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Presenting a new strategy based in the emerging science of success. Adversity In , the United States reached an educational milestone. Back then fewer than a third of students met the definition. Passing the 50 percent mark may be a symbolic distinction, but as symbols go it is an important one.
It means that the challenge of teaching low-income children can no longer be considered a side issue in American education. Helping poor kids succeed is now, by definition, the central mission of American public schools and, by extension, a central responsibility of the American public.
40 model essays a portable anthology
View Slideshow It is a responsibility we are failing to meet. According to statistics from the U. The gap between poor and wealthier fourth-grade students narrowed during those two decades, but only by a tiny amount. Meanwhile, the difference between the SAT scores of wealthy and poor high school seniors has actually increased over the past 30 years, from a point gap on an point scale in the s to a point gap today.
The disparity in college-attainment rates between affluent and low-income students has also risen sharply. And these days, unless children from poor families get a college degree, their economic mobility is severely restricted: View Slideshow These disparities are growing despite the fact that over the past two decades, closing the test-score gaps between affluent and poor children has been a central aim of national education policy, as embodied in President George W.
These government efforts have been supported and supplemented by a constellation of nonprofit groups, often backed by philanthropists with deep pockets and an abiding commitment to addressing educational inequality. Along the way, certainly, those efforts have produced individual successes — schools and programs that make a genuine difference for some low-income students — but they have led to little or no improvement in the performance of low-income children as a whole.
The ongoing national discussion over how to close those gaps, and whether they even can be closed at all, has not been confined to policy makers and philanthropists. Educators across the country are intimately familiar with the struggles of children experiencing adversity, as are social workers, mentors, pediatricians, and parents.
If you work with kids who are growing up in poverty or other adverse circumstances, you know that they can be difficult for teachers and other professionals to reach, hard to motivate, hard to calm down, hard to connect with. Many educators have been able to overcome these barriers with some of their students, at least.
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Those of us who seek to overcome these educational disparities face many obstacles — some financial, some political, and some bureaucratic. But the first obstacle, I would argue, is conceptual: What is it about growing up in poverty that leads to so many troubling outcomes?
Or to put the question another way: What is it that growing up in affluence provides to children that growing up in poverty does not? These are the questions that I have been trying to answer in my reporting for more than a decade. My second book, How Children Succeed , considered the challenges of disadvantaged children through a different lens: These qualities, which are also sometimes called character strengths, have in recent years become a source of intensifying interest and growing optimism among those who study child development.
Many people, myself included, now believe that they are critical tools for improving outcomes for low-income children. Part of the evidence supporting this belief comes from neuroscience and pediatrics, where recent research shows that harsh or unstable environments can create biological changes in the growing brains and bodies of infants and children.
Those changes impair the development of an important set of mental capacities that help children regulate their thoughts and feelings, and that impairment makes it difficult later on for them to process information and manage emotions in ways that allow them to succeed at school.
That neurobiological research is complemented by long-term psychological studies showing that children who exhibit certain noncognitive capacities including self-control and conscientiousness are more likely to experience a variety of improved outcomes in adulthood.
The most thorough of these studies , which has tracked for decades 1, children born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in the early s, showed that children with strong noncognitive capacities go on to complete more years of education and experience better health.
But for all the discussion of noncognitive factors in recent years, there has been little conclusive agreement on how best to help young people develop them.
This has been understandably frustrating for many educators. After my book came out, I would sometimes speak before groups of teachers or child-development professionals. And then, after telling my stories, I would often be met with the same question from the audience: OK, now that we know this, what do we do? The idea that noncognitive skills are an important element of educational success, especially among low-income students, resonated with the personal experience of many of the teachers I spoke to.
And so, in the summer of , I decided to embark on a new venture, revisiting the research that I wrote about in How Children Succeed and extending my reporting to new scientific discoveries, new school models, and new approaches to intervention with children, both inside and outside the classroom. This report is the culmination of that effort. It is intended to provide practitioners and policy makers with a practical guide to the research that makes up this nascent field.
It is an attempt to answer the question: Now that we know this, what do we do?
First, let me acknowledge a technique that journalists who write about social issues, as I do, often employ in our work. We describe a particular intervention — a school or a pedagogy or an after-school program or a community organization — and try to use that program, either explicitly or implicitly, as a model for others to emulate. Philanthropists and foundations that have as their mission improving the lives