupt class, they need to "make it right” by doing something positive for the class. For example, a student who throws objects in the classroom may be assigned a cleaning or beautification project for the room.
  • Teaching students to set goals to focus on what they want.
  • Role-modeling how to solve real-world problems. Share an actual or hypothetical situation, such as your car running out of gas. You could explain that you tried to stretch the tank of gas too far and reveal how you dealt with the problem (e.g., calling a friend to bring some gas). Such examples show students how to take responsibility for and resolve the challenges they face in life.
  • Giving students a weekly life problem to solve collectively.
  • Teaching social skills. For example, before each social interaction (e.g., pair-share or buddy teaching), ask students to make eye contact, shake hands, and give a greeting. At the end of each interaction, have students thank their partners.
  • Introducing stress reduction techniques, both physical (e.g., dance or yoga) and mental (e.g., guided periods of relaxation or meditation).


Cognitive Lags

Cognitive ability is highly complex. It can be measured in many different ways and is affected by numerous factors, not least of which is socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status is strongly associated with a number of indices of children's cognitive ability, including IQ, achievement tests, grade retention rates, and literacy (Baydar, Brooks-Gunn, & Furstenberg, 1993; Brooks-Gunn, Guo, & Furstenberg, 1993; Liaw & Brooks-Gunn, 1994; Smith, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1997). There is a gulf between poor and well-off children's performance on just about every measure of cognitive development, from the Bayley Infant Behavior Scales to standardized achievement tests. The correlations between socioeconomic status and cognitive ability and performance are typically quite significant (Gottfried, Gottfried, Bathurst, Guerin, & Parramore, 2003) and persist throughout the stages of development, from infancy through adolescence and into adulthood (see Figure 2.4). But these are data, not destiny. The good news is that brains are designed to change.


Figure 2.4. How Experience Affects Cognitive Development



Source: Adapted from "Environmental Risk Factors in Infancy,” by A. Sameroff, 1998, Pediatrics, 102(5), pp. 1287–1292.



Theory and Research

To function at school, the brain uses an overarching "operating system” that comprises a collection of neurocognitive systems enabling students to pay attention, work hard, process and sequence content, and think critically (see Figure 2.5). Five key systems are

  • The prefrontal/executive system. This system, which engages the prefrontal cortex, includes our capacity to defer gratification, create plans, make decisions, and hold thoughts in mind. It also allows us to "reset” our brains' rules for how to behave. For example, we might have one set of rules for how to behave to our families and another set of rules for how to respond to strangers.
  • The left perisylvian/language system. This system, which engages the temporal and frontal areas of the left brain hemisphere, encompasses semantic, syntactic, and phonological aspects of language. It is the foundation for our reading, pronunciation, spelling, and writing skills.
  • The medial temporal/memory system. This system allows us to process explicit learning (text, spoken words, and pictures) and, if appropriate, store that learning. It includes our "indexing” structure (the hippocampus) and our emotional processor (the amygdala).
  • The parietal/spatial cognition system. This system underlies our ability to mentally represent and manipulate the spatial relations among objects and primarily engages the posterior parietal cortex. This brain area is especially important for organizing, sequencing, and visualizing information. It is essential for mathematics and music and for feeling a sense of organization.
  • The occipitotemporal/visual cognition system. This system is responsible for pattern recognition and visual mental imagery, translating mental images into more abstract representations of object shape and identity, and reciprocally translating visual memory knowledge into mental images (Gardini, Cornoldi, De Beni, & Venneri, 2008).



Figure 2.5. Brain Areas of Known Difference Between Low- and Middle-Income Children



Source: Adapted from "Neurocognitive Correlates of Socioeconomic Status in Kindergarten Children,” by K. G. Noble, M. F. Norman, and M. J. Farah, 2005, Developmental Science, 8, pp. 74–87.



The value of understanding "where” in the brain vital processes occur cannot be overstated; there are significant contrasts in these key systems between the brains of lower-SES and higher-SES individuals.

With the advent of cognitive neuroscience, it has become possible to assess these systems more selectively. One study (Noble, Norman, & Farah, 2005) examined the neurocognitive performance of 30 low-SES and 30 well-off African American kindergartners in the Philadelphia public schools. The children were tested on a battery of tasks adapted from the cognitive neuroscience literature, designed to assess the functioning of the aforementioned key neurocognitive systems. This was one of the first studies that showed both global and specific brain differences between lower-income and higher-income children. Another study (Farah et al., 2006) assessed middle schoolers' working memory and cognitive control and also found significant disparities between lower-income and higher-income students in the five neurocognitive areas. I'm often asked, "Has anyone actually scanned the brains of low-SES children and contrasted them with those of higher-SES children?” Yes, it has been done. And when the data are compiled and viewed by effect size, the areas of difference become dramatic (see Figure 2.6).


Figure 2.6. How Do the Brains of Children from Poverty Differ?



Source: Adapted from "Neurocognitive Correlates of Socioeconomic Status in Kindergarten Children,” by K. G. Noble, M. F. Norman, and M. J. Farah, 2005, Developmental Science, 8, pp. 74–87.



In another study (Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007), 150 healthy, socioeconomically diverse 1st graders were administered tasks tapping language skills, visual-spatial skills, memory, working memory, cognitive control, and reward processing. Socioeconomic status accounted for more than 30 percent of the variance in the left perisylvian/language system and a smaller but significant portion of the variance in most other systems.

One possible explanation of the strong association between socioeconomic status and language is that the perisylvian brain regions involved in language processing undergo a more protracted course of maturation in vivo (i.e., once the child is born) than any other neural region (Sowell et al., 2003). It is possible that a longer period of development leaves the language system more susceptible to environmental influences (Noble et al., 2005).

For example, we have discovered that the quantity, quality, and context of parents' speech matter a great deal (Hoff, 2003). Children's vocabulary competence is influenced by the mother's socio-demographic characteristics, personal characteristics, vocabulary, and knowledge of child development (Bornstein, Haynes, & Painter, 1998). By the time most children start school, they will have been exposed to 5 million words and should know about 13,000 of them. By high school, they should know about 60,000 to 100,000 words (Huttenlocher, 1998). But that doesn't often happen in low-income homes. Weizman and Snow (2001) found that low-income caregivers speak in shorter, more grammatically simple sentences. There is less back-and-forth— fewer questions asked and fewer explanations given. As a result, children raised in poverty experience a more limited range of language capabilities. Figures 2.7 and 2.8 illustrate how parents' speech affects their children's vocabulary.


Figure 2.7. Talking to Infants: The Cumulative Effects of Mother's Speech on Vocabulary of 2-Year-Olds



Source: Adapted from "Early Vocabulary Growth: Relation to Language Input and Gender," by J. Huttenlocher, W. Haight, A. Bryk, M. Seltzer, and R. Lyons, 1991, Developmental Psychology, 27(2), pp. 236–248.




Figure 2.8. Daily Parent-Child Speech Interactions



Source: Adapted from Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, by B. Hart and T. Risley, 1995, Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.



At the preschool level, inattention from care providers has a huge impact on the child's developing language skills and future IQ scores. A six-year study by Hart and Risley (1995) that followed the outcomes of children selected from different socioeconomic backgrounds found that by age 3, the children of professional parents were adding words to their vocabularies at about twice the rate of children in welfare families. Both the quantity and the quality of phrases directed at the children by caregivers correlated directly with income levels. They found that a pattern of slow vocabulary growth helped put in place a slower cognitive pattern by the time children turned 3. In fact, IQ tests performed later in childhood showed the welfare students' scores trailing behind those of the more affluent children by up to 29 percent. Parents of low socioeconomic status are also less likely to tailor their conversations to evoke thoughtful and reasoned responses from their children.

Going hand in hand with language acquisition, reading is one of the most important factors affecting the development of a child's brain. Reading skills are not hardwired into the human brain; every subskill of reading, including (but not limited to) phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary, phonics, and comprehension, must be explicitly taught. This teaching requires attention, focus, and motivation from the primary caregiver. Again, the time and expertise to make this happen are unfortunately in short supply among poor families. Evidence suggests that poverty adversely alters the trajectory of the developing reading brain (Noble, Wolmetz, Ochs, Farah, & McCandliss, 2006).

Even when low-income parents do everything they can for their children, their limited resources put kids at a huge disadvantage. The growing human brain desperately needs coherent, novel, challenging input, or it will scale back its growth trajectory. When a child is neglected, the brain does not grow as much (De Bellis, 2005; Grassi-Oliveira, Ashy, & Stein, 2008). Unfortunately, low-SES children overall receive less cognitive stimulation than middle-income children do. For example, they are less likely to be read to by parents: Coley (2002) found that only 36 percent of low-income parents read to their kindergarten-age children each day, compared with 62 percent of upper-income parents. In addition, low-SES children are less likely to be coached in learning skills or helped with homework, and they are half as likely as their well-off peers to be taken to museums (Bradley, Corwyn, Burchinal et al., 2001; Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo et al., 2001) and on other culturally enriching outings. They also have fewer play areas in their homes; have less access to computers and the Internet (and use them in less sophisticated ways); own fewer books, toys, and other recreational or learning materials; spend more time watching television; and are less likely to have friends over to play (Evans, 2004). Low-income parents' financial limitations often exclude their kids from healthy after-school activities, such as music, athletics, dance, or drama (Bracey, 2006).

Effects on School Behavior and Performance

Many children raised in poverty enter school a step behind their well-off peers. The cognitive stimulation parents provide in the early childhood years is crucial, and as we have seen, poor children receive less of it than their well-off peers do. These deficits have been linked to underdeveloped cognitive, social, and emotional competence in later childhood and have been shown to be increasingly important influences on vocabulary growth, IQ, and social skills (Bradley, Corwyn, Burchinal et al., 2001; Bradley, Corwyn, McAdoo et al., 2001). Standardized intelligence tests show a correlation between poverty and lower cognitive achievement, and low-SES kids often earn below-average scores in reading, math, and science and demonstrate poor writing skills. Although the effects of poverty are not automatic or fixed, they often set in motion a vicious and stubborn cycle of low expectations. Poor academic performance often leads to diminished expectations, which spread across the board and undermine children's overall self-esteem.

The dramatic socioeconomic divide in education doesn't help matters. High-poverty, high-minority schools receive significantly less state and local money than do more prosperous schools, and students in such schools are more likely to be taught by teachers who are inexperienced or teaching outside their specialties (Jerald, 2001) (see Figure 2.9). This gap is most evident in the subjects of math and reading.

Figure 2.9. Percentage of Teachers Outside Their Subject Expertise Assigned to Teach in High-Poverty Schools




Physical Science

All Public Schools





High-Poverty Schools





Source: Adapted from Dispelling the Myth Revisited: Preliminary Findings from a Nationwide Analysis of "High-Flying” Schools, by C. D. Jerald, 2001, Washington, DC: The Education Trust.


Constantino (2005) examined six communities in the greater Los Angeles, California, area and found that children in high-income communities had access to significantly more books than children in low-income communities did. In fact, she found that in some affluent communities, children had more books in their homes than low-SES children had in all school sources combined. Milne and Plourde (2006) identified six 2nd graders who came from low-income households but demonstrated high achievement and found that these children's parents provided educational materials, implemented and engaged in structured reading and study time, limited television viewing, and emphasized the importance of education. The researchers concluded that many of the factors of low socioeconomic status that negatively affect student academic success could be overcome by better educating parents about these essential needs.

The composite of academic skills needed for school success is actually a short list. I have introduced these skills as chunks scattered throughout this chapter. In Chapter 3, I list them together as an aggregate of subskills I call the fundamental "operating system” for academic success.

Action Steps

Build core skills. When students underperform academically, teachers can use assessments as an initial roadmap to ascertain the range and depth of skill building they need. Of course, assessments don't measure every skill that students need to succeed in school. Those core skills include

  • Attention and focus skills.
  • Short- and long-term memory.
  • Sequencing and processing skills.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • Perseverance and ability to apply skills in the long term.
  • Social skills.
  • Hopefulness and self-esteem.


Once you determine which skills your students most need to hone, create a plan, find a program, and allocate the resources. Later in this book, I address the logistics of implementing an intervention program. Some of the most important skills teachers should foster are social skills and problem-solving skills. When schools teach kids the social skills to resist peer pressure, for example, students stay in school longer, do better academically, and get in less trouble (Wright, Nichols, Graber, Brooks-Gunn, & Botvin, 2004). It is also essential to explicitly teach and model problem-solving skills and provide feedback to students. Here's an example of an established problem-solving process you can post in the classroom:

  1. Identify and define the problem.
  2. Brainstorm solutions.
  3. Evaluate each solution with a checklist or rubric.
  4. Implement the selected solution.
  5. Follow up and debrief on the results to learn.


In addition to posting a model, you can create simple case studies with real-world problems for students to solve. For example, "You are leaving a shopping mall with friends late at night. Your friend is supposed to do the driving. But as far as you can tell, he looks pretty wasted. You have to get home soon or you'll get in trouble. What do you do?”

Pinpoint assessments. Helping to improve students' cognitive abilities and academic performance takes more than just knowing that a student is behind in a given area. For example, with reading skills, you'll want to find out if the student's difficulty is rooted in

  • A vision or a hearing problem.
  • A tracking issue.
  • A vocabulary deficit.
  • A comprehension challenge.
  • A phonemic awareness or phonics issue.
  • A fluency problem.


Quality assessment is essential, but follow-through is even more important. Pinpointed assessments are crucial to determine areas of strength and weakness. For example, the Woodcock-Johnson III Diagnostic Reading Battery can reveal specific areas that need targeted practice.

Provide hope and support. Any student who feels "less than” cognitively is likely not only to struggle academically, but also to be susceptible to such secondary issues as acting out, getting bullied or becoming a bully, having lower self-esteem, or having feelings of depression or helplessness. Ensure that teachers build supportive relationships, provide positive guidance, foster hope and optimism, and take time for affirmation and celebration.

Although the cognitive deficits in children from low-income families can seem daunting, the strategies available today are far more targeted and effective than ever before. Kids from all over the United States can succeed with the right interventions. I discuss these further in Chapters 4 and 5.

Recruit and train the best staff you can. You cannot afford to let disadvantaged kids receive substandard teaching. A Boston Public Schools (1998) study of the effects of teachers found that in one academic year, the top third of teachers produced as much as six times the learning growth as the bottom third of teachers did. Tenth graders taught by the least effective teachers made almost no gains in reading and even lost ground in math. To find superior teachers, start asking around the district and at conferences, post ads for teachers who love kids and love challenges, and ask the existing good teachers at your school, "How do we keep you here?” Recruiting great teachers is never easy, but it is possible if you know how to appeal to them. Top teachers crave challenge and workplace flexibility and look for highly supportive administrators. They continually strive to upgrade their skills and knowledge by participating in staff development, attending out-of-town conferences, and seeking out printed materials or DVDs. Appeal to their values and specify what you can offer.

Health and Safety Issues

As we have seen, low-SES children are often subject to such health and safety issues as malnutrition, environmental hazards, and insufficient health care. Health and achievement overlap: every cell in our body needs a healthy environment to function optimally. When a body's cells are besieged daily by stressors, they slow their growth trajectory and contract. Kids raised in poverty have more cells in their body "under siege” than do kids from middle- or upper-income families. The consequent adaptations that these kids' immune systems make diminish their ability to concentrate, learn, and behave appropriately.

