Schools will stop failing when we stop failing society
As told on Public Radio’s This American Life (episode 474 on their website), Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris discovered this for herself. She set up a health clinic in a minority school in San Francisco and assumed she’d be helping with asthma, immunizations, obesity, and other routine health concerns. Instead, she was being asked to treat students referred by teachers who would swear they had ADHD.
She examined the students. They didn’t have ADHD. They had trauma. These kids were living with violence on a daily basis, be it domestic violence, gang shootings, or abuse from an alcohol or drug addicted parent. She also says it doesn’t have to be over the top stuff. In what she calls a “mundane” situation, parents needing to board up their home every time they leave to prevent getting robbed will make a child too anxious to learn. But that’s a normal part of these students’ environments. I recall overhearing a girl worrying about a stalker watching her every day after school. I reported to security and they got on it, but how well was she doing in class when she’s wondering if she’ll make it home later?
Besides twice the chance of heart disease, four and half times the chance of depression and twelve times the rate of committing suicide, trauma won’t permit a child to sit still, exercise impulse control or, of course, concentrate. Four or more traumatic experiences and the likelihood of developing learning or behavioral problems is thirty-two times higher than a person without any harmful events in their lives. But hey, somehow a gifted teacher with new and improved methods will get these kids on their way.
So to sum up: Poverty can lead to neglect, violence in the home, untreated parental mental illness and substance addiction, gang infested schools–which leads to childhood trauma–which leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder–which leads to students in a state of fight or flight, and that doesn’t allow much room for thinking or reasoning.
Now I know why my high school students didn’t retain anything from junior high, and why, when they were taking a test, it was like they were seeing the material for the first time.
The good news
There are schools and programs that are now instilling and reversing the lack of what are called non-cognitive skills, such as self-control, aggression, relating to others, paying attention, and being able to delay gratification. Paul Tough in his book, How Children Succeed, and economist James Heckman tell of schools that teach these skills right along with the class work. Tough describes classes at these schools as more group therapy sessions than normal classes. Heckman cites intensive sessions with social workers stressing positive thinking, persistence and self-esteem, and he was amazed that students meeting with a college-age mentor only twice a year showed big improvements in their grades. And they both approve of charter schools that put in doctors, nurses and social workers in sufficient enough numbers so the root causes of low grades can be effectively dealt with for the first time.
But even with students who don’t have serious social problems, their poverty alone will stand in their way. Here’s an example of how low-income children have trouble even getting started, and how a school is helping them by doing the complete opposite of what government departments and school boards think they should be doing. From The New York Times:
February 12, 2012
A Field Trip to a Strange New Place: Second Grade
Visits the Parking Garage
P.S. 142 is a high poverty school so close to the Williamsburg Bridge that during recess children can hear the cars above them driving to Brooklyn. Almost all of the 436 students qualify for free lunches. (Ever notice people who do succeed from this kind of background rarely talk about it, while people from, not the middle class, but pay-for-a-new-car-in-cash kind of wealth insist they’re “self-made men.")
On the first day of school, when they walk into Frances Sachdev’s kindergarten class in Room 117, most are already behind. By age 4, the average child in an upper-middle-class family has heard 35 million more words than a poor child. Studies have shown that while about two-thirds of kindergartners from the wealthiest 20 percent of households are read to at home every day, about a third of children from the poorest 20 percent are.
Experiences that are routine in middle-class homes are not for P.S. 142 children. When Dao Krings, a second-grade teacher, asked her students recently how many had never been inside a car, several, including Tyler Rodriguez, raised their hands. “I’ve been inside a bus,” Tyler said. “Does that count?”
When a new shipment of books arrives, Rhonda Levy, the principal, frets. Reading with comprehension assumes a shared prior knowledge, and cars are not the only gap at P.S. 142. Many of the children have never been to a zoo or to New Jersey. Some think the emergency room of New York Downtown Hospital is the doctor’s office.
The solution of the education establishment is to push young children to decode and read sooner, but Ms. Levy is taking a different tack. Working with Renée Dinnerstein, an early childhood specialist, she has made real life experiences the center of academic lessons, in hopes of improving reading and math skills by broadening children’s frames of reference.
The goal is to make learning more fun for younger children.
