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Is the Stress of Poverty to Blame for Academic Failure?

Today's guest blog is written by Pamela Cantor, M.D.  Pam is the President and CEO of Turnaround for Children.

Every three years, 15 year-olds from around the world take a test to measure proficiency in reading, math and science, and every three years, the results for American students disappoint. Here are the latest: 36th place in math (behind Slovakia but just ahead of Lithuania), 28th in science, and 24th in reading (5 notches below Vietnam). Disappointing, but not the whole story.

In US schools where the poverty rate is less than 10% our students finish at or near the top of the world. However, in schools where the poverty rate climbs past 75% the US drops toward the bottom of the pack, (after Cyprus and Kazakhstan).  

What does that tell you? One thing it tells me is that schools with high concentrations of poverty are at high risk for academic failure.  Dig deeper and discover what is at the root of this risk: a predictable, recurring set of cognitive, social, and emotional obstacles to learning that stem from the stress of poverty. The good news is that knowing this enables us to design schools to address these obstacles and help all children, no matter their zip code, succeed.

Today, nearly one in four children in the United States grows up in poverty. Many are exposed to violence, chronic insecurity, hunger, loss, and disruption. Poverty inflicts a traumatic form of stress on their developing brains. It interferes with learning. It impacts behavior. It undermines belief.

We know that children don't shed what they have experienced at the schoolhouse door. It shows up in the classroom as anger, distraction, frustration, impulsivity and distrust. It interferes with their ability to focus, to interact with others, to tackle rigorous academic material, and progress in school successfully. It makes it harder to prepare them to reach higher learning standards or build the skills for college and career.

Children who grow up in poverty are often behind their peers when they start school. If that school is low-performing, the achievement gap widens every year. When children experience repeated failures and disappointments, it erodes their confidence and undermines their will and belief in a future through education. When many children in a school building are falling farther behind, experiencing frustration and failure, their challenges mount and can overwhelm a school.

Reformers don't want poverty to be an excuse for school failure, yet all observers realize that the reality of poverty is a tremendous challenge to children and the adults who strive to educate them successfully.  If poverty continues to be the strongest predictor of failure for schools, then it stands to reason that the largest unrecognized factor in improving schools will be found in some aspect of poverty that has not yet been systematically addressed by broadly-scaled school reform efforts.

Here are the risks that we commonly see in low-performing, high-poverty schools:

  • Risk that stress-related behavior issues undermine student readiness for learning;
  • Risk that the learning and skills gap puts students farther and farther behind;
  • Risk that teachers are not equipped to cope with the range of academic and non-academic needs in the classroom, inhibiting instructional rigor and ability to form positive teacher-student relationships;
  • Risk that rampant behavior problems and ineffective classrooms create a negative, demoralized school culture, characterized by persistent underperformance and low expectations.

Individually, each of these risks is capable of derailing the path to academic growth.  Collectively, they create a turbulent, deeply challenged school environment--a "perfect storm"-- that exacerbates underlying behavioral issues and defeats the opportunity for students to make positive connections with teachers and peers, or the opportunity for families to build a trusting relationship with the school.  This negative environment also defeats the implementation and impact of powerful curricular and technology-based innovations. Yet these are precisely the schools that need these innovations the most.

In my view, it has been a mistake to assume that principals and teachers would figure out how to overcome the obstacles facing high-poverty schools without specific training and support.  Children need more than reading, writing, and arithmetic to harness their potential to learn and succeed. 

They need a fortified teaching and learning environment that:

  • reduces stress;
  • proactively and aggressively addresses academic recovery
  • fosters positive connections with adults, peers, families and communities;
  • delivers rigorous and engaging content;
  • promotes attributes common among all successful students, including motivation, self-regulation, tenacity, and resilience.

This environment is a prerequisite for healthy growth and academic performance in all children, in all schools. What can schools do to build fortified learning environments where all students can learn?

Focus on Reduction of Stress - How?  Develop a High Quality Student Support System that includes:

  • School-wide social and emotional learning competencies in adults and students
  • Positive discipline practices reinforced consistently and fairly by trained educators
  • Individualized services targeted to students with the most intense behavioral and emotional needs

Focus on Readiness Challenges - How? Train Teachers to Build Highly Effective Classrooms that:

  • Address challenges and barriers to learning
  • Employ techniques proven to defuse disruption and lower stress
  • Establish fair and consistent rules, procedures and routines
  • Use practices that promote cooperation, communication, student agency, skill mastery, and goal-orientation

Focus on Academic Recovery, Culture, and Student Growth - How? Establish the Organizational Efficacy Necessary to Execute Personalized Learning Environments

  • Create a multi-disciplinary School Leadership Team to develop and execute a school improvement plan
  • Use multiple modalities to support students in the classroom and provide for academic "catch up"
  • Monitor progress and review leading indicators, outcome data, measures of learning conditions, classroom efficacy and measures that assess quality of implementation

These are the steps that my organization, Turnaround for Children, is taking in partnership with schools in high-poverty communities in New York City, Newark, NJ and Washington, DC. They are explicitly mapped to the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching and lay a necessary foundation for the implementation demands of the Common Core State Standards.  It is hard work; it can take several years, but focusing on these areas like a laser transforms a school.

Where once there was chaos, there is calm. Where inattention and disruption were common, children are active, engaged participants in learning. Where low expectations were the norm, teachers now set a high bar for student achievement.

What steps are you taking to fortify your school environment to help all children succeed?   

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