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A No Brainer


According to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, new research done at Cornell explains that

The income–achievement gap is a formidable societal problem…. We show that childhood poverty is inversely related to working memory in young adults. Furthermore, this prospective relationship is mediated by elevated chronic stress during childhood. (Gary Evans and Michelle Shamberg)

Their work adds to the body of knowledge of research on poverty and learning which addresses the concern that

There is a gulf between low and middle Socioeconomic status (SES) children in their performance on just about every test of cognitive development, from the Bayley Infant Behavior Scales to IQ and school achievement tests. Furthermore, these SES disparities are not subtle.
(Martha Farar)

This is important news because

Smarts matter in our high-tech age of standardized tests, iPhone entrepreneurs and nanotech venture capitalists. "The future is built on brains, not prom court, as most people can tell you after attending their high school reunion," as the writer Anna Quindlen puts it.( ABC News)
For decades, education researchers have documented the disproportionately low academic performance of poor children and teenagers living in poverty. Called the achievement gap, its proposed sociological explanations are many. Compared to well-off kids, poor children tend to go to ill-equipped and ill-taught schools, have fewer educational resources at home, eat low-nutrition food, and have less access to health care. (Brian Keim)
The research is creating a lot of buzz because

Children with stressed lives, then, find it harder to learn. Put pejoratively, they are stupider. It is not surprising that they do less well at school, end up poor as adults and often visit the same circumstances on their own children. (The Economist)

The policy problem is one that economists and other stakeholders are sometimes slow to acknowledge

We know a lot about raising incomes, a bit about improving test scores, and something about moving people into employment; but stress isn’t an outcome we’re very good at affecting. (Andrew Leigh)

In the meantime, everyday teachers see that

Tough times have trickled down to the youngest generation. Many children of today's recession are reeling along with their parents. Some have been uprooted from their homes and schools. Others are pitching in to pay the bills or seeing fewer of the extras they once enjoyed: camps, vacations, sports teams, allowances. The economy of 2009 has reshaped some expectations about growing up. The Washington Post (Donna St. George)

I just can’t help but wonder why this is news. Teachers have long known that far too many children live with more pressure than most adults could bear. We have witnessed its numbing effect on curious minds and its crushing effect on human spirit.

But when classroom teachers have said children who live in stressful conditions have difficulty learning, we were accused of not believing “All children can learn.”

And when classroom teachers said we agree all children can learn, but when they come tired, hungry, and scared about what they find when they go home they may not learn as much, they told us that we needed to "Set high expectations.”

And when teachers have suggested we assess learning in ways that create less stress on children, we were told “You're afraid of accountability.”

Research now seems to be bearing out what teachers have been trying to get across for years. Poverty wears the body, preoccupies the mind, and weighs down the spirit.

Unfortunately, there is little satisfaction in saying “I told you so.”


Unfortunately it has become politically incorrect to discuss the impact poverty and violence have on children's performance in schools, because this supposedly "let's schools off the hook" by lowering expectations for children.

But these are very real problems. A 2007 article in the San Francisco Chronicle revealed 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."

Furthermore: "PTSD can look a lot like attention-deficit disorder, he said, with the lack of concentration, poor grades and inability to sit still."

"Post-traumatic stress is rampant," said Meredith Rolfe, administrator for the California Department of Education's Safe and Healthy Kids Program Office. "There doesn't seem to be the realization of the relationship to academic achievement."


Meanwhile California has cut the number of counselors, librarians and school nurses, leaving schools without resources to support these children.

Until we get serious about responding to the impact of poverty, hunger and violence, schools will continue to struggle with the achievement gap.

Susan, I am 51 and not done yet either. I moved from an administrative position at a college to classroom position and I am so much happier interacting with students and families. But I am also so stunned at the crushing dysfunction in the families of many of my students. The lack of supervision after school, lack of caring parenting, and lack of sleep and proper diet, all affect their school success, and balanced development, and yet teachers are just told to "find a way to reach every student". Well, we began a breakfast program at our school, and earned an attendance award. We held after school interventions for no pay, but earned the respect and appreciation of students who it was said could not be taught. But now 3 of our 5 upper grade staff received pink slips as a result of California budget cuts, so our successful program we developed over 6 years, (from 29% proficient to 70% proficient) has been dismantled.

I believe that teachers are most successful when they feel heard, supported, and receive the proper support from administrators, families, psychologists, social workers, and other teachers. It is discouraging and unmotivating to tell teachers to work harder when they are losing their jobs instead of receiving recognition for their productive and effective efforts.

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Recent Comments

  • Denise Aiani: Susan, I am 51 and not done yet either. I read more
  • Anthony Cody: Susan, Unfortunately it has become politically incorrect to discuss the read more




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