Theory and Research

Stanford neuroscientist and stress expert Robert Sapolsky (2005) found that the lower a child's socioeconomic status is, the lower his or her overall health. Substandard housing in low-income neighborhoods leaves children exposed to everything from greater pedestrian risks (heavier traffic on narrower streets) to environmental hazards (exposure to radon and carbon monoxide) (Evans, 2004). Poor housing quality may cause respiratory morbidity and childhood injuries (Matte & Jacobs, 2000) and may elevate psychological distress in children (Evans, Wells, & Moch, 2003). Poor children are more likely to live in old and inadequately maintained housing and to be exposed to lead in peeling paint (Sargent et al., 1995)—a factor associated with decreased IQ (Schwartz, 1994). And, as with other risk factors, these negative environmental effects synergize with and build on one another (Evans & Kantrowitz, 2002).

The lower parents' income is, the more likely it is that children will be born premature, low in birth weight, or with disabilities (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). Expectant mothers living in poverty are more likely to live or work in hazardous environments; to be exposed to pesticides (Moses et al., 1993); and to smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs during pregnancy, all factors linked to prenatal issues and birth defects (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002) and adverse cognitive outcomes in children (Chasnoff et al., 1998).

Children from low-income families have generally poorer physical health than do their more affluent peers. In particular, there is a higher incidence of such conditions as asthma (Gottlieb, Beiser, & O'Connor, 1995), respiratory infections (Simoes, 2003), tuberculosis (Rogers & Ginzberg, 1993), ear infections and hearing loss (Menyuk, 1980), and obesity (Wang & Zhang, 2006). Contributing factors include poor nutrition (Bridgman & Phillips, 1998), unhealthy environmental conditions, and inability to obtain appropriate health care. Children with no health insurance may receive little or no treatment for illnesses and are far more likely to die from injuries or infections than are well-off children (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). In addition, early health conditions may have significant long-term consequences, even if children's socioeconomic status improves later in life (McLoyd, 1998). Further, Broadman (2004) found that a significant portion of health differentials across neighborhoods (high- and low-income) could be explained by the disparate levels of stress across these neighborhoods.

Effects on School Behavior and Performance

The greater incidence of health issues among lower-income students leads to increased

  • School absences.
  • Duration of school absences.
  • Tardiness rates.
  • Incidents of illness during class.
  • Rates of undiagnosed and/or untreated health problems or disabilities.


Each of these issues can occur among middle- and upper-income students, but they are both more common and more severe among students living in poverty. As a result, low-SES kids are often missing key classroom content and skills. Teachers may see students as uncaring or uninterested, when the real issue is that they're not in class enough to keep up.

Action Steps

Increase health-related services. Lower-income students face a daunting array of health issues. Successful schools understand these challenges and provide wide-ranging support and accommodations. Such support may include

  • Providing a physician on-site once a week.
  • Working with a local pharmacy to arrange for access to medications.
  • Arranging for a dentist to make designated school visits.
  • Educating students' caregivers about school resources.
  • Providing tutors to help students who miss classes to catch up.
  • Improving awareness among staff about health-related issues.


There are serious limitations on what schools can and should do about student health. But all of us understand that when we don't feel right, it's hard to listen, concentrate, and learn. Successful schools find ways to ensure that students have a fighting chance to get and stay healthy.

Develop an enrichment counterattack. A compelling body of research (Dobrossy & Dunnett, 2004; Green, Melo, Christensen, Ngo, & Skene, 2006; Guilarte, Toscano, McGlothan, & Weaver, 2003; Nithianantharajah & Hannan, 2006) suggests that early exposure to toxins, maternal stress, trauma, alcohol, and other negatives can be ameliorated with environmental enrichment. The better the school environment is, the less the child's early risk factors will impair his or her academic success. An enrichment school

  • Provides wraparound health and medical services.
  • Minimizes negative stress and strengthens coping skills.
  • Uses a cognitively challenging curriculum.
  • Provides tutoring and pullout services to build student skills.
  • Fosters close relationships with staff and peers.
  • Offers plenty of exercise options.


The whole point of school ought to be to enrich the life of every student. Enrichment does not mean "more” or "faster” schooling. It means rich, balanced, sustained, positive, and contrasting learning environments. That's what will change students' lives over the long haul (see Figure 2.10).


Figure 2.10. Benefits of Academic Enrichment for Children from Poverty



Source: Adapted from "The Development of Cognitive and Academic Abilities: Growth Curves from an Early Childhood Educational Experiment," by F. A. Campbell, E. P. Pungello, S. Miller-Johnson, M. Burchinal, and C. T. Ramey, 2001, Developmental Psychology, 37(2), pp. 231–242.



Beating the Odds

This chapter has painted a bleak picture of children raised in poverty. Certainly not all children raised in poverty experience the brain and behavioral changes described in this chapter, but we have seen that an aggregation of disadvantages creates a difficult web of negatives. Poverty penetrates deeper into the body, brain, and soul than many of us realize.

A childhood spent in poverty often sets the stage for a lifetime of setbacks. Secure attachments and stable environments, so vitally important to the social and emotional development of young children, are often denied to our neediest kids. These children experience more stress due to loneliness, aggression, isolation, and deviance in their peer relationships, and they are more likely to describe feeling deprived, embarrassed, picked on, or bullied. As a result, they more often face future struggles in marital and other relationships.

However, research (Hill, Bromell, Tyson, & Flint, 2007) suggests that although the first five years of a child's life are very important, there is tremendous opportunity during the school years for significant transformation. Low-SES children's behavior is an adaptive response to a chronic condition of poverty, but a brain that is susceptible to adverse environmental effects is equally susceptible to positive, enriching effects. You'll learn more about how brains can change for the better in Chapter 3.




Full 60 page PDF report


The promise of our educational system as the great equalizer appears more myth than reality today as the gap in outcomes between the poor and non-poor continues to grow in conjunction with the increasing divergence in incomes and wealth. Education policies and reform efforts have shifted over the past several decades. Emphasis has shifted away from providing more equitable and adequate funding for schools and targeted services for disadvantaged students and toward policies directed at developing and implementing common core standards, improving teacher quality through the design and implementation of quantitative evaluation metrics, widespread use of test-based accountability systems, and providing wider-ranging choice among traditional district schools, charter schools, and through private school vouchers. Yet, there exists little evidence that these reform strategies can substantially reduce the influence of poverty on educational opportunity, especially when they fail to address concurrently children’s readiness for school and the availability of equitable and adequate funding for high-poverty schools and districts. As explained by Helen Ladd in her 2011 presidential address to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management:

Because these policy initiatives do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, they have contributed little — and are not likely to contribute much in the future — to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm. Addressing the educational challenges faced by children from disadvantaged families will require a broader and bolder approach to education policy than the recent efforts to reform schools. (Ladd, 2012, p. 203)

Some strategies are offered here to better match programs and services to the needs of children and to ameliorate the strong links between child poverty and later outcomes. We focus on seven areas that are generally within the purview of education policymakers:

  1. Increasing awareness of the incidence of poverty and its consequences
  2. Equitably and adequately funding our schools
  3. Broadening access to high-quality preschool
  4. Reducing segregation and isolation
  5. Adopting effective school practices
  6. Recognizing the importance of a high-quality teacher workforce
  7. Improving the measurement of poverty


There are other strategies that fall outside of the education arena — tax policy, job creation, minimum wage policy, etc. — that also are outside of the purview of this report.

Increasing Awareness of the Incidence of Poverty and its Consequences. A major purpose of this report is to provide a more comprehensive and nuanced view of poverty in the United States and document its influence on educational achievement and attainment. By no means unique, the dissemination of information and data such as these can better increase awareness and inform the debate about the level of poverty in this country and why it matters. By disseminating objective data on different measures of poverty and their impact on our children, we hope to communicate to a broad audience the 41

connections between poverty and issues like hunger and educational outcomes. Current media efforts such as A Place at the Table, a new film that captures the economic, social, and cultural impacts of hunger, is a good example of an effort to bring this issue before the public.

Efforts should be increased to extend the arguments for the need to address poverty beyond moral grounds and fairness ideals to arguments based on economics and national self-interest. The demographic changes that characterize the U.S. population will require that our public education system do more to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse student body if the nation is to remain competitive in the world economy. The hundreds of billions of dollars in annual costs associated with child poverty represent nearly 4 percent of U.S. GDP (Holzer et al., 2007). In addition, mounting evidence of the effectiveness of certain public policies like early childhood education should stimulate efforts to explore and implement other policies that show promise in reducing poverty.15 The poverty levels documented in this report, in addition to the growing gap between those at the top and the bottom of the wealth distribution, threaten to destabilize our democracy and undermine the nation’s promise of upward mobility.

Equitably and Adequately Funding Our Schools. The recent economic downturn has taken its toll on state school funding systems and on large-scale reform efforts like statewide preschool programs. Many states, including those that had been ordered by their courts to increase funding for schools and allocate those funds more progressively, retrenched and cut funding, in some cases to levels below pre-recession levels.16 Pressures on state revenue systems, coupled with strong state legislative preferences against "revenue enhancement" (new, expanded, or increased taxes) have increased interest in supposed costless and/or cost-saving policy solutions characterized by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2011 as the "new normal" (Stratman-Krusemark, 2011). But few of the education reform strategies popularized during the "new normal" and Race to the Top period have the research backing of more traditional strategies, leading some scholars to point out that many current reforms are perhaps more likely to exacerbate inequities and do more harm than good, and most are not costless (Baker & Welner, 2011; Ladd, 2012).

More recently, as the economy appears to be rebounding slowly, interest has re-emerged for supporting more traditional, more thoroughly researched strategies for improving educational opportunity for low-income children. Specifically, the recently released report from the Commission on Equity and Excellence titled For Each and Every Child laid out five priorities for guiding education policy-making, including equitable school funding; improving the quality of teachers, administrators and curricula; and expanding early childhood education (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).

We also need better coordination among levels of government. Federal education programs targeted at poverty are poorly articulated with state programs. Federal Title I funding, the largest direct federal aid to local public schools, does little to offset the inequities of poorly designed or underfunded state school finance systems. Head Start programs have struggled to show sustained positive effects and operate largely independent of and disconnected from state-sponsored pre-kindergarten programs.

Broadening Access to High-quality Preschool. All children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, should have access to high-quality preschool programs. Such programs have been shown to be important in improving the outcomes of all children, especially those from low-income households. Equitable and adequate state and local financing is a necessary underlying condition for providing these interventions.

15 See, for example, Belfield and Levin (2007). 16 Kansas and New York provide two examples. Both were ordered by their courts in 2006 (Montoy v. State of Kansas, 2001; Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, 1995) to increase funding and provide more resources targeted to districts with children having greater needs. But with the onset of the economic downturn, both eventually cut state aid quite dramatically (Baker & Green, 2009). In New York State, by 2012, many districts were receiving as little as 50 percent in state aid of what they would have been receiving had the formula adopted to comply with the court order actually been fully funded (Baker, 2011). 42

A substantial body of research validates the benefits of providing high-quality early childhood programs. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research explained:

Early educational intervention can have substantive short- and long-term effects on cognition, social-emotional development, school progress, antisocial behavior, and even crime. A broad range of approaches, including large public programs, have demonstrated effectiveness. Long-term effects may be smaller than initial effects, but they are not insubstantial. These findings are quite robust with respect to social and economic contexts. Early educational intervention can improve the development and adult success of disadvantaged children in the developing world as well as in advanced economies. (Barnett, 2011, p. 978)

Wong and colleagues also found significant positive effects of specific state-sponsored pre-K programs (Wong, Cook, Barnett, & Jung, 2008). While they varied in effectiveness, these programs produced generally more robust positive effects than major federal interventions like Head Start and may present better options for the future. In fact, the path forward might involve better integration of federal and state efforts, folding Head Start funding into new federal programs that assist states in providing high-quality publicly financed preschool programs. The Obama administration has proposed a major expansion of preschool programs across the country financed through taxes on tobacco products.

Reducing Segregation and Isolation. The nation’s K–12 public school system should provide each student with the opportunity to attend school with peers from diverse social and economic backgrounds. Residential housing segregation remains at the heart of socioeconomic segregation of local public school districts and neighborhood schools. Housing segregation remains one of the nation’s most intractable policy problems. Decades of strategically planned housing segregation, coupled with persistent discrimination in housing markets and mortgage lending, have reinforced the relationship between ZIP code and school quality (Reardon et al., 2009; Ross & Yinger, 2002; Yinger, 1997). Unfortunately, experiments displacing low-income families into housing in higher-income neighborhoods have yielded only mixed results on various outcome measures (Ludwig et al., 2012).

While there are no easy or immediate policy solutions for persistent residential segregation, policymakers should at the very least take care to ensure the current remedies intended on their face to disrupt the relationship between ZIP codes and schooling quality do not further exacerbate racial and socioeconomic segregation. There exists at least some concern and growing empirical evidence that expanded school choice programs in some settings are leading to increased economic segregation (Baker, Libby, et al., 2012; Frankenberg & Siegel-Hawley, 2012; Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2011; Mead & Green, 2012; Roda & Wells, 2013).

Adopting Effective School Practices. The adoption of school policies that have been documented by research and practice to improve education outcomes, particularly of disadvantaged students, could be more broadly applied. For example, ample research indicates that children in smaller classes achieve better outcomes, both academic and otherwise, and that class-size reduction can be an effective strategy for closing racial or socioeconomic achievement gaps (Finn & Achilles, 2009; Finn et al., 2001; Konstantopoulos & Chun, 2009; Krueger, 1999; Krueger & Whitmore, 2001; Levin, Belfield, Muenning, & Rouse, 2007). A large body of the literature on the effectiveness of class-size reduction relies on data from the Tennessee STAR experiment, which focused specifically on class-size reduction in early grades (K–3). The results of these studies over time have been robust, with important implications for improving outcomes for economically disadvantaged children. (A comprehensive review of the literature on class-size reduction is beyond the scope of this report, but some additional references are listed below).17

17 For other relatively recent studies on class-size reduction, see Chetty et al. (2010); Blatchford, Bassett, and Brown (2005); Babcock and Betts (2009); and Lubienski, Lubienski, and Crawford-Crane (2008). 43

Emerging research also points to selective successes among charter schools providing longer school days and intensive tutoring for low-income students (Dobbie & Fryer, 2009, in press; Fryer, 2011). Among the most studied programs are those that include comprehensive wraparound services, like Harlem Children’s Zone in New York or the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) middle schools, concentrated in New York and Houston, Texas. Other emerging charter school networks have adopted strategies similar to those of the KIPP schools, frequently referred to as "no excuses" strategies. While some of these programs have shown relatively positive results for low-income children in urban settings, recent research finds that these strategies are resource intensive and come with substantial additional costs — typically on the order of 30 to 50 percent greater than local public schools in the same locations (Baker, Libby, et al., 2012). Baker, Libby, et al. (2012) estimated that:

… to apply KIPP middle school marginal expenses across all New York City middle school students would require an additional $688 million ($4,300 per pupil x 160,000 pupils). In Houston, where the middle school margin is closer to $2,000 per pupil and where there are 36,000 middle schoolers, the additional expense would be $72 million. (p. 31)

Baker, Libby, et al. (2012) also noted that:

… it’s also quite possible that $688 million in New York or $72 million in Houston might prove equally or even more effective at improving middle school outcomes if used in other ways (for example, to reduce class size). Thus far, we simply don’t know. (p. 31)

Recognizing the Importance of a High-quality Teacher Workforce. Much has been made in recent years of the necessity to recruit and retain "high-quality teachers," but there remains debate as to how to measure teacher quality. There also exist contentious debates as to whether public education dollars would be better spent trying to improve teaching quality rather than increase teacher quantity (reduce class size). But there exists little if any clear empirical evidence to support the theory that a "good" teacher with a large class is necessarily more cost effective than a "less good" teacher with a small class — or vice versa (Chingos, 2013). Clearly, good teaching matters, and policies should ensure that children in high-poverty settings have equal access to good teaching, but often the sorting of teaching candidates on the labor market works against this goal (Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002; Kalogrides, Loeb, & Beteille, 2012).