Earlier this year, Ms. Krings’s second grade visited an auto repair shop where, for the first time, Tyler sat in a car. “I sat in the front seat and then I sat in the back seat,” he said. It made him feel like the star in one of their library books, “Honda, the Boy Who Dreamed of Cars.”
While many schools have removed stations for play from kindergarten, Ms. Levy has added them in first and second grades. One corner of Ms. Krings’s room is for building blocks, another for construction paper projects. There are days when the second grade smells like Elmer’s glue.
Several times a month they take what are known as field trips to the sidewalk. In early February the second graders went around the block to study Muni-Meters and parking signs. They learned new vocabulary words, like “parking,” “violations” and “bureau.” JenLee Zhong calculated that if Ms. Krings put 50 cents in the Muni-Meter and could park for 10 minutes, for 40 minutes she would have to put in $2. They discovered that a sign that says “No Standing Any Time” is not intended for kids like them on the sidewalk.
One day last week Ariana Flores said: “We’re going to see a municipal parking garage today. We’re getting a good education.”
When reading, children are taught to make predictions of what is to come in a book, based on a variety of evidence — the cover, chapter headings, foreshadowing. Ms. Krings’s students used their field trip booklets to do the same before their visit to the Delancey and Essex Municipal Parking Garage.
Several predicted that drivers would have to pay to get in.
To be out of school on a sunny winter’s day and walking to a municipal parking garage — it doesn’t get any better than that. Kammi Poom skipped the whole way. Alan Zhao thought it was hilarious to walk like Frankenstein. Evan Nuñez, the smallest, hurried so he could be up front with Ms. Krings.
“There it is,” shouted Julissa Jirmnson. All of them had passed a municipal parking garage before, but few had been inside one. They walked up a ramp, past a blue handicapped zone, orange cones and a red Big Apple sign, then watched the cars coming in. They could see the drivers press a green button and take a ticket, but they didn’t see anyone paying money as they had expected.
In such situations, Ms. Krings recommends consulting an expert, so they asked the man standing in the front booth, whose name was David.
David stepped out, they crowded around, and he said, “They don’t pay to get in, they pay to get out.”
“I knew it,” said Ariana.
“I knew it, too,” said Kammi.
After that, well — there’s too much to tell it all. On the way back they stopped to copy down words from interesting signs. Ariana wrote, “Sprinkler Control Valve Located in Basement.” Jairo Fermin wrote, “Thru Trucks Use Houston Street.”
“I want a decibel level of zero,” Ms. Krings said as they walked back into the school.
For the next hour they did field trip follow-up. Ms. Krings gave them Muni-Meter math problems. At the block station the boys kept building racing tracks and knocking them over while Yudy He Wu made a municipal parking garage and lined the top with Matchbox cars. They never stopped chattering to one another, which Ms. Krings said was good. “They’re working together to resolve problems and developing their verbal skills,” she said.
When Ms. Dinnerstein first came to the school, staff members ran for cover. One of the miseries of being a teacher is that every year, someone shows up from Tweed Courthouse headquarters with a new plan to raise test scores.
But after four years of academic lessons built around sidewalk trips to the Essex Street Market, the subway, several bridges and a hospital emergency room, Ms. Krings is moved by how much learning goes on.
Daniel Feigelson heads the network of 30 schools that P.S. 142 belongs to. He said that he wished more principals would adopt the program but that they were fearful. “There is so much pressure systematically to do well on the tests, and this may not boost scores right away,” he said. “To do this you’d have to be willing to take the long view.”
I reprinted this article to give us an idea of where we're starting from with inner city children. But I don't think their long view will work out. Their lives outside of school will catch up with them in their adolescence. Improving the caliber of teachers and instruction works great in places like Finland and Singapore where economic support and social services are already in place. But where 20% of our children don’t have the proverbial level playing field, we’re running our education system ass backwards, teaching kids before they can sit in a chair without having to worry about just surviving another day–the same way I taught my classes for three years.
The foundation of a vibrant economy is a good education system. And we can only have that if we provide the services and support that the children we don't see really need. Do I think it'll happen any time soon? Shit, we won't even pay to fix our bridges.
Excerpted from Teaching the Invisibles by Jack Seeker. All rights reserved.
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