This article originally appeared in Education Post on January 15, 2015.
The U.S. education debate has gotten so twisted that one plus one no longer equals two.
Cutting-edge research and decades of educators’ experience bear out these inviolable truths:
- Trauma, toxic stress and the other adverse effects of growing up in poverty wreak havoc on children’s brains.
- Excellent schools and excellent teachers can drastically improve children’s academic and life opportunities.
Yet, even as the debate heats up over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), we continue to argue about poverty and education as if they are separate cities, at best linked by a bridge. The time has come to fundamentally reimagine schools that serve low-income people and see them as chain-breakers that obliterate the cycle of poverty.
Research from the National Urban League suggests between one-quarter to one-half of poor urban students experience some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder—a higher rate than soldiers returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Symptoms in children “typically include: fear, agitation, exaggerated startle response, helplessness, disorganized behavior, insomnia, lack of concentration, detachment, unexplained anger, nightmares and avoidance of emotional intimacy.”
Sit with that list for a minute. Re-read it; then discard the last shred of the idea that education reformers can hold back from fully confronting the effects of poverty. Place it in the refuse pile right next to the old ideas that low-income kids can’t learn or that schools can’t be expected to be responsible for that learning because of a student’s home life.
Providing high levels of support is the foundation for helping students to reach the very highest of expectations.
It is in that paradigm shift that the staunchest free-market reformer and the most vociferous unionist have common cause. Envision what it takes to recruit, develop and retain teachers who can bring to bear not simply excellent classroom skills, but also the relational, trauma-informed interactions that cultivate strong mindsets as well as content mastery. No doubt it requires teachers who are well-paid, well-respected and well-supported. No doubt it requires a robust screening and evaluative process because this form of teaching is nearly as difficult as it is rewarding.
The cases for teacher quality, school choice, rigorous standards and most other reforms are stronger when starting from a system where every child is able to bring his or her full self to the learning process.
How do we get from here to there? After all, we have these entwined systems of poverty and education, bound to each other like muscle and tendon, yet have at least three separate institutions set up to deal with them: the health sector, the social service sector and the education sector. The prescription, however, is not merely better collaboration between the sectors, the co-located services of community schools or even the intensive wraparound services of Geoffrey Canada’s wonderful Harlem Children’s Zone.
The solution lays a step beyond: integrating a tremendous amount of anti-poverty efforts with academic programs so that they are part and parcel of the same enterprise. In truth, this approach needs to start at birth, and the field of pediatrics is pointing the way as organizations like San Francisco’s Center for Youth Wellness practice what is in essence anti-poverty medicine. We’re also seeing the potential of this approach at the school level in select places around the nation, led by groups such as New York City’s Turnaround For Children.
For the ESEA reauthorization, this needed integration suggests several steps. For instance, educator professional development should include trauma-informed practices. School climate plans should be a part of any accountability system and describe how every aspect of the school will align in mitigating the learning impacts of poverty. Perhaps most importantly, resources must flow to make anti-poverty schools a reality. Schools should have access to the number of nurses, counselors, child psychologists and social workers proportional to their need. Districts should be able to deploy teams that can manage the relationships with local service providers and offer the coaching required to ensure these comprehensive reforms stick.
With high supports and high expectations as a rallying cry, we can pull ourselves out of the dichotomous mud. The California advocacy group Children Now is a rare example of an organization traveling the third path, able to advocate for more home-visiting programs for low-income mothers and effective implementation of the Common Core. They understand the truth we all must start to grapple with—that education and poverty effects deeply and directly impact each other, and it’s up to us whether it’s a vicious or virtuous cycle.