Keeping teachers in high-poverty classrooms may require higher salaries or other incentives. For example, Clotfelter et al. (2008) found that bonus payments to teachers in high-poverty schools reduced average turnover rates by 17 percent, with the strongest effect exhibited for experienced teachers. The authors also suggest that the program effects may have been partly undermined by the state’s failure to fully educate teachers regarding eligibility criteria. Finally, a substantial body of literature supports the contention that the overall quality of the teaching workforce and new entrants to the profession are sensitive to long-term expectations regarding wages, benefits, and working conditions (Ferguson, 1991; Figlio, 1997, 2002; Figlio & Rueben, 2001; Loeb & Page, 2000; Murnane & Olsen, 1989).

Improving the Measurement of Poverty. Finally, the measurement of poverty is extremely important both as an economic and social indicator and as the basis for allocating resources for scores of programs operated by federal, state, and local agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Labor. We examined several different measures of poverty that reveal different patterns for different groups. Work should continue to expand the official definition of income to include government spending directed at low-income families and to recognize differences in the cost of living across regions. Recent work by Renwick (2011) has used methods, based 44

primarily on differences in housing costs facing owners and renters, for developing geographic adjustments in the poverty threshold both across and within states. Housing costs are not the only important determinants of regional differences in living standards, however, and families may choose a more modest dwelling in amenity-rich locations like San Francisco than they would chose in other parts of the country. See Appendix D for further discussion of ways to improve the measurement of poverty.


The Mind-blowing Gap Between Connecticut’s Richest & Poorest School Districts

The Mind-blowing Gap Between Connecticut’s Richest & Poorest School Districts
19 comments, 02/21/2014, by , in LOCAL

Well this is interesting.

We always knew this state was divided up between extremely wealthy and extremely poor towns. But when you take a look at this map of school districts it is even more fascinating.

There are 9 color coded DRG (District Reference Groups) on the map. DRG A is basically all communities with more millionaire family households than non-millionaire. The map goes from there down to DRG I, which is family households whose students are near 100% below the poverty line. The gaps between the groups is crazy. It’s hard to even find a DRG I of H anywhere near a DRG A.

OP-ED | We Are Having the Wrong Conversation About Education

by Suzanne Bates | Feb 14, 2014 5:30am


When we lay blame for what’s wrong with education we talk about “failing schools” and “bad teachers,” but we have not paid enough attention to the actual children who are failing to pass classes and who are not getting an adequate education. How do we help them?

Our current batch of policy proposals in Connecticut — implementing the Common Core, teacher evaluations, universal pre-kindergarten — do not get at the root of the problem. 

Here in Connecticut we’re spending more than ever before — from 2003 to 2011 our spending went from $10,788 per child to $15,600 per child. But while our spending increased by 45 percent, student test scores only improved by 1 percent.

Even while funding increased, the number of school-aged children in Connecticut dropped from 577,403 to 530,132.

Now the governor is talking about universal pre-k as though that’s the answer to all of our problems. While advocates claim the research on the benefits of preschool are clear, that is not the case. For example, a government-led study on Head Start found no long-term or even short-term benefit for the low-income children enrolled in the program.

Spending more on education has always been a rallying cry for Democrats at election time, and Republicans seem afraid to argue back. Really, can’t you see the ominous political ad now showing a Republican candidate being branded a child-hater because they don’t think ever-increasing education budgets are the panacea for all our problems?

The problem with larger budgets is that the onerous tax burden and high cost of living in Connecticut are already drumming the middle class out of existence, sending families with children looking for another place to live.

(And if you’re thinking ‘Good! Fewer children means less spending on education!’ — just remember that those same children are the future workforce who will pay taxes to provide for your services when you retire.)

If spending millions on implementing the Common Core and universal pre-k was going to solve all our problems and pull all of our at-risk children out of poverty, then it would make absolute sense to do it, at least in part because it would save us money in the long run. But that is not the case.

Elizabeth Natale, who wrote an op-ed for the Hartford Courant on wanting to quit teaching, which quickly went viral, wrote another op-ed on what she believes will help children — parental involvement.

It is true that parental involvement is crucial to a child’s education. I have four children in school right now, and I spend hours helping them navigate academic and social stresses with the hope that it will help them succeed.

Not every child has a parent who is able to do that, for a variety of reasons. We should continue to encourage parental involvement, but there are children who will not have involved parents despite our best efforts, and we need to come up with plans to help them.

I have two family members who didn’t graduate from high school, and I asked them recently what would have helped them. They spoke about their own lack of direction during those years, social pressures, the (untrue) belief that they weren’t smart enough, and lack of parental and school involvement.

I was left with the following thoughts and questions:

  • How do we help teens take ownership of their high school educations? How do we help them better understand the long-term consequences of their choices?
  • Does “school choice” help teens feel more engaged? Do themed high schools help kids pick a career path?
  • Let’s stop telling teens that they are doomed economically. Even though there are some problems, the U.S. still has the strongest economy in the world. Fostering entrepreneurism and optimism among the rising generation should be our goal, not hopelessness.
  • How about making high school freshmen take a class called “How to Make Money.” It could focus on teaching them to monetize their talents and skills and to understand what career choices are available.
  • How do we help kids navigate all of the things pulling at their attention, like social media, video games, apps, texting, television, drugs and alcohol, and all of the other social pressures they face?
  • What do we do for children who are caught up in peer groups that do not value education?

    I’d really like it if we stopped telling children their schools and teachers are failing them. Yes, problems exist, and let’s work to make things better. But let’s also tell our children that they are blessed to live in a country where their education is paid for, and that they are fortunate to have teachers who are willing to teach them, and that it is up to them to take advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given.

    Suzanne Bates is a writer living in South Windsor with her family. While traveling across the country as an Air Force spouse, she worked for news organizations including the Associated Press, New Hampshire Union Leader and Good Morning America Weekend. She recently completed a research fellowship at the Yankee Institute.



    What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success
    Anu Partanen Dec 29 2011, 3:00 PM ET

    The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.

    Sergey Ivanov/Flickr

    Everyone agrees the United States needs to improve its education system dramatically, but how? One of the hottest trends in education reform lately is looking at the stunning success of the West's reigning education superpower, Finland. Trouble is, when it comes to the lessons that Finnish schools have to offer, most of the discussion seems to be missing the point.

    The small Nordic country of Finland used to be known -- if it was known for anything at all -- as the home of Nokia, the mobile phone giant. But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life -- Newsweek ranked it number one last year -- and Finland's national education system has been receiving particular praise, because in recent years Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world.

    Finland's schools owe their newfound fame primarily to one study: the PISA survey, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are still near the very top. Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States has been middling, at best.

    Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model -- long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization -- Finland's success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland to visit schools and talk with the nation's education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media marveling at the Finnish miracle.

    So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Earlier this month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit received national media attention and generated much discussion.

    And yet it wasn't clear that Sahlberg's message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.

    * * *

    During the afternoon that Sahlberg spent at the Dwight School, a photographer from the New York Times jockeyed for position with Dan Rather's TV crew as Sahlberg participated in a roundtable chat with students. The subsequent article in the Times about the event would focus on Finland as an "intriguing school-reform model."

    Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. "Oh," he mentioned at one point, "and there are no private schools in Finland."

    This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it's true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.

    The irony of Sahlberg's making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of America's best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to attend -- not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the room commented on Sahlberg's statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.

    Sahlberg knows what Americans like to talk about when it comes to education, because he's become their go-to guy in Finland. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a Finnish school. He taught mathematics and physics in a junior high school in Helsinki, worked his way through a variety of positions in the Finnish Ministry of Education, and spent years as an education expert at the OECD, the World Bank, and other international organizations.

    Now, in addition to his other duties, Sahlberg hosts about a hundred visits a year by foreign educators, including many Americans, who want to know the secret of Finland's success. Sahlberg's new book is partly an attempt to help answer the questions he always gets asked.
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    From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students' performance if you don't test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

    The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to do.

    For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what's called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

    Instead, the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

    As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish," he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

    For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal's responsibility to notice and deal with it.

    And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: "Real winners do not compete." It's hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland's success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

    Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg's comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don't exist in Finland.

    "Here in America," Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, "parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It's the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same."

    Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.

    Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

    * * *

    Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

    In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

    In fact, since academic excellence wasn't a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland's students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland -- unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway -- was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

    That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year -- or even just the price of a house in a good public school district -- and the other "99 percent" is painfully plain to see.

    * * *

    Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out, Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States. 

    Yet Sahlberg doesn't think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country -- as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn't lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

    Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation's education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country's school system than the nation's size or ethnic makeup.

    Indeed, Finland's population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state -- after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.

    What's more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country's education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn't rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy. 

    With America's manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. -- as articulated by most everyone from President Obama on down -- is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland's experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

    Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn't meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a "pamphlet of hope."

    "When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's, many said it couldn't be done," Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. "But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland's dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn't be done."

    Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important -- as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform -- Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

    The problem facing education in America isn't the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

    We receive dozens of emails every week about retention, social promotion and high-stakes testing. Despite clear evidence that retention does not work - and that it damages children - many school districts continue to use this outmoded policy.

    If you are dealing with a retention problem, you must educate yourself before you can advocate for the child. Download and read these articles, the Position paper from the National Association of School Psychologists, and the American Federation of Teachers.

    Make copies of these documents for members of your child's team - they support the position that retention is not an appropriate intervention.


    "Waiting to Fail" Instead of Teaching a Child to Read. Despite clear evidence that retention does not work - and that it damages children - some school districts continue to use this outmoded policy of "waiting to fail". Pam Wright explains the real issue is teaching a child to read.

    Retention! Special Ed Teacher Needs Help, Ammunition - A special ed teacher disagrees with her mentor teacher about retention. She says, "research shows that retention is not successful, and inappropriate to recommend retention for students with IEPs." He says she is wrong. Sue Heath offers ammunition for teachers and parents who are dealing with retention.

    10 Strategies to Fight Mandatory Retention & Other Damaging Policies by Sue Heath. Learn how you can find answers to questions in the law and strategies you can use to fight mandatory retention and other damaging policies.

    High Stakes! Can the School Use a Single Test to Retain My Child? - Research editor Sue Heath answers questions from parents about high-stakes testing and mandatory retention.

    Retention or Promotion? What's Best for My Child? For those who are dealing with retention, you must educate yourself before you can take a rational position and advocate for a child.

    What Diploma Path is your Child On? Will Retention Push Him Off that Path? Retention would be a major setback for my son that I fear he will not easily recover from. What can I do to give my son every opportunity to get to 4th grade?

    Why Retain? It Didn't Work the First Time. What to do when the school wants to retain your child. If your child could have learned to read with the previous type and level of instruction he would have already learned to read.

    Sample Retention Letter. An excellent sample of a retention letter you can use to request the school not retain your child. This sample letter describes a parent's concerns about the child's lack of progress, their concerns about the school's proposal to retain her, and a proposal for a solution to the child's problems.

    To Top

    Ammunition / Resources from Others

    Grade Retention - Achievement and Mental Health Outcomes (National Association of School Psychologists) 6th grade students rated grade retention as the single most stressful life event, higher than the loss of a parent or going blind. Retained students are less likely to receive a high school diploma by age 20, receive poorer educational competence ratings, and are less likely to be enrolled in any post-secondary education program. Retained students receive lower educational and employment status ratings and are paid less per hour at age 20.

    Opportunity Deferred or Opportunity Taken? An Updated Look at Delaying Kindergarten Entry - Parents who concerned about their child's maturity and whether to enroll their child in kindergarten are often advised to give the child the "gift of time." Research does not support this practice. In a review of the latest research about the consequences of keeping children out of school an extra year shows that delaying kindergarten entry often has negative effects. Parents need to realize that by holding their child back, they may be depriving the child of important opportunities for learning — the "theft of opportunity.

    Position Statement on Student Grade Retention and Social Promotion (National Association of School Psychologists) "Through many years of research, the practice of retaining children in grade has been shown to be ineffective in meeting the needs of children who are academically delayed."

    The Grade Retention Fallacy (Harvard Civil Rights Project) "Research tells us that fear and humiliation are not the strongest motivators for struggling students."

    Retention is Not the Answer. (Wrightslaw) A North Carolina school psychologist writes about retention and social promotions, and his state's policy of retaining children while ignoring research that retention is not an appropriate intervention.

    Should I Allow the School Retain My Child? (Wrightslaw) Advice to a parent's frequently asked questions about retention - generally, it is not a good idea.

    To Promote or Retain? (Wrightslaw) Summary of research on retention which shows that retention is not an appropriate intervention for children who have academic delays.

    Ending Social Promotion
    Download this 85 page publication from the U. S. Department of Education. "Neither social promotion nor retention is appropriate for students who do not meet high academic standards."

    Passing on Failure, Eliminating Social Promotion (American Federation of Teachers) "Grade-by-grade standards for students are essential. These standards support academic rigor and ensure fairness by defining the expectations for success for all students."

    Early Intervention Works, Grade Retention Doesn't (University of Wisconsin)

    Exploring the Association Between Grade Retention and Dropout (California School Psychologist)

    Response to Intervention: RTI Project
    As interest in Response to Intervention (RtI) continues to grow, researchers and practitioners have asked for research that validates this approach to teaching all students. NASDSE has gathered in one book, RtI Research for Practice, an annotated bibliography of research about RtI. As this 224-page book clearly shows, RtI is a research-based strategy that has proven positive outcomes for many students, including those with disabilities. As this 224-page book clearly shows, RtI is a research-based strategy that has proven positive outcomes for many students, including those with disabilities.  download pdf, 224 pages

    Response to Intervention: A Primer for Parents - from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). This paper explains (a) the essential components of Response to Intervention; (b) key terms; (c) the role Response to Intervention plays in special education eligibility; (d) how parents can be involved in the process; (e) potential benefits of RTI; and (f) next steps in implementing RTI approaches.

    To Top


    If you want to help others learn about special education law and advocacy, please download, print and distribute Wrightslaw information flyers.

    Where can you distribute flyers? At school meetings, doctor's offices, hospitals, and day care centers!  

    Retention & Social Promotion Flyer

    High-Stakes Testing Flyer

    To Top

    Revised 05/15/12



    Repeating a grade: The pros and cons

    Grade retention or social promotion -- which is best? Read what the experts have to say.

    By Colleen Stump, Ph.D.

    Has anyone at school talked to you about retaining your child in the same grade? Have you been thinking about whether your child should be promoted on to the next grade level?

    Reasons for retention

    Grade retention is a very difficult and emotionally charged decision. It may be considered when a child:

    • Has significant struggles making progress in reading, writing or math
    • Fails to reach performance levels expected for promotion to the next grade
    • Appears to be "immature" and "young" for her age

    In many schools today, tests are being used to determine whether a child will go on to the next grade or repeat the same grade. With the current push for high educational standards, more and more kids are facing the possibility of retention because they're not achieving test scores required for promotion. Retention is viewed as a way to ensure greater accountability — to guarantee the school is doing its job. In some cases, it's the new "get tough" policy to stop or reduce "social promotion" — automatically passing a child on to the next grade at the end of each school year.

