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Achievement Gap Mystery Partly Solved - It's Murder

A startling new study has profound implications for school improvement efforts. From Reuters:

A murder in the neighborhood can significantly knock down a child's score on an IQ test, even if the child did not directly witness the killing or know the victim, U.S. researchers reported Monday.

The findings have implications both for crime control efforts and for the heavy reliance on standardized tests, said New York University sociology professor Patrick Sharkey, who conducted the study.
They can also explain about half the achievement gap between blacks and whites on such tests, he reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
HALF the achievement gap!!!

As I have reported in this blog, the five "chronically underperforming schools" on the state list for restructuring in Oakland are all within a five mile radius, and all in neighborhoods rife with street crime and violent murders. In 2008, 124 people were murdered in Oakland, the vast majority African American - some were high school students. This map shows the areas where these murders occurred, and the neighborhoods with the densest markers are precisely where the chronically low-performing schools lie.

This corresponds closely with a dramatic study done several years ago focusing on the prevalence of PTSD among children who live in violent neighborhoods.
Researchers found that:

As many as one-third of children living in our country's violent urban neighborhoods have PTSD, according to recent research and the country's top child trauma experts - nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq.

According to a social worker who works with these children:
"PTSD can look a lot like attention-deficit disorder ... with the lack of concentration, poor grades and inability to sit still."

Teachers of students in these neighborhoods are familiar with these symptoms. There is another aspect of this that I have observed. You might think that in such a violent environment people would look to authorities like the police for safety - and occasionally they do. But among the youth, the police are often feared and despised. Students wear t-shirts that say "Stop Snitching," to put pressure on one another not to cooperate with police. The police are perceived by many as a hostile occupying force in these neighborhoods. This suspicious attitude towards authority spills over into the schools and corrodes relationships between students and teachers as well.

I believe the pressure to raise test scores makes this divide even worse. Teachers are given less and less leeway to meet their students where they are, to focus education on topics of intrinsic interest to the students, and must focus instead on covering large amount of content attached to rigid timelines. And the designation of students as Far Below Basic reinforces the perceptions many students have that they are not capable of succeeding in school.

But the larger question this raises is what the root cause of the achievement gap itself is. Most current "reform" strategies (such as those in Race to the Top and the ESEA Blueprint) are rooted in the belief that the differences in achievement are a result of good versus poor teaching. Of course a highly effective teacher can make a huge difference, but the pervasive effects of environmental factors such as violence, poverty and nutrition are going to exert constant downward pressure on the academic performance of students in these neighborhoods. And we can close down and reopen schools every four or five years for the next century and still not be likely to make hungry, traumatized children into eager learners.

We will be far more successful when we recognize that teachers at these schools face particular challenges, and provide systemic supports to give them additional time and resources to cope with these conditions. If students are coming to school traumatized by violence, they need counseling. They need teachers with the flexibility to drop the Dibbles for a day and have a class discussion on the drive by shooting that occurred the night before. They need nutrition programs to ensure they are well-fed. Sadly, most of these services are currently being severely cut, rather than expanded, due to the lack of funds.

Most of all, these schools need to be elevated as places of honor in their communities, not denigrated by the State and Federal government labeling them and their teachers as failures.

The subject of "turn-around schools" was the focus of the Teachers' Letters to Obama teach-in Tuesday, July 13. We heard from Congresswoman Judy Chu, who has introduced legislation in Congress called Strengthening Our Schools, which offers a much sounder framework for school improvement. We also spoke with Diane Ravitch, who has been a vocal critic of NCLB and its step-children, Race to the Top and the ESEA Blueprint. The recording of the dynamic session can be heard HERE.

What do you think? Have you seen the effect of violence on your students' academic achievement? How should we be supporting teachers at these schools?

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