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
-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.
(YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS) 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 wherelittle 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
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
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 email@example.com, 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.
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
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.
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
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,
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,
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, &
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Give respect to students first, even when they seem least to
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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),
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
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, &
Diminishes social skills and social judgment (Wommack &
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
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).
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
Help students blow off
steam by incorporating celebrations, role-plays, and
physical activities (e.g., walks, relays, or games) into your
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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, &
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
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
Figure 2.9. Percentage of Teachers Outside Their Subject Expertise
Assigned to Teach in High-Poverty Schools
All Public 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.
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.
Perseverance and ability to apply skills in the long term.
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:
Identify and define the problem.
Evaluate each solution with a checklist or rubric.
Implement the selected solution.
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
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
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
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
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
Duration of school absences.
Incidents of illness during class.
Rates of undiagnosed and/or untreated health problems or
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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:
Increasing awareness of the incidence of poverty and its
Equitably and adequately funding our schools
Broadening access to high-quality preschool
Reducing segregation and isolation
Adopting effective school practices
Recognizing the importance of a high-quality teacher workforce
Improving the measurement of poverty
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Broadening Access to High-quality Preschool.
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
15 See, for example, Belfield and Levin (2007). 16 Kansas and New
York provide two examples. Both were ordered by their courts in 2006 (
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
Reducing Segregation and Isolation.
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.
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.
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, &
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.
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
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
by Suzanne Bates | Feb 14,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
More on Education
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The Mess of No Child Left Behind
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Grade Retention Fallacy
(Harvard Civil Rights Project) "Research tells us that fear and
humiliation are not the strongest motivators for struggling
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
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
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
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
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:
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:
of kids who are retained is poorer than that of peers who are
associated with retention fade within two to three years after the
Kids who are
identified as most behind are the ones "most likely harmed by
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
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
Persevere when faced
with material they struggle to read and understand
Record their answers
using "bubble sheets"
Work within specific
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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
Do you think this chapter overstates, understates, or accurately
states the seven engagement factors' connection to poverty and
Which of the seven factors pose the strongest challenge for you
and your colleagues?
Do these factors seem impossible to overcome, or can you
envision overcoming them? Explain your reasoning.
Have you already recognized and attempted to address any of
these factors in your school? How have your efforts worked out so
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
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?
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
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?
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
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)?
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?
Does your classroom have a "family atmosphere"? What
are the key ingredients that turn a group of students into a
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
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?
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
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?
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
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'
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?
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?
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?
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
Chapter 6. Engage for Deep Understanding
Is getting students to understand content an issue for you? If
so, what are the typical stumbling blocks you encounter?
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
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?
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
What are the biggest challenges you face when it comes to
eliciting appropriate levels of energy and focus from your
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
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?
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
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?
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.
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
What kinds of jobs or roles do your students take on? How might
you retool them to make an authentic, real-world connection?
Name two or three ways you can alter your curriculum to help you
automate engagement in your class.
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
How can the metaphor of the Russian nesting dolls inform your
own understanding and organization of engagement strategies you
plan to use?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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 www.jensenlearning.com.
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
b) high schoolgraduation 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
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
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.
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
Increase feedback on the learning and zero it in on the
specifics of effort used, strategies applied or attitude
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.
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
Education lawsdirects 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
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
►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
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
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
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
Conservative and liberal solutions to
our educational dilemma
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
“We’ve never invested in public
education as much as we should have”!?
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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
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'
Effective teachers tend to stay effective even when they
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.
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
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
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
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.
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:
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”
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
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
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
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.
State Education Department:
Charter schools suspend elementary students twice as much
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
Amistad’s suspension rate for
elementary students was 13.8 percent during the 2011-12 school
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.
Sunday Commentary: Excuses, Defeatists, and the Reality of
Corey Bunje Bower
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
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
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
______________________________________________________ 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
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
August 10, 2011 | This article appeared in the August 29-September 5, 2011 edition of The Nation.