    Outcomes of retention

    The idea of giving a child another year to "catch-up" and develop needed skills sounds like a positive alternative. However, research shows that outcomes for kids who are retained generally are not positive. In its 2003 "Position Statement on Student Grade Retention," the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reports:

    • Academic achievement of kids who are retained is poorer than that of peers who are promoted.
    • Achievement gains associated with retention fade within two to three years after the grade repeated.
    • Kids who are identified as most behind are the ones "most likely harmed by retention."
    • Retention often is associated with increased behavior problems.
    • Grade retention has a negative impact on all areas of a child's achievement (reading, math, and language) and socio-emotional adjustment (peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors and attendance).
    • Students who are retained are more likely to drop out of school compared to students who were never retained. In fact, grade retention is one of the most powerful predictors of high school dropout.
    • Retained students are more likely to have poorer educational and employment outcomes during late adolescence and early adulthood.
    • Retention is more likely to have benign or positive impact when students are not simply held back, but receive specific remediation to address skill and/or behavioral problems and promote achievement and social skills.

    Kids with learning disabilities

    Many kids with learning disabilities (LD) really struggle when taking district-adopted and state-adopted achievement tests. These tests require students to:

    • Concentrate for long periods of time
    • Work independently
    • Persevere when faced with material they struggle to read and understand
    • Record their answers using "bubble sheets"
    • Work within specific time limits

    Test results may not show what your child actually knows and can do. Instead, they may tell you how well she does on this type of test. When test scores are used as the only basis for whether a child will be promoted to the next grade, kids with LD can be at a great disadvantage.

    Factors to consider

    So, the big question is how you decide if retention is right for your child. Here are some questions to ask yourself:


    • In what area(s) is your child struggling the most — reading, writing, math, science, social studies, social skills or others? Is it just one subject or most of them?
    • What have you and the teachers done this year to help your child develop necessary skills?
    • What has worked and helped your child learn? What hasn't worked this year?
    • If your child were to spend another year in the same grade, what type of instruction would she receive in the areas she finds most difficult? Would a new teaching approach or new materials be used, or would the teacher do the same thing as last year? How do you know that "doing it over again" would make a difference?
    • What level of performance would you set for your child to achieve if she were retained? What changes would you need to see to be satisfied that retention was effective?
    • Realistically, will your child be able to meet the required standards to be promoted next year? What kind of change are you expecting in one year? Is that enough to make the retention worthwhile?


    • Is behavior a concern?
    • How will your child feel about being retained? Will she be more motivated to learn and try, or will she be embarrassed and further withdraw from learning?
    • What will happen to your child's peer supports and friendships? How will they be affected by retention?

    Alternatives to retention

    The National Association of School Psychologists favors "promotion plus" interventions designed to address the specific factors that place students at risk for school failure. With that in mind, here are questions to ask yourself about alternatives to grade retention:

    • Have you worked with your child's teacher to identify accommodations that could increase her success in the classroom? If interventions are working, will they be continued?
    • Is your child receiving extra support? Does she get one-on-one or small group help to understand new ideas and complete work?
    • If your child receives special education services, are her IEP goals and objectives/benchmarks related to the standards established by the school? If not, the IEP Team may need to revise them to focus on outcomes leading to promotion to the next grade.
    • What type of curriculum materials and instructional strategies does the teacher use? How effective are they with your child?
    • Could your child benefit from one-on-one tutoring or counseling?
    • Are options such summer school, extended day or extended year available?
    • Does your child resist your help with schoolwork? If so, find alternatives — have a sister or brother help with homework, get help from a high school or college student.
    • Does your child participate in the school's homework club or other school programs that provide support?
    • Would your child's participation in extracurricular activities, such as soccer, dance, scouts or choir, help her make friends and become more motivated to do better in school?

    The big picture

    Before retaining your child, carefully consider your responses to the above questions. Read some of the literature on retention, and talk with your child and other family members. Speak to the teacher and other school staff who know your child. Talk to the principal about state law and district policy on retention to discover who makes the final decision and what the appeal process is. If your child receives special education services, be sure the IEP team is involved.

    Whatever is decided, carefully monitor your child's academic and behavioral performance during the next year. Be sure to work closely with her teachers to ensure that you and the school are giving her the support she needs.





    Social progression vs. Rentention 


    Zero Out Of 44 Students Complete Freshman Year 

    by Melissa Bailey | Jun 28, 2013 2:31 pm
    (41) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author
    Posted to: Schools, School Reform

    Aaliyah Staton started summer school to try to catch up.
    A new experiment in ending social promotion ended the year with “shocking” results at High School in the Community: Not a single one of 44 first-time freshmen earned enough credits to move up to sophomore year.

    The results came at the end of the first year of a “turnaround” experiment at High School in the Community (HSC), a historically teacher-run school that was formally taken over by the teachers union last year. Teachers, newly empowered to break from traditional practices, have begun to reinvent the high school experience by switching freshmen to a self-paced system where kids move up only when they’ve “mastered” specific skills. The goal is to make sure kids learn something instead of breezing through school with Ds.

    When school officially ended on June 25, teachers determined that none of the 44 true “freshmen”—those in their first year of high school—had mastered enough material to move up a grade, according to HSC Facilitator (aka Principal) Erik Good. (Some kids who were repeating freshman year did earn enough credits to move up.)

    Unlike at other schools, the 44 kids won’t have to repeat freshman year. They’ll get an opportunity to finish their work over a new, four-week summer school at HSC. Then, if they need more time, they can start off the year right where they left off instead of repeating entire classes.

    Good said about 20 of the 44 appear to be within reach of finishing their work if they show up to summer school. The others will return in the fall as freshmen.

    The risk of retention prompted 25 freshmen—and 34 upperclassmen, who have been experiencing the changes to a lesser degree—to sign up for a new four-week summer school at HSC to try to catch up, according to school officials. The group includes well-behaved, diligent students who had easily skated through middle school.

    Aaliyah Staton (pictured at the top of this story) was one of 52 students who showed up to summer school on Wednesday, just one day after the official final day of school.

    “I never needed summer school,” she said. “I don’t like” having to go.

    Mom Nilda Paris, who has been very involved at school, said she was confused and “shocked” to learn that her daughter, Nikita Rodriguez, would need to take summer classes in order to advance to sophomore year.

    “I’m not happy. I’m very frustrated,” she said. “It got me surprised that she has to go back to take summer classes and even though I was going to school like two times or three times a day” and meeting with teachers every two weeks “to talk about how Nikita was doing, and keep track of her.”

    HSC’s experiment follows a national movement among educators to start promoting kids not on a rigid, uniform timeline based on seat time, but on a more flexible timeline based how much they’ve learned—ensuring they finish high school with a clear set of skills. HSC, which serves about 225 local and suburban kids on Water Street, is the first school in the state to fully embrace the new system, called “mastery-based learning”; its experiment has been closely watched, in part because it received $2.1 million from the state this year to be part of the new Commissioner’s Network of turnaround schools.

    The number of freshmen (officially called “foundation-level students”) who make it to sophomore year is a key metric by which the school’s success—and the success of its principal—is being evaluated.

    In April, Good had made a more optimistic prognostication: He predicted half of the freshmen may be held back. That would have been a big drop from the school’s previous pass rate, which ranged between 65 and 75 percent, according to Good. No one seemed to expect the eventual zero-percent pass rate.

    “I’m not entirely surprised” at the number of freshmen being held back, he said, “but I did think we’d have a handful of kids who would have finished and moved on. And we didn’t.”

    Good (pictured) said he’s not sure yet what to conclude: “Maybe we set the standards too high. Maybe kids came to us too weak.”

    In order to move up, kids had to get six credits, including one each in math, science, English and history. To get a credit, they had to score a 3 or 4 on a four-point scale on the school’s new report cards.

    Good said he hadn’t had a chance yet to go through kids’ report cards and determine how far behind they are, and in which classes. “I want to see what this means,” he said.
    2 of 60 Pass Science Class

    Science teacher Kelly Baker, who taught four freshman physical chemistry classes, said only two of her students are set to move up to biology next year. Another 18 stand to finish the course over the summer. And a remaining 40 kids will likely return to the same class in the fall.

    “The students didn’t really get it,” she said. “They’re all behind.”

    Baker said students went through a change in mindset throughout the year.

    At the beginning, they objected when she began to make them work independently.

    “I like the old way of teaching,” they protested. The “old way” meant sitting in a chair and taking notes while the teacher delivered information, Baker said. She told her kids that if the “old way” worked, they would already understand the material she was presenting, which was supposed to be a review.

    “You were taught it, but you didn’t learn it,” she recalled telling them. 

    Baker, who has eight years’ experience teaching, said in a traditional high school, many of the kids would have passed her class with Ds. HSC raised the bar on what it means to pass a class—not just sitting in the chair and behaving well, but mastering the material.

    In math class, teachers struggled with students who came to the school with math skills as low as the 2nd-grade level. Getting them to master 9th-grade material would take years’ worth of catching up.

    Baker noted one benefit of HSC’s system: Unlike in traditional high schools, kids who didn’t pass a class won’t have to repeat the entire course again. They’ll just finish the units they haven’t mastered.

    “They can just pick up where they left off,” she said.

    The school has created new, half-year classes to accommodate kids’ individual paces. (Scheduling has been difficult, to say the least.)
    “I’m Gonna Try”

    Student responses have varied. Freshman Calvin Hernandez (pictured), who plans to attend summer school in upcoming weeks, took responsibility of his situation.

    “I got behind because I didn’t do any work,” he confessed. He said he passed bike shop and social studies class, but still needs to catch up in other courses. In Algebra I, he got through four of six units, which means he could be within reach of completing the course.

    His goal for the summer is to finish math and art class. He said he expects to be a freshman again in the fall, but just for the first quarter. After snagging his sixth credit, he said, he expects to move up.

    Despite the extra summer hours (half-day sessions lasting four weeks), Calvin gave a positive review of the new way of doing high school. Calvin said he likes the system because if you work hard, “you can go ahead.”

    Aaliyah said she didn’t like the new independent-pacing system at first, but she’s getting “used to it.”

    She said she passed some classes, but didn’t make it through enough math or science to get a credit.

    “I don’t really understand science,” she said.

    Aaliyah said she plans to work over the summer to catch up, but she has a long way to go in phy-chem class. “I’m gonna try,” she said, but “I think I’m gonna be in Baker’s [class] next year.”

    Aaliyah’s close friend, Serena Santiago (pictured), finds herself in a similar situation: Grudgingly agreeing to keep working through July.

    “I never had to go to summer school,” she said. “I don’t want to.”

    She said she made it through English and history class, but not math or science. She said working independently has been especially tough: “I need to be taught,” she said. “I can’t just be handed out stuff.”
    Mom “Disappointed”

    Paris (pictured with her daughter, Nikita) said she started the year with “high expectations” for HSC’s new way of teaching kids. She said she agreed with the fundamental premise that “you cannot keep passing these kids from year to year and grade by grade without them mastering” the material. She said she appreciates all that HSC staff has done to work with her daughter. After struggling with bullies in her younger years, Nikita is happy in high school.

    But now Paris is skeptical about HSC’s approach to academics. She said during the year, she did all a parent could do: She talked with every one of her daughter’s teachers at least every other week. She checked Nikita’s homework. She read all the new descriptions on the new report cards. She sent her daughter to after-school help, according to the school’s recommendation. “I was after her, and I was after them all the time, asking how she was doing. I was the one who was asking for extra work.”

    She said there were “a few times Nikita put aside what she was supposed to do” in school and “followed other kids.” But her daughter “recognized that” and got back on track.

    She said teachers gave her the impression that “everything was OK. She was doing the job. She was doing the effort in order to accomplish that. All the time I was receiving these compliments. ... I was believing it. And now, oh my God! I was upset.”

    “At the end of the year, I don’t want surprises,” Paris said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

    Paris has devoted a lot of time this year escorting her daughter to school from their home in Bridgeport. First, they were spending hours on public buses; after she got a car, she began driving her daughter. Her dedication comes out of the belief that education is the pathway out of poverty.

    “There’s a lot of things I have to sacrifice just for this,” she said. “Everything we do. Every single day. Five o’clock in the morning.”

    Paris said she is “very upset” and “disappointed” that her daughter may be held back. Kids shouldn’t have to stay in high school for more than four years, she reasoned. “She’s going to be a grown woman and still in school. I’m not making all this sacrifice for that.”

    Paris said she likes the idea behind the mastery-based system. But it doesn’t make sense to slam kids with a whole different way of learning once they hit 9th grade. “The system should start in 1st grade—not in high school,” she said. “It’s very shocking.”

    If Nikita doesn’t catch up over the summer, she threatened, “I’m going to withdraw her from that school.”
    Freshman Boot Camp

    Good outlined several next steps for the school’s experiment-in-progress.

    After summer school ends, and teachers get a final count of how many kids are moving up, teachers will work to “calibrate” the new system between classes, so that teachers have common expectations for what it means to pass a class. Those expectations were very much in flux over the year, as teachers rewrote curricula based on the Common Core State Standards, and worked by department to figure out just what it means to “master” each set of skills.

    Next fall, teachers plan to corral new freshmen into a group of their own. Much like the “Freshman Academy” at James Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross, new, age-appropriate freshmen at HSC will have their own wing of the school. (Older kids who transfer to HSC after failing in traditional environments won’t be part of the group.) Four teachers will be responsible for teaching the freshmen English, math, science and history.

    Teachers Sarah Marchesi and Matt Presser, who came up with the idea, pitched it to their colleagues at a recent staff meeting along with Baker and Wayne Austin, who are joining the effort. They argued that four teachers concentrating all their energy on freshmen would lead to better collaboration, interdisciplinary work, and shared expectations for kids. Kids will get a common, focused introduction to “mastery-based learning,” and a year-long freshman seminar teaching study skills.

    After some reservations about ostracizing kids from the rest of the school, teachers voiced unanimous support for the proposal. Good said the year-long seminar would help the freshmen (called “foundation-year students”) be more successful than they were this year.

    “One reason so many foundation kids failed this year was because they didn’t know what mastery was,” he said.

    “In the beginning, there was no way we could accurately explain to kids what mastery was,” added Cameo Thorne, one of four teachers who run the school. She said the school needs to “explicitly teach habits of mind” for learning under the new system, which requires much more independence.

    Good said HSC’s version of a freshman academy will help “stabilize” the transition from middle to high school. The new setup will eliminate the problem of having different teachers with different expectations for academics and behavior. And students will be less “distracted” by older peers and whatever else they might come across by moving classes through the rest of the building.

    If it works, fewer kids will finish the year like Aaliyah, Nikita and their peers, disappointed about not moving up.

    Good was asked about the risk of losing kids who are held back. One main reason kids transfer out of Achievement First charter schools is to avoid repeating a grade, according to school officials there.

    “It’s possible that will be a consequence,” replied Good. But New Haven is set to expand mastery-based learning to five other high schools. Soon, kids won’t be able to leave HSC and skate through another high school with Ds.

    “When everyone else is transitioning to mastery-based learning,” Good said, “there will be no place to hide.”




    Achievement Gap 


    Score gap changes in NAEP mathematics for White and Black fourth-grade public school students: 2011 and 2013
    Year White Black Score gap
    2011 253 220 33
    2013 253 219 34



    Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind

    by Eric Jensen

    Table of Contents

    An ASCD Study Guide for Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement

    This ASCD Study Guide is designed to enhance your understanding and application of the information contained in Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement, an ASCD book written by Eric Jensen and published in August 2013.

