Column: The root causes of education woes
I read with great interest a long article titled “How Kids Really Succeed” by Paul Touch in the June 2016 issue of The Atlantic magazine. The article demonstrates that educational researchers are finally looking at the root causes of our failing schools. You know, those matters that teachers have always known are the key determinants of academic and, indeed, life success.
What are these? I’ll give you a little hint. Despite all our wailing about what’s wrong with our schools, many studies have shown for years that if we look only at test results from schools in our more stable, economically comfortable communities, they do well in international comparisons. And many studies have also shown that the most accurate predictor of a child’s future academic success is the educational attainment of his/her parents.
Of course well-educated parents probably live in economically comfortable and stable communities. So the two kinds of studies above show the same thing essentially, namely that our educational problems are primarily a result of poverty. You can blather about “no child left behind” and give standardized tests all you want, but as long as you have so many poor neighborhoods, particularly in inner cities, it ain’t gonna happen.
While a few children manage somehow to rise above any obstacle, test results in general show that poverty hinders school success, especially where school funding is lower in poor neighborhoods, as is largely the case in the U.S.
Mr. Touch now points out that over the past decade “neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood … leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect … the way they function in school.” And the poorer the household, the more stress there is about meeting basic needs.
This toxic stress impedes development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that enables complex intellectual functions, and enables us to sensibly regulate ourselves emotionally and cognitively. These young victims of toxic stress have difficulty moderating their responses to disappointments and provocations. The result is fighting, talking back and acting up,
If that were not bad enough, their stressful home environments disrupt the development of what are called “executive functions,” i.e. working memory, attention span, cognitive flexibility and ability to process new information.
These are the “difficult” children who don’t learn to read on time or gain basic number sense because they are “too distracted by the emotions and anxieties overloading their nervous systems” and cannot concentrate. Of course the more they fall behind, the worse they feel about themselves and school and the worse their behavior. They are frequently suspended and often drop out.
Obviously this is a societal problem that our overworked, underpaid teachers cannot possibly solve in their classrooms. The only way to solve this is with programs that give these children’s parents employment, stable shelter from which they are not evicted two or three times per year, and health care. Access to good nutrition would also improve educational outcomes.
So like everything else, it’s a matter of what kind of a country we want to be.
As things stand, we will increasingly become a nation of poor parents who had poor, toxically stressful childhoods who seldom know where their next meal is coming from or what roof will be over their heads in a few months’ time, who often try to ease their own anxieties with alcohol and other drugs, and are just seldom able to get their children to kindergarten mentally and emotionally prepared to learn.
I ask my readers to consider that we could be so much better than that. We could get it together to pay attention to politics, to our civic life, to work toward a reform government that will get money out of politics, and take the steps necessary to create a society with real equality of opportunity, which we surely do not have now.
Much has been said and written about Finland’s high achieving public schools. They top everyone in international tests of 15-year-olds in reading, math and science. They don’t give any standardized tests. What do they do?
Finnish schools are equally funded, no matter the wealth or location of their neighborhoods.
All Finnish children have access to free child care, health care and preschool in their own neighborhoods. All education is free in Finland, preschool through university. Teachers are respected and paid comparably to doctors and lawyers.
Teachers develop their own curriculums and are sole judges of the children’s progress. But perhaps even more important is the fact that Finland has a much stronger social welfare program and social safety net. Thus hardly any Finnish children experience the degree of toxic stress and anxiety faced by our economically disadvantaged children.
You cannot expect good outcomes when you are unwilling to invest in the inputs. Damaged children in, damaged youth out.
Mary Boland’s column appears on the second Thursday of each month. She is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother and a longtime resident of Carbondale.
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