    You can use the study guide before or after you have read the book, or as you finish each chapter. The study questions provided are not meant to cover all aspects of the book, but, rather, to address specific ideas that might warrant further reflection.

    Most of the questions contained in this study guide are ones you can think about on your own, but you might consider pairing with a colleague or forming a study group with others who have read (or are reading) Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement.

    Chapter 1. The Seven Engagement Factors


    1. Do you think this chapter overstates, understates, or accurately states the seven engagement factors' connection to poverty and achievement? Why?
    2. Which of the seven factors pose the strongest challenge for you and your colleagues?
    3. Do these factors seem impossible to overcome, or can you envision overcoming them? Explain your reasoning.
    4. Have you already recognized and attempted to address any of these factors in your school? How have your efforts worked out so far?
    5. Which of the seven factors are you most looking forward to overcoming? What are some ways you might address it?


    Chapter 2. The Rules for Engagement


    1. Reflect on any engagement strategy you have used that did not work well. What do you think went wrong? Were there problems with the strategy, your implementation of it, the curriculum or classroom context, or your students? How big a role in a strategy's success do you think you play?
    2. What does this chapter mean by teacher attitude? Does its meaning here differ from your own definition of the term? Rate your own attitude on a scale from 1 (negative) to 10 (through the roof!).
    3. Do you ever have a hard time getting buy-in from your students? If so, speculate why. What are some ways you could modify your teaching to increase student buy-in?
    4. Do you and your colleagues build positive relationships with students? Have you ever gone to a student's neighborhood to learn more about him or her? Have you attended an event involving students or their families outside school? Have you ever given a student something (e.g., food or a book) to help him or her through the day? What are some ways you could build stronger relationships with your students?


    Chapter 3. Engage for Positive Climate


    1. How high are your expectations for your students? Have you ever set the kind of seemingly impossible goals that many high-performing teachers do (e.g., to make sure 1st graders are ready for 3rd grade by the end of the school year)?
    2. What role do you have in managing student states? Is this chapter just giving a different name to a process you already engage in? Or do you think you could be more purposeful about influencing student states? What strategies might you use to accomplish this task?
    3. Does your classroom have a "family atmosphere"? What are the key ingredients that turn a group of students into a family?
    4. If someone used a "positivity clicker" in your classroom, what do you think the results would be? Would every single student get the 3-to-1 positives-to-negatives ratio needed to optimize growth? What can you do to improve this ratio? Do you think you need to alter any of your internal attitudes?


    Chapter 4. Engage to Build Cognitive Capacity


    1. Some teachers sort and group students by their cognitive capacity. Do you see capacity as fairly fixed or highly flexible? What does the evidence tell us?
    2. What is your reaction to the admonition "Stop telling kids to pay attention; they already do!"? List two or three new ways in which you'll try to build sustained student focus this school year.
    3. What percentage of your daily teaching time is invested in building lasting cognitive skills? Or is the pressure to just "cover the content" too high for you to even try?
    4. Which higher-order thinking skills do you think are most important for you to build in your class: attention, problem solving, critical thinking, working memory, processing speed, or self-control (deferred gratification)? How would you go about building these skills in students?


    Chapter 5. Engage for Motivation and Effort


    1. When you were a student, did you ever work harder for one teacher than for another? If so, why? Is it possible to reconcile this kind of discrepancy with the notion that motivation is a fixed entity, and that some students are just "unmotivated"? How might you increase your own students' motivation?
    2. What does "make it their idea" mean in the teaching process? Do you already do this, or can you make this approach a viable part of your practice?
    3. Do your students seem to see any risk in raising their hands, contributing to the discussion, or asking questions? If so, how might you alleviate this perceived risk?
    4. What have you learned about the mind-set of students who simply engage less? What strategies can you use to build the learner's mind-set in all your students?
    5. Although the majority of teachers think they give students sufficient feedback, studies show that most students are starved for feedback. Where would you place yourself on the continuum of low to high feedback? Where do you see opportunities to provide greater feedback?


    Chapter 6. Engage for Deep Understanding


    1. Is getting students to understand content an issue for you? If so, what are the typical stumbling blocks you encounter?
    2. Most teachers are great at building students' knowledge of labels ("Let's define a tornado"), but developing their understanding of properties and context and meaning is a greater challenge. After reading the chapter, what's your understanding of the term properties? How might you use this concept in your teaching? And outside of taking students on a field trip, how might you increase their understanding through context and meaning?
    3. What do you do, in a typical lesson, to help students "get it right"? How has your approach worked out so far? What strategies might you add to your repertoire to increase accuracy?
    4. The toughest part of building deep understanding is often ensuring that all students are able to transfer the content to their own lives. How do you currently develop learning transfer in your students? What might you try to improve your results?


    Chapter 7. Engage for Energy and Focus


    1. What are the biggest challenges you face when it comes to eliciting appropriate levels of energy and focus from your students?
    2. For what percentage of class time do your students create the energy levels, and for what percentage do you orchestrate the energy levels? Do you now see classroom energy as something you have more control over? What are some strategies you might try to increase your class's "electricity," and how will you implement them?
    3. This chapter offered several strategies to enhance student focus. Which ones have you already tried, and which fresh ones might you try in your own classroom?
    4. Do you already consistently use music in your teaching? If so, how well does it work? After reading this chapter, can you think of some ways to use it more purposefully and effectively?


    Chapter 8. How to Automate Engagement


    1. To what extent do you use social support to manage student behavior and boost academic progress? How can you better foster collaboration and cooperation in your class?
    2. What is the distinction among rituals, rules, and procedures? How can rituals enable you to better manage the energy of your classroom and accomplish routines smoothly? List two or three rituals you want to try in your own classroom, either taken from this chapter or created on your own to meet specific needs.
    3. Do you currently make time to develop student leadership and teamwork? If so, do you teach these skills overtly? What are some new ways you could enhance leadership and teamwork in your classroom?
    4. What kinds of jobs or roles do your students take on? How might you retool them to make an authentic, real-world connection?
    5. Name two or three ways you can alter your curriculum to help you automate engagement in your class.
    6. Many teachers already use technology as a way to boost engagement. What are some ways you can use technology more purposefully as a learning tool?


    Chapter 9. "Now What?" Meeting the Challenge of Implementation


    1. How can the metaphor of the Russian nesting dolls inform your own understanding and organization of engagement strategies you plan to use?
    2. Do you have a consistent plan for engagement, or do you have difficulty finding the time to plan? What do you do when a strategy does not work well?
    3. Are there any faculty members at your school who resist or criticize the engagement efforts of their high-performing colleagues? What could you do to get the whole staff consistently working to engage every student, every day?
    4. Choose one strategy to kick off the process of becoming a master at classroom engagement. Once that particular strategy is automatic, choose another strategy to integrate, and so on.
    5. What is the best-case scenario for you, for the rest of the school year, in terms of engagement? What are your new engagement goals? What is your mind-set going into this process? What are your expected outcomes for your students and for yourself?


    Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement was written by Eric Jensen. This 198-page, 6" x 9" book (Stock #113001; ISBN-13: 978-1-4166-1572-9) is available from ASCD for $19.95 (ASCD member) or $26.95 (nonmember). Copyright © 2013 by ASCD. To order a copy, call ASCD at 1-800-933-2723 (in Virginia 1-703-578-9600) and press 2 for the Service Center. Or buy the book from ASCD's Online Store.



    Five Things Most People Don't Know About Poverty & Student Achievement

    Today's guest post is written by Eric Jensen, the author of just-released Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind (ASCD). He's written 28 books on learning and teaching and consults with schools to boost student achievement. Subscribe to his free monthly newsletter on teaching and learning at

    Stop Looking to the Government for Help. It's been 50 years since the start of the "War on Poverty" and enactment of 1965 ESEA legislative funding (Title 1- VII programs). Today, the U.S. Senate Budget Committee says we have 83 overlapping government welfare programs that together represent $1.03 trillion in fiscal spending by federal and state agencies (this year alone), based on data from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). We now have 22% of all school age kids (12 million) from poverty in K-12 schools. The government's approach, over 50 years, isn't working.

    The Real Causes of Poverty. Since 1970, the dollar has lost 80% of its purchasing power. Those in lower or middle class, on a fixed income, lose the most. The inflation is a result of government debt and printing money. While it's true that depressed job markets have some correlations with greater poverty, the greatest factors are rarely talked about:

    a) marriage rates have dropped in half in the last 50 years; yet cohabitating married couples, who have children after age 21, reduce their chances of poverty to under 5%.

    b) high school graduation rates for poor and minority students are still a coin flip or worse in most of the nation's 50 largest cities (including Detroit at 25%, Indianapolis at 30% and Cleveland at 34%). No diploma means job chances go down.

    c) "job ready" life skills; schools rarely prepare kids for life in the real world (relationship skills, effort-building, executive function skills, positive attitudes and money/finance skills).  If you're educated, with good life skills and married, your odds of being poor are under 2%.

    Teacher's Roles Have Changed Dramatically. Many teachers work long hours at school. Some work on weekends. For most, but not all, effort is not an issue. What is an issue that many still work with the "mental model" of what teaching used to be 50 years ago. We often see the same "stand and deliver" and the same "apple-sorting" of kids, with desks in a line with reduced movement, emotional support and brain-building.

    What's different? Almost everything; there's compliance paperwork, more collaboration, more focus on test scores and far more accountability. The list could go on. Kids don't look to teachers for knowledge anymore; Google can provide knowledge. Teachers have tough new choices to make. They either must "upgrade" their teaching every year, or fall further behind. This shift is not easy to make and many teachers struggle with it.

    Teachers Affect the National Rate of Poverty. Is there a correlation between student achievement and the rate of poverty in the U.S.? Yes; nationally over 7,000 students a day (1.2 million/yr.) get so fed up, they drop out. Each dropout costs our economy three quarters a million dollars over his or her lifetime.

    1. Teachers often come into the profession as a chance to "make a difference." But making a difference can go both ways. If students achieve well, the difference is positive. If students struggle, our nation struggles. If teachers raised student achievement by 10%, the U.S. schools would not only rank among the top 5 in the world, it would also raise gross domestic product by 1% a year.  Over the next two generations, this would boost the economy by 112 trillion (not a typo). The government has tried for 50 years and failed; but educators can erase poverty in our own lifetime.
    2. Here's what we do know, as of today: a) the classroom teacher is still the single most significant contributor to student achievement; the effect is greater than that of parents, peers, schools or poverty, b) the effectiveness of classroom teachers varies dramatically, especially within schools, c) research shows teachers in the top 20%, based on year-on-year progress with their students, will completely erase the academic effects of poverty in five years, d) most teachers simply don't know how be a high-performer and others have lost hope and don't try any more.

    Results of a Recent Study. We live in an era of unprecedented academic and neuroscientific research. I just finished doing a study on twelve high poverty schools from three time zones and five states. Every one of these schools had 75% or more students from poverty. But, half of them were high-flyers, with school achievement scores in the top 25% of their state. The other half of the schools struggled; their scores were in the bottom 25% of their state. The demographics were identical. The two cohorts of schools (low and high performers) also shared many of the same values. When I offered statements such as, "I believe in my kids," both school staffs said, "I strongly agree." So, what was different?

    It's not poverty that makes the difference; it was the teachers. The difference was that the high-performing teachers actually "walked the walk." First, the classroom and school climate was MUCH better at the high-performers. Secondly, the teachers at the high-performing schools didn't complain about kids not "being smart" or being unmotivated. They made it a priority and built engagement, learning, thinking and memory skills every day. In short, they didn't make excuses; they just rolled up their sleeves and built better student brains. I show you how they did it in my new book on poverty, but first a preview.

    What Have We Learned? Here is what we have learned (so far) to boost student achievement in high-poverty schools. The list is NOT in any order at all.

    • Relationships still matter, and they matter a lot. Strong relationships and family connections do help.
    • High expectations are not enough. Help students set crazy high goals, and then actively point out to them how their daily actions connect to their long-term goals.
    • The most important cognitive skills to build are:

    1) reasoning, 2) working memory, and 3) vocabulary usage.

    • Build academic optimism so that kids hear and believe every day that they can and will succeed. Zero doubt equals better effort.
    • Increase feedback on the learning and zero it in on the specifics of effort used, strategies applied or attitude engaged.
    • If you don't like the student's attitude, change it. Use hope building and the growth mindset every day, all day.
    • Engage like crazy using more social collaboration, energizers, participation and affirmations. When kids feel liked, have goals and energized, they work harder.
    • Finally, having a positive attitude or opinion is useless; IF you fail to act. IF and HOW you act on it is... priceless. Now, go make a miracle happen today.

     New: Study guide to engage students living in poverty.  


    Federal Education Law

    The More You Know, The Stronger Your Voice!

    Then and Now (A one page comparison)

    In 1965, major federal education law was passed based on the belief that poverty-ridden communities were not offering the quality of education that other communities could afford. Fairness was to be established through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

    The standards movement, which had roughly begun in the 80′s, was transformed by the 90′s to what we now call the standards, testing, and accountability movement (an outcome-based theory of education reform). This theory of “reform” swept through state legislatures and educational establishments (institutions, foundations & organizations) before becoming federalized through enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act – the 2001 “version” of the 1965 ESEA.

    Education laws directs both education practices and the flow of tax-dollars.

    For you to evaluate federal education law, our progress in education, and for a deeper understanding of the contrast in the theories upon which these two very different laws – the 1965 ESEA and its 2001 reauthorization, NCLB – are based, the one page comparison chart is a good start.

    Congress is now working on changing the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. Please, help make the law serve the educational needs of our children and our nation.

    Study the Past: Consider the Future

    Please consider reading this ten blog series that begins with my July 1, 2013 entry, The March Begins, and is completed on August 7th with the entry “HOW?” It hits some “need to consider” points in our educational history.

    And for the future, please consider these Focus Areas and how they can be addressed through the Reauthorization of NCLB:
    ►educate teachers, counselors, parents, and principals to be more effective,
    ►provide information to families, educators, and communities to build successful partnerships,
    ►provide flexibility to stimulate local initiatives coupled with responsibility for results,
    ►support and facilitate school improvement processes for the lowest-performing schools and states.

    Write and call your representatives. Push for answers and action. Educate yourself and help direct their actions on this most important of legislative issues.

    The following papers and articles may help in the conversations to come and please call upon me to help answer any questions you might have:

    Using Policy to Promote Practices

    A message to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

    Look at what others have been trying to tell YOUR representatives. Here are some of their solutions.

    The Three R’s of ESEA Reauthorization (3 pages).

    Unconstitutional by Jack Minzey

    What is Past is Prologue

    What is Past is Prologue

    We can have Excellent Education for All through the guidance of proper federal education law.

    Also, please visit What If... This is a Call to Action. Thank you!



    Why schools aren’t businesses: The blueberry story

    Larry Cuban’s 2004 book “The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t be Businesses,” is nearly a decade old but still highly relevant to the education reform debate.

    In the introduction, Cuban introduces readers to Jamie Vollmer, a former ice cream company executive who became an education advocate and author of the book ” Schools Cannot Do It Alone.” He quotes Vollmer about “an epiphany” he had in the 1980s:

    “If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!


    I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.


    I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that had become famous in the middle 1980s when People magazine chose our blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”


    I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society.” Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure, and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!


    In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced — equal parts ignorance and arrogance.


    As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant. She was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.


    She began quietly, “We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”


    I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, Ma’am.”


    “How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”


    “Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.

    “Premium ingredients?” she inquired.


    “Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.


    “Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”


    In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap…. I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.


    “I send them back.”


    She jumped to her feet. “That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!”


    In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!”


    And so began my long transformation.


    Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.


    None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission, and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.


    Vollmer includes this on his webpage, along with some comments from readers, some who liked the story, others who didn’t, and still others who questioned whether it really happened. Here are those comments.

    The bottom line: Whatever you think of the blueberry story, Vollmer had it right: Schools aren’t businesses and shouldn’t be run as if they were.



    Conservative and liberal solutions to our educational dilemma

    It takes a village (idiot).

    It’s funny how people like Melissa Harris-Perry think that “the community” should raise my kids, but then turn around and tell me it’s up to us parents to censor the sex and violence in movies, tv and video games: The “community” isn’t responsible for policing moral standards, we parents are. 

    “We’ve never invested in public education as much as we should have”!?  

    Reality disagrees with you, Mz. Perry. The U.S. spends the most per student of all the developed countries, yet our math scores stink. If only we could account for where all that money went, rather than raising student test scores. 

    Oh wait, we can. 

    “America’s public schools are bloated with bureaucracy and skinny on results.  Nationwide since 1950, the number of public school administrative and non-teaching positions has soared 702 percent while the student population increased just 96 percent. Over that same period, teachers’ numbers also increased — 252 percent — but still far short of administrators and non-teaching personnel” 

    I can speak from personal experience on this. Mrs. ExKev has been a middle school math teacher for over fifteen years now, and the one thing’s she’s consistently told me is that the parents who show up to parent-teacher meetings are the ones whose children are doing well, and the children whose parents can’t be bothered to take an interest in their kid’s education are the kids who are failing her classes. 

    It doesn’t take a village to raise a kid: It takes committed parents who act as adults, not behave like children raising children. 

    April 9th, 2013 by exurbankevin



    Two Unrelated, Related Stories

    K-12 Teacher Job Satisfaction At A 25 Year Low

    Only 39 percent of teachers described themselves as very satisfied with their jobs on the latest survey. That’s a 23-percentage point plummet since 2008, and a drop of five percentage points just over the past year. Factors contributing to lower job satisfaction included working in schools where the budgets, opportunities for professional development, and time for collaboration with colleagues have all been sent to the chopping block.

    Stress levels are also up, with half of all teachers describing themselves as under great stress several days per week, compared with a third of teachers in 1985. 

    The NEA’s solution to this problem? More money for the unions, of course! 

    “This news is disappointing but sadly, there are no surprises here. Teacher job satisfaction will continue to free fall as long as budgets are slashed,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. “Educators are doing everything they can to provide the best education possible for their students, but the rug just keeps getting pulled out from under them.”

    But the problem with that is, the U.S. is spending more per student for education than just about every country in the world. 

    If only there were some magic bullet out there that might help improve education. Some way of helping kids and parents and teachers alike. Something like…. strong families

    Two-fifths of children born in the USA are born to unmarried mothers, an eightfold increase since 1960. Many succeed thanks to the heroic efforts of strong, motivated single parents and other relatives. But research shows that children of single parents suffer disproportionately high poverty rates, impaired development and low performance in school. 

    Single mothers read less to their children, are more likely to use harsh discipline and are less likely to maintain stable routines, such as a regular bedtime. All these behaviors are important predictors of children’s health and development. 

    In the 16 years my wife has been teaching middle school, she’s seen plenty of confirmation that strong families build strong students: The parents who come to the Parent-Teacher interviews have “A” students as kids, and the who need are failing never have their parents ask her for help.

    The problem with strong families is, of course, there’s no way for unions to grow and government to make money off of them. And therefore they must be abolished at all costs. 

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    February 22nd, 2013 by exurbankevin



    Teachers Matter: Understanding Teachers' Impact on Student Achievement

    Many people emphasize the importance of good teachers, and many local, state, and federal policies are designed to promote teacher quality. Research using student scores on standardized tests confirms the common perception that some teachers are more effective than others and also reveals that being taught by an effective teacher has important consequences for student achievement.

    • Teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

      Many factors contribute to a student's academic performance, including individual characteristics and family and neighborhood experiences. But research suggests that, among school-related factors, teachers matter most. When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.

    • Nonschool factors do influence student achievement, but they are largely outside a school's control.

      Some research suggests that, compared with teachers, individual and family characteristics may have four to eight times the impact on student achievement. But policy discussions focus on teachers because it is arguably easier for public policy to improve teaching than to change students' personal characteristics or family circumstances. Effective teaching has the potential to help level the playing field.

    • Effective teachers are best identified by their performance, not by their background or experience.

      Despite common perceptions, effective teachers cannot reliably be identified based on where they went to school, whether they're licensed, or (after the first few years) how long they've taught. The best way to assess teachers' effectiveness is to look at their on-the-job performance, including what they do in the classroom and how much progress their students make on achievement tests. This has led to more policies that require evaluating teachers' on-the-job performance, based in part on evidence about their students' learning.

    • Effective teachers tend to stay effective even when they change schools.

      Recent evidence suggests that a teacher's impact on student achievement remains reasonably consistent even if the teacher changes schools and regardless of whether the new school is more or less advantaged than the old one.


    20 Tips For Success In School

    Eating a good breakfast and getting a good night's sleep are just a few of the ways to ensure your children start off to a good school year. Here are a few more.

    When summer is over and it is time to shop for school supplies, we know it is time for back to school once again. At the end of each school year or at the end of the summer, we always pledge to have a better school year next year, either because the kids were always forgetting homework assignments or oversleeping. Here are 20 ways that will ensure that your kids and YOU have a great school year. 

    1-eat a good breakfast every morning, don't let them skip breakfast. 

    2-wake them up early enough to get up on time so they are not tardy! Even if that means waking them up 15 or 30 minutes earlier than they used to wake up. 

    3-be sure your child gets a good night's sleep. turn in early. 

    4-have them prepare all of their things the night before, including clothes or uniforms, socks, shoes, booksacks, homework assignments in booksacks,etc. down to the finest details, even hair accessories. 

    5-children should keep their booksacks, desks and rooms organized so they can find what they need easily and nothing gets lost. 

    6-praise your children, encourage them, use positive reinforcement, work closely with them. let them know that you are available to help if needed. 

    7-create a study routine for your child. a good rule of thumb is to have them do their homework right when they get home.

    8-go over homework together. 

    9-check their booksacks for notes, missed assignments, book orders, etc. 

    10-promote healthy habits like healthy snacks, low in sugar, fresh fruits and vegetables. 

    11-children should ask questions. don't be afraid to ask questions. that is how we learn. 

    12-a stress free child is a happy child. a happy child will do better in school. 

    13-children should start reviewing notes at least three days before a test. don't wait until the night before or worse, the day of the test to study for it. 

    14-children should write down their assignments carefully. have the number of a few classmates in case you forget to write it down. 

    15-parents, be a role model to your children. your children learn from you. be positive and supportive of the school system and teachers. 

    16-have your child read to you often and regularly. 

    17-have them put all of their things in their room right when they get home. this will alleviate the chances of losing or misplacing something. more time is wasted looking for a lost shoe or where they put their booksack. 

    18-children should take notes when the teacher repeats something, tells them to write it down or that is very important or will be on a test, or if she writes it on the board. 

    19-don't cheat, don't be lazy, do your projects and assignments like reports, ahead of time. study and learn. you will be proud of yourself. 

    20-during tests, read all of the directions, follow directions, read the questions carefully, and double check your answers if you have time after you are done. 


    Factors Leading to Success in School: Future of School Reform #7

    June 12, 2011


    School & Non-School Factors Leading to Success in School

    In the last article in the series, Future of School Reform, Jeffrey R. Henig and S. Paul Reville, write about the importance of non-school factors in determining success in school.  Their article, Why Attention Will Return to Non-School Factors, argues that we have paid far too little attention to the critical nature of non-school factors in determining whether a student is able to succeed in school.  They also discuss the tendency of politicians and educational leaders to ignore non-school factors while focusing on school factors such as type of curriculum, type of instruction, accountability, and high-stakes testing.  These factors may be somewhat important, but they argue that the non-school factors (shown in the diagram above) trump the school factors every time.  In fact they write:

    Our vision of the future of education reform is simple: American schools won’t achieve their goal of “all students at proficiency” unless they attend to non-school factors.

    It will be “many children left behind” unless we are honest with ourselves and correct the course on the non-school factors.

    • Promoting in our society the strong connection between good nutrition and healthy living. Michelle Obama’s efforts are one example.
    • Emotional well-being of our children and their parents.  Programs for managing stress and a more open society to therapy as a pathway to emotional well being.
    • Stability in a child’s life.   Parents who are fully employed in jobs that bring meaning.  Our society needs to find a solution to the job crisis in America.
    • Safety in home and schools.  Children who are fearful will not learn effectively
    • Parents who support their children throughout their schooling and are involved in their child’s school-related life.  Parents who read and play with their children.
    • Parents who take responsibility for their children nurturing productive relationships with peers.  Hands-on policy that helps children develop the confidence to say no to risky behaviors.
    • Parents who have sufficient resources to provide their children with enriching activities and communities that are not averse to spending tax dollars to develop sufficient community resources to support after-school programming (parks, swimming pools, community centers, etc.)

    The authors point out in their article that our fixation on improving “school-only factors” has not done much to close the achievement gap over the past 20 years.  They site a number of studies and results which demonstrate that our focus on content, standards, preparation for tests, and accountability measures has done very little to close the achievement gap for students from low-income versus affluent families.  When will we stop and ask ourselves, “What should we be doing differently?”  Henig and Reville offer a vision for the future of school reform linked to non-school factors. 




    Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform, written by Marc Tucker, President of National Center on Education and the Economy, is a report fresh off the press that provides a possible path for education reform in the United States.  The reports spells out that our current path towards reform is likely to fail since our society seems oblivious to the realities of our “failing system.”  As a companion to this report, look at the series of seven articles that appeared in Education Week over the past two months entitled, The Future of School Reform.  In addition, you can check other blog entries (follow the tag School Reform) on the Center for Teaching site that review these seven articles and provide a perspective on their offerings.  The last article in the series (Factors Leading to the Success in School) we can see that school reform in the United States is not only about changing our education system, but also addressing non-school factors that prevent students from being successful in school.

    Standing on the Shoulders of Giants outlines an agenda for change that is mapped out in the diagram below:



    In the June 8 edition of Education Week, Stephen Sawchuk reviews the report and offers his perspective on the agenda for change. He writes,

    The paper also states that progress on any one of the reform areas alone is unlikely to result in widespread boosts in student learning. All efforts, it says, are interconnected and should be linked to a coherent vision of what students should know and a system for ascertaining whether they achieve those goals.

    I think the key words in this quote are INTERCONNECTED and COHERENT.  We cannot assume that educational reform will occur if we treat only part of the illness.  Like an organism, all parts of our education system are totally interconnected.  To accomplish successful and lasting change we have to understand the interconnections and treat the problem in a systematic way.  So it does not make sense to treat the curricular problem through Common Core Standards and the assessment problem through more high-stakes tests produced by major corporations without addressing the unemployment problem, funding problems for education, the inequity of resource allocation in the public sector, or the parenting issues that result in many students not being supported at home.

    In order to address the problems in a coordinated way, we need leaders with a coherent educational vision.  Typically, educational reform happens in a piecemeal fashion because our leaders lack a vision, introducing or supporting “stand-alone” ideas.

    If we look at the “agenda for change” diagram above, we need a system of change that recognizes the fallacies of annual, high-stakes, grade-by-grade testing that we subject our students to in the United States.  All other high-performing countries use high-stakes testing sparingly.  We need rigorous standards of admission into the teaching profession and equally rigorous training programs that give teachers more practice time in the classroom.  If you want to be a surgeon, you have to take four years of medical school and years of internships and residencies under the guidance of experts before you are allowed to “go it alone.”  Not so in teaching!  A new teacher can be handed a class of precious 4th graders with only 3 months of “on  the job training” in his or her college program.  Finally, the teaching profession has to become more professional.  As the report points out,

    U.S. teachers must give up blue-collar work rules like seniority rights and recognize difference in performance in exchange for being treated as professional partners, who are given autonomy and trusted to diagnose and solve instructional problems on their own.

    Where have we gone astray over the past 20-25 years?  I think the United States rested on its laurels.  We became complacent and the world passed us by.  If we are to retool young people to carry out the work of the 21st Century, both intellectually and practically, we will need a vision for how to accomplish the “agenda for change” in the NCEE report, as well as a vision for reform as outlined in School for the Future.  We cannot assume that educational reform that paves a “yellow brick road” to success ONLY through college is going to prepare our young people to inherit the workforce of the 21st Century.  We need a robust vocational education system based on valuing all types of work that must be done well in order for a society to function effectively.

    To accomplish these tasks, we need strong, visionary, and determined leadership that comes from all sectors, not just politicians.  Can we honestly say that we have a team of leaders working in concert on all aspects of the “agenda for change?”  I don’t see it.  However, I am hopeful we can assemble a team if we pay attention to the work of NCEE and other organizations that see the problem clearly from 35,000 feet and articulate a sensible blueprint for change.



    Suspension rates

    State Education Department: Charter schools suspend elementary students twice as much 

    Achievement First charter school in Hartford has the highest rate of suspending elementary students in the state

    Charter schools suspend elementary students “almost twice” as often as the districts where they are located, the State Department of Education reported Wednesday.

    The five districts with the highest percentage of elementary students being suspended or expelled are all charter schools, department officials told the State Board of Education Wednesday.

    And with one in seven students being suspended at charter elementary schools -- compared to one in 13 students in the Bridgeport and Hartford public school districts where they are located -- the chairman of the State Board of Education said things are about to change.

    Chairman Allan B. Taylor said a new system is now being set up to better track suspension data on a regular basis. Additionally, suspension data will be taken into account when charter schools come before the board to renew their contracts to operate in the state or expand enrollment.

    “Obviously, you can’t use [such data] for new charters,” said Taylor.

    The suspension issue came to light after the state’s child advocate reported that hundreds of kindergarten students are wrongfully being suspended from school each year in both charter and traditional public schools.

    “The rates are just too high. They’re just too high,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told the state board, adding that he is working to create a system to routinely track and detect problems.

    “We are going to learn a lot more,” said Pryor said. “We cannot lose our sense of alarm and our sense of outrage… For our youngest students there simply has to be another way.”

    For non-charter schools with high rates, Pryor said state funding grants will be contingent on plans to fix this problem.

    "That is an important lever," he told reporters Wednesday.

    Department officials said that one explanation provided by charter schools for their high rates of suspensions is that some of them deploy “pull out” methods for disruptive students to address the behavior. That "pull out" time lasts on average four hours, the state board was told.

    Most of these students suspended from charters -- about 80 percent -- return to the school from which they were suspended, the department reports.

    Responding to an article in the Connecticut Mirror, officials from the Achievement First charter school in Hartford –- which suspended  32.5 percent of its elementary students during the 2011-12 school year -– wrote that they are  working to solve the problem.

    “Achievement First recognizes that there were an unacceptable number of suspensions… The number of suspensions rose to an unprecedented level due to the school’s continued high expectations for student behavior in supporting student achievement,” the school system said.

    “The suspension policies are in place to preserve a learning environment required for high student achievement. Since the school has kindergarten and first-grade students who enter the school lacking basic readiness skills, it is critical to reduce disruptions in the classroom.”

    Pryor, who helped open Amistad Academy in New Haven, which is associated with Achievement First, recused himself from talking about the rates of suspensions at those schools.

    Amistad’s suspension rate for elementary students was 13.8 percent during the 2011-12 school year.


    Ajit Gopalakrishnan with the State Department of Education, 'Clearly a lot of kids are being suspended that we need to pay attention to.'

    A new state law restricting when students can be suspended from school has helped in significantly reducing the number of students being suspended from school, but it has not diminished Connecticut's racial disparity in use of the disciplinary technique. (See suspension rates by district here and here. )

    “There are all kinds of alarms going off in my mind right now,” said Theresa Hopkins-Staten, the vice chairwoman of the state education board. “It is happening at unacceptable rates.” 

    Pryor said the department will spend the summer finalizing its research and deciding what next steps to take to address this issue.

    "Clearly a lot of kids are being suspended that we need to pay attention to," said Ajit Gopalakrishnan of the state department of education.

    Read the department's full suspension report here.



    Sunday, January 25, 2009

    Sunday Commentary: Excuses, Defeatists, and the Reality of Low Achievement

    by Corey Bunje Bower

    In-School vs. Non-School Factors

    If there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. But, for some reason, saying this merits serious criticism in some circles.

    On July 4, 1966 the government released what came to be known as "The Coleman Report," a comprehensive study that was commissioned in order to prove that more funding would improve the plight of African-American students. Instead, Coleman found that non-school factors were far more important than in-school factors -- which is why they attempted to minimize publicity by releasing it on a national holiday.

    Seymour Martin Lipset, a fellow at the Hoover Institute, was overheard summarizing the results to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan thusly: "Guess what Coleman’s found? Schools make no difference; families make the difference."

    Indeed, the liberals in Congress were devastated at the results -- they had expected to find that achievement gaps could be solved through more school funding. Meanwhile, conservatives beamed -- the report proved that a strong family was the root of a strong society and that government could not spend its way out of the problem.

    Today's Version of the Dispute

    At some point between 1966 and 2009 the sides seem to have flipped. The more conservative position now holds that schools can close achievement gaps if people work hard and don't make excuses, while the more liberal position is that we need to fix the underlying causes of the achievement gap (which mostly lie outside of school) before we can truly solve the problem. This is, of course, an oversimplification -- but what's struck me is the reaction of those who argue the latter.

    In the original press release announcing the release of David Whitman's book (the new version has been toned down) the Fordham Institute included a passage that lumped together "defeatists" like Charles Murray and Richard Rothstein. I must say that it had never struck me to lump together one of the authors of The Bell Curve, (a conservative who essentially argues that many kids just can't hack it and we should train them for careers instead), with Rothstein (a liberal who argues that we need to address inequality in society as well as in schools if we want to close the achievement gap). I later found out that Fordham wasn't the first to characterize these two as "defeatists -- Jay Greene beat them to the punch.

    This classification of people as "defeatists" seems to be a running theme in rhetoric surrounding education policy. Increasingly, many are describing ed policy people as belonging to one of two camps; those who believe that everybody can achieve if we work hard enough and those who make excuses.

    In a December op-ed, David Brooks, characterized the battle as one between reformers and defenders of the status quo and pleaded with Obama not to hire Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education so that the world might not come to an end. He's far from the only one to characterize the split this way -- David Whitman penned an op-ed in the Huffington Post a few days prior using much of the same terminology, and referring to the latter position as "the defeatist view of school improvement." The inflammatory rhetoric has led others to retort that the rift is really one between deformers and realists.


    But, back to my original contention: if there's anything upon which education researchers agree it's that student achievement is influenced more by non-school factors than in-school factors -- and the evidence is overwhelming. If you know an education researcher who would disagree with this statement, I'd like to meet them -- because I don't know any. Over the 42 1/2 years that have elapsed since the Coleman Report those findings have been replicated countless times. That non-school factors are, on average, much more important than in-school factors is simply not up for debate.

    Why? We know that a large achievement gap between races and classes exists before students start kindergarten. We know that this gap widens during the summer and stays pretty stable during the school year. We know that attainment and achievement are much more strongly associated with SES level, race, parental occupation, etc. than any in-school factor. We know that when we control for so-called background variables that there simply isn't much variance across schools. We know that students spend only about 22% of their waking hours in school. In other words, we can come a lot closer to guessing how well a student will do on a standardized test if we're given their background information than if we're given information on what type of school they attend.

    And this makes logical sense. If the student bodies of a wealthy, Suburban school and poor, inner-city school switched places we'd expect the inner-city school -- with the same staff and resources it previously had -- to out-achieve the Suburban school.

    Somehow, in their determination to improve schools, some people seem to have gotten lost. I know when I started teaching I believed very firmly that I could turn around the life of just about every student with whom I came in contact -- regardless of what else was happening in their life. I believed very firmly that improving schools would fix a lot of society's problems. And when I started hearing research findings indicating how difficult it is for schools to dramatically affect students, I balked. But, eventually, I came to understand why this is.

    Every student responds differently to every aspect of a school -- who their teacher is, what sports are offered, what color the wall is painted, etc. The worst teachers still help a few students grow exponentially while the best have some students that don't progress. So attending a school that is "bad" or "good" won't magically affect every student in the same way; students succeed at the worst schools and fail at the best. And it became painfully obvious the more I taught that what was happening at home (or at least outside of school) influenced the lives of most of my students more than I ever could.

    In NYC, a very strong correlation (r = .8) exists between the percentage of students eligible for free/reduced-price lunch and the percentage of students passing state English tests. Why? The obvious answer is because the students in these schools come from families and neighborhoods that are often in disarray -- they don't have shelves full of books to read; their parents don't have time to read to them every night or take them to the library; they're exposed to far fewer words and different grammatical norms; they have no quiet place to do homework; they miss days of school to look after younger siblings; they have more health problems; and so on.

    But, according to some, this isn't what causes low achievement -- it's poor-quality schools and teachers that make excuses rather than teach. In order to make a serious case for the latter, you'd have to believe that the worst, least-dedicated teachers and administrators systematically distribute themselves so that there are more of them in schools with more kids from poor families; that teachers in the South Bronx routinely put forth less effort than teachers in Chelsea, and that their level of effort and competency correlates almost perfectly with the number of kids from impoverished families at the school. This is simply not plausible.

    Reality vs. Rhetoric

    Now, where it gets interesting is how people react when others say such things. One of the reasons that I reject the notion that there's truly a firm divide between two camps of education policy is because people on different "sides" often believe similar things -- they just use different rhetoric. To be sure, different people believe different things: some believe that charter schools are the way to the promised land, while others claim that choice solves nothing; some believe that unions cripple schools while others believe that unions create a less abusive environment -- and so on. But I reject as false the current dichotomy that many pushing as an accurate description of world of education policy world; the largest split is rhetorical. People on both sides agree that:

    Schools are important, but are not omnipotent. All students can succeed, but not all will (depending, of course, on the metric being used). Hard work and dedication can improve schools, but effort and success will not correlate perfectly. We should do everything possible to prevent students from being left behind, but me must also realize that there is no silver bullet.

    I value the insights of many people across the spectrum, and I truly believe that the jury is still out on most of the reforms that are pushed by various groups. But it's clear that one side is winning the rhetorical war despite the fact that when you take their rhetoric to the logical end that it simply doesn't stand up to reality.

    Regardless of your preferred school reform, let's tone down the rhetoric: When somebody argues that we should improve students' lives outside of school to improve their performance, they're not making excuses or being a defeatist. Likewise, when somebody says that schools can make a big difference, they're not being wholly unrealistic. Rather than calling each other names we should be working to improve schools. And everybody needs to remember that although a school is not usually the largest influence on the life of a child that it doesn't mean that a school cannot do an awful lot of good.

    What too few people are willing to admit is that we can start with the fact that non-school factors are more important and build on it in multiple ways -- none of which involve simply giving up. The fact that non-school factors are currently more important could be used as an impetus to radically enlarge the role of schools in the lives of many children. A number of the most successful inner-city schools dramatically extend the school day and year -- the SEED Foundation has even created boarding schools in Baltimore and D.C. In other words, one way to address the situation is to increase the influence of schools on students' lives. Another direction we can go with this is to attempt to improve the lives of children outside of school, whether through the construction of health clinics, the improvement of housing conditions, the creation of tutoring programs and such, or in other ways. Both are fundamentally trying to do the same thing: provide students with a different life experience, expose them to different societal norms, and subsequently improve outcomes.

    People who advocate either of these positions have a ton of evidence to support them; they are both eminently reasonable positions. But for some reason, people who support the latter are under rhetorical attack. And this attack is both unproductive and illogical. The reality of the situation is that the problems facing low-income children are huge and small solutions are not enough; this is reality, no matter how badly anybody wants it not to be. And it's possible to both face this reality and help children.

    Corey Bunje Bower is a Ph.D. student in education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. Before beginning his studies he taught sixth grade at a low-performing middle school in the Bronx that has since been shuttered. His research focuses on issues surrounding high-poverty, urban schools including teacher retention, discipline, and school climate.



    The Coming Revolution in Public Education

    Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students 

    John Tierney Apr 25 2013, 11:01 AM ET


    It's always hard to tell for sure exactly when a revolution starts. Is it when a few discontented people gather in a room to discuss how the ruling regime might be opposed? Is it when first shots are fired? When a critical mass forms and the opposition acquires sufficient weight to have a chance of prevailing? I'm not an expert on revolutions, but even I can see that a new one is taking shape in American K-12 public education.

    The dominant regime for the past decade or more has been what is sometimes called accountability-based reform or, by many of its critics, "corporate education reform." The reforms consist of various initiatives aimed at (among other things): improving schools and educational outcomes by using standardized tests to measure what students are learning; holding schools and teachers accountable (through school closures and teachers' pay) when their students are "lagging" on those standardized assessments; controlling classroom instruction and increasing the rigor of school curricula by pushing all states to adopt the same challenging standards via a "Common Core;" and using market-like competitive pressures (through the spread of charter schools and educational voucher programs) to provide public schools with incentives to improve.*

    Critics of the contemporary reform regime argue that these initiatives, though seemingly sensible in their original framing, are motivated by interests other than educational improvement and are causing genuine harm to American students and public schools. Here are some of the criticisms: the reforms have self-interest and profit motives, not educational improvement, as their basis; corporate interests are reaping huge benefits from these reform initiatives and spending millions of dollars lobbying to keep those benefits flowing; three big foundations (Gates, Broad, and Walton Family) are funding much of the backing for the corporate reforms and are spending billions to market and sell reforms that don't work; ancillary goals of these reforms are to bust teacher unions, disempower educators, and reduce spending on public schools; standardized testing is enormously expensive in terms both of public expenditures and the diversion of instruction time to test prep; over a third of charter schools deliver "significantly worse" results for students than the traditional public schools from which they were diverted; and, finally, that these reforms have produced few benefits and have actually caused harm, especially to kids in disadvantaged areas and communities of color. (On that last overall point, see this scathing new report from the Economic Policy Institute.) 

    Fueled in part by growing evidence of the reforms' ill effects and of the reformers' self-interested motives, the counter-movement is rapidly expanding. Here are some reasons why I predict it will continue to gain strength and gradually lead to the undoing of these market-based education reforms. 

    •It's what history teaches us to expect. In this country, we lurch back and forth between efforts to professionalize and efforts to infantilize public-school teachers, and have been doing so since the beginning of public schools in America. Neither kind of effort accords teachers much respect. Because teachers are chiefly employed by local governments (unlike doctors or lawyers who are typically employed in private enterprise), there has always been a tendency on the part of some groups of people to try to exert greater central control over teachers, not believing them to be professionals who can be left to do their jobs according to their own judgment. When those skeptics hold sway, the "solutions" they impose favor quantitative/metrics-based "accountability," top-down management, limitations on teachers' autonomy, and the substitution of external authority (outside measurers and evaluators) for the expertise of educators themselves. (See William J. Reese's op-ed piece Sunday on the early history of the "testing wars" in America.)

    •Education policies based on standardization and uniformity tend to fail. The policy alchemists' notion that a "Common Core" or standardized curriculum, along with standardized tests, are appropriate measures for "fixing" American education is uninformed by an understanding of history and practice. Twenty-five years ago, two of our wisest scholarly analysts of educational reform, Richard Elmore and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, observed, based on their study of education reforms over the decades: "Reforms succeed to the degree that they adapt to and capitalize upon variability [from school to school and classroom to classroom]. . . . Policies that aim to reduce variability by reducing teacher discretion not only preclude learning from situational adaptation to policy goals, they also can impede effective teaching." Today's corporate reformers are flying in the face of experience.

    •Policies based on distrust of teachers tend to fail. The current crop of reformers also roundly ignored another fundamental principle laid down years ago by Elmore and McLaughlin on the basis of their exhaustive research: policies and practices that are based on distrust of teachers and disrespect for them will fail. Why? "The fate of the reforms ultimately depends on those who are the object of distrust." In other words, educational reforms need teachers' buy-in, trust, and cooperation to succeed; "reforms" that kick teachers in the teeth are never going to succeed. Moreover, education policies crafted without teacher involvement are bound to be wrongheaded. When the architects of the Common Core largely excluded teachers from involvement in its development, they simultaneously guaranteed its untrustworthiness and its ultimate failure.

    •Judging teachers' performance by students' test scores is both substantively and procedurally flawed. A teacher's instruction matters in student performance, but too many other things (a student's socioeconomic background, upbringing, parental involvement, motivation) also matter for students' test scores to be a reasonable indicator of a teacher's merit. As The Nation magazine reported in 2011: "The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent."

    Moreover, using students' test scores for such judgments is poor policy from a procedural standpoint. The news reports in recent weeks that teachers and administrators in various jurisdictions (Atlanta and Washington, DC, for example) have cheated by manipulating test scores carry a powerful message, but not the one many observers may first think. The message is not that educators are venal or mendacious, but that rewarding or punishing teachers based on students' test scores is a fundamentally flawed process that fails to take into account Campbell's Law, one of the best-known maxims in the literature on organizational behavior: if you impose external quantitative measurements to judge work performance that cannot be easily and clearly measured, all you will achieve is a displacement of goals -- in this case, some teachers and administrators will be more concerned with maximizing scores (even through cheating) than with helping kids learn. 

    •More people are realizing that many of the organizations involved in "corporate reform" seem to need reforming themselves. A great irony of the corporate reform agenda is that the mission to bring business-like accountability and efficiency to public education has been hampered in part by the colossal incompetence of some of the companies involved. A good example is Pearson, which calls itself "the world's leading education company," a slogan which, if true, should give all of us great pause. This big testing company, like its testing-industry competitors, has been screwing up over and over again for more than a decade now, with news of its most recent colossal mistake coming just this past week. Moreover, despite their screw-ups, these companies are enriching themselves and their executives from taxpayers' dollars - Pearson's pre-tax profits soaring by 72 percent in 2011. And in the you-can't-make-this-stuff-up vein, we got the news in the last few days that Pearson is allowing embedded plugs for commercial products (LEGO and Mug Root Beer, anyone?) in the exams for which taxpayers are footing the bill. No wonder growing numbers of people are rebelling against the intrusion into public education of the sort of gross commercial greed and incompetence the testing-industry represents. (If you want to read a detailed and damning appraisal of the secretive and error-ridden testing business, read this 2003 report by Kathleen Rhoades and George Madaus of Boston College's Lynch School of Education.)

    •People wonder why reformers themselves aren't held accountable. Accountability is a central tenet of the market-based reforms. So people naturally find it disturbing when the architects and advocates of the reforms elude accountability for wrongdoing they knew about. Despite a U.S. Department of Education Inspector General's report that found no evidence of widespread cheating during her tenure, the behavior of Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. school commissioner who was once the darling of the reform movement, has done genuine harm to her cause by countenancing or ignoring the misbehavior on her watch.* (See here and here.)

    There are more reasons why there is a growing rebellion against the reigning reform agenda. But you get the picture: the reforms are ill-conceived, and their implementation is leading to growing distrust and dissatisfaction.

    Even if all this is correct, you may ask, where are these signs of growing rebellion? Here are but a few: teachers in various cities (Seattle, for example) have refused to administer standardized tests, and support for their stance has spread; many parents are choosing not to let their kids take the standardized tests, preferring to "opt out," and those whose kids go ahead with the tests are complaining vociferously about them; legislators in various states (even Texas!) are reconsidering standardized tests and expressing concerns about Pearson and the testing industry; corporate-reform proposals (vouchers and state-not-local authorization of charter schools) got stopped last week in the legislature of Tennessee, a state that previously was friendly to the agenda. 

    And here's one more: When Gerald "Jerry" Conti decided a month ago to go public with his reasons for deciding to retire from his teaching career after 27 years at Westhill High School in New York, he leveled blistering and impassioned criticisms against the corporate reforms that, he says, are harming our educational system. Conti's cri de coeur went viral on the Web, embraced by a massive audience of teachers and parents, who found in it a clear and moving expression of their own dissatisfactions. Others are joining the chorus. See, for example, this recent plea by David Patten to "let teachers teach."

    What, then, do the critics of the corporate reform agenda propose? Surely they can't be defending the status quo, content with the current state of schools. No. Without being too unfair to the diversity of views on this, the key consensus is that the most important step we could take to deal with our education problems would be to address poverty in the United States. We don't have an "education problem." The notion that we are "a nation at risk" from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts, errant "nonsense" and a pack of lies. 

    Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported, "The reason America's overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results -- and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly." Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America's educational needs. 

    For a broader summary of an alternative agenda, let's turn to Diane Ravitch, the eminent educational policy analyst and most notable of those who once supported the accountability reforms and now ardently oppose them. This is an excerpt from a statement on Ravitch's website, in which she lays out the rationale for a plea that people "take action now" to push back against the corporate reforms: 

    What we need to improve education in this country is a strong, highly respected education profession; a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences, available in every school for every child; assessments that gauge what students know and can do, instead of mindless test prepping for bubble tests. And a government that is prepared to change the economic and social conditions that interfere with children's readiness to learn. We need high-quality early childhood education. We need parent education programs. We need social workers and guidance counselors in the school. Children need physical education every day. And schools should have classes small enough for students to get the attention they need when they need it.

    We cannot improve education by quick fixes. We will not fix education by turning public schools over to entrepreneurs. We will not improve it by driving out experienced professionals and replacing them with enthusiastic amateurs. We will not make our schools better by closing them and firing teachers and entire staffs. No high-performing nation in the world follows such strategies. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo, which is not good enough for our children, nor can we satisfied with the Bush-Obama-Duncan "reforms" that have never been proven to work anywhere. 

    If I am correct that a new educational revolution is under way, it will need its own Thomas Paine, speaking "Common Sense" and urging action. Diane Ravitch is one voice advocating that kind of action: at the bottom of her website, Ravitch provides suggestions about specific steps parents and teachers who think that corporate reforms are misguided, wrong, and harmful can take to "push back" against the corporate reformers. Anyone who agrees with her view can look there -- or to their local school board and state legislators -- for ways to carry the message forward.



    Can Teachers Alone Overcome Poverty? Steven Brill Thinks So 

    The journalist blames teachers unions, not economic inequality, for students’ failure to achieve.

    Dana Goldstein 

    August 10, 2011 | This article appeared in the August 29-September 5, 2011 edition of The Nation. 

    Steven Brill, the journalist and media entrepreneur, has come a long way since he helicoptered onto the education beat in 2009. 

    That’s when The New Yorker published Brill’s exposé of the New York City “rubber rooms,” where the Department of Education parked the one-twentieth of 1 percent of the city’s 80,000 public school teachers—about forty people—who had been accused of gross negligence and removed from the classroom. As they awaited the due process hearings guaranteed in their union contracts, rubber room teachers received full pay and benefits, sometimes for up to three years.

    Dana Goldstein is a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute and a Schwartz Fellow at...

    The article sparked outrage among readers, who were appalled that millions of tax dollars were spent annually paying the salaries and arbitrating the cases of teachers who came to work inebriated or practiced corporal punishment. Despite the fact that the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers shared responsibility for creating the clumsy and cumbersome arbitration process, Brill laid the blame solely at the union’s doorstep.

    He followed up with his hyperbolically titled May 2010 New York Times Magazine feature “The Teachers’ Unions Last Stand,” which admired the Obama administration’s attempt to pressure states to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ standardized test scores. The article lavishly praised nonunionized charter schools while entirely blaming teachers unions for the achievement gap between poor and middle-class students.

    Together, the two pieces had the kind of impact most journalists can only dream of. Rubber room teachers were reassigned to desk jobs, and their arbitrations were sped up. More significant, Brill’s framing of the education debate, borrowed from reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee—teachers unions vs. poor kids—infiltrated the popular consciousness more deeply than it had before, presaging the September 2010 release of the pro–charter school, anti–teachers union documentary Waiting for Superman. Brill began to appear on panels with key figures in the education debate, including American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten and Harlem Children’s Zone President and CEO Geoffrey Canada. And he embarked on an ambitious book project: a comprehensive history and analysis of the standards-and-accountability school reform movement called Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.

    Not surprisingly, given Brill’s history of interest in only the most controversial school reform issues, the book is filled with misleading discussions of complex education research, most notably a total elision of the fact that “nonschool” factors—family income, nutrition, health, English-language proficiency and the like—affect children’s academic performance, no matter how great their teachers are. (More on this later.) Class Warfare is also studded with easy-to-check errors, such as the claim that Newark schools spend more per student than New York City schools because of a more cumbersome teachers’ contract. In fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that the state must provide supplemental per-pupil funding to all high-poverty school districts, including Newark. As a result, New Jersey is considered a national leader in early childhood education, and Newark graduates more African-American boys from high school—75 percent—than any other major city.

    But here’s the thing: by the closing chapters of his breezy, 478-page tome, Brill sounds far less like an uncritical fan of charter school expansion, Teach for America (TFA) and unionbusting and far more like, well, a guy who has spent several years immersed in one of the thorniest policy conversations in America, thinking about a problem—educational inequality—that defies finger-pointing and simple solutions.

    Welcome to the beat, Brill!

    One of Class Warfare’s stars, a charter school assistant principal named Jessica Reid, unexpectedly quits her job at Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy in the middle of the school year; the charter chain’s rigorous demands pushed the 28-year-old Reid, a dedicated and charismatic educator, to the brink of a nervous breakdown and divorce. “This wasn’t a sustainable life, in terms of my health and my marriage,” she tells Brill, who concludes that he agrees (at least in part) with education historian and charter school critic Diane Ravitch. You can’t staff a national public school system of 3.2 million teachers, Ravitch tells Brill, with Ivy Leaguers willing to run themselves ragged for two years. Most of these folks won’t move on to jobs at traditional public schools, as the uncommonly committed Jessica Reid did, but will simply leave the classroom altogether and head to politics, business or law, where they’ll be paid more to do prestigious work, often with shorter, less pressure-filled hours.

    That’s the model of Teach for America, of course, another school reform organization with which Brill is somewhat frustrated by the end of his book. He comes to grasp the fundamental problem with TFA’s conception of the teacher pipeline: Let’s say the lowest-performing 10 percent of career teachers—320,000 people—are fired. How will we replace them? TFA will contribute only about 9,300 corps members to the nation’s schools in the coming school year; even if every graduate of a selective college entered teaching—and some would surely be terrible teachers—we’d still have a shortage. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was “actually making an important point,” Brill concedes, when he said, “You can’t fire your way to the top.”

    Faced with these complexities, Brill comes up with a strange conclusion: Maybe New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg should give Randi Weingarten control of the city schools in a “Nixon goes to China” move. If she were responsible for student achievement instead of teacher job security, Brill suggests, the labor leader would be forced to push union members harder to prioritize instructional excellence and embrace tenure reform.

    But in fact, the sea change in union attitudes that Brill believes can only be achieved by this unlikely move has already taken place. The AFT and, more recently, the National Education Association have accepted the fundamental premise of tying teacher evaluation to student performance. The details need to be worked out in statehouses and school districts across the country—the most controversial issue, and rightly so, is the role that data from standardized tests will play. Nevertheless, the unions’ evolution into more student-achievement-focused organizations is, at this point, foreordained. In Colorado last year, the local AFT affiliate even supported legislation that requires student achievement data to account for 51 percent of a teachers’ evaluation score. Colorado teachers who receive a bad evaluation two years in a row will now lose their tenure protections.

    * * *

    All that said, it is truly ignorant to reduce school reform to a labor-management question. States with teacher collective bargaining routinely outperform right-to-work states academically, and teachers are unionized in most of the nations—such as Finland, Canada and France—whose kids kick our kids’ butts on international assessments.

    School reform is just as much about the three Cs: curriculum (what knowledge and skills students actually learn); counseling (how we prepare young people, professionally and socially, for adult life); and civics (whether we teach students how to participate in American democracy).

    Brill never mentions any of this. Class Warfare is built around the idea of children, particularly poor children, as test-score-producing machines, with little to no attention paid to other aspects of their personalities or lives. The book’s heroes are philanthropists, school administrators, policy wonks and politicians. We meet few students or parents.

    Most pernicious is Brill’s repeated claim that the effects of poverty can be not only mitigated but completely beaten back by good teachers. “A snowballing network of education reformers across the country…were producing data about how teaching counted more than anything else,” Brill writes in the book’s opening pages. Later, he devotes a chapter to economists Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger, whose work on value-added teacher evaluation has powerfully influenced Bill Gates’s education philanthropy. “It wasn’t that poverty or other factors didn’t affect student performance,” Brill summarizes. “Rather, it was that teacher effectiveness could overcome those disadvantages” (emphasis added).

    In fact, the work of the many researchers Brill approvingly cites—including Kane, Staiger and Stanford’s Eric Hanushek—shows that while teaching is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, family and neighborhood characteristics matter more. The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.

    It is tiring to make this point over and over again. The usual rebuttal is that determining exactly how much teachers matter is irrelevant, because they are one of the only levers in a poor child’s life over which school systems exert some control. This is true, and it’s a fine argument for focusing education policy efforts on sustainable teacher quality reforms, such as recruiting more academically talented young people into the profession, requiring new teachers to undergo significant apprenticeship periods working alongside master educators, and creating career ladders that reward excellent teachers who agree to stay in the classroom long-term and mentor their peers. This is what such high-performing nations as China and Finland do; they don’t, à la Teach for America, encourage 21-year-olds with five weeks of summer training to swoop into the classroom and swoop out again.

    But because we know, without a doubt, that family poverty exerts a crushing influence over children’s lives, it is no small thing when standards-and-accountability education reformers repeat, ad nauseam, that poverty can be totally “overcome” by dedicated teachers. Of course, we all know people who grew up poor and went on to lead successful, financially remunerative lives. Many of them feel grateful to educators who eased their paths. But the fact remains that in the United States in 2011, beating the odds of poverty has become far less likely than ever, and teacher quality has less to do with it than does economic inequality—a dearth of good jobs, affordable housing, healthcare, childcare and higher education.

    Advances in cognitive science have made it possible to pinpoint how these disadvantages hinder children academically. One-fifth of the middle schoolers in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, entered kindergarten in 2003 suffering from some level of lead poisoning, which disproportionately affects the poor and is associated with intellectual delays and behavioral problems such as ADHD. “It is now understood that there is no safe level of lead in the human body,” writes education researcher David Berliner, “and that lead at any level has an impact on IQ.”

    Food insecurity is similarly correlated with cognitive delays, and rising in incidence across the country—more than 17 million American children consistently lack access to healthy, nutritious meals. Here’s how a team of Harvard School of Public Health researchers describe the relationship between hunger and student achievement:

    When children attend school inadequately nourished, their bodies conserve the limited food energy that is available. Energy is first reserved for critical organ functions. If sufficient energy remains, it then is allocated for growth. The last priority is for social activity and learning. As a result, undernourished children become more apathetic and have impaired cognitive capacity. Letting schoolchildren go hungry means that the nation’s investments in public education are jeopardized by childhood malnutrition.

    Acknowledging connections between the economy, poverty, health and brain function is not an attempt to “excuse” failing school bureaucracies and classroom teachers; rather, it is a necessary prerequisite for authentic school reform, which must be based on a realistic assessment of the whole child—not just a child’s test scores. Successful education reform efforts—such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides “wraparound” social and health services alongside charter schools, or California’s Linked Learning schools, which connect teenagers to meaningful on-the-job training—are built on this more holistic understanding of the forces that shape a child’s life and determine her future.

    Brill and the accountability crowd are correct to note that high-performing teachers are consistently able to raise the test scores of even the poorest children. Research shows that an improvement of one standard deviation in teacher quality leads to approximately two to four points of gain for a student on a 100-point test in reading or math. Five years of great teachers in a row, therefore, could raise a student’s test scores by ten to twenty points.

    Whether this potential growth is incidental or transformative depends on where a student starts out: if he began at the twentieth percentile in reading, he’d still be failing; a jump from the seventieth percentile to the ninetieth could make him a candidate for selective colleges. Unfortunately, as Paul Tough demonstrated in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, at far too many “miracle” inner-city schools, the vast majority of students—despite impressive test-score growth—continue to score below proficiency in reading and math. These students may graduate from high school, but they are unprepared for college or work beyond the service sector.

    Honest reformers are all too aware of this problem. As KIPP charter school co-founder Dave Levin tells Brill, “I’m still failing.” Indeed, only one-third of the KIPP network’s high school graduates are able to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. This is a remarkable achievement in a country where only 30 percent of all young adults—regardless of family background—hold a college degree. It’s also a reminder of how very difficult it is to make huge leaps and bounds in closing the achievement gap. After all, a full 75 percent of the highest-income high school graduates are able to earn that BA by age 24.

    * * *

    Although Brill, by the end of Class Warfare, comes to recognize the limits of the education reform movement he so admires, he somehow maintains his commitment to the idea that teachers can completely overcome poverty. There’s a reason, I think, why this ideology is so attractive to many of the wealthy charter school founders and donors Brill profiles, from hedge funder Whitney Tilson to investment manager and banking heir Boykin Curry. If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality—about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the superrich and prevent us from expanding access to childcare and food stamps; about private primary and secondary schools that cost as much annually as an Ivy League college, and provide similar benefits; about moving to a different neighborhood, or to the suburbs, to avoid sending our children to school with kids who are not like them.

    The fact of the matter, though, is that inequality does matter. Our society’s decision to deny the poor essential social services reaches children not only in their day-to-day lives but in their brains. In the face of this reality, educators put up a valiant fight, and some succeed. The deck is stacked against them.

    Dana Goldstein 

    August 10, 2011 | This article appeared in the August 29-September 5, 2011 edition of The Nation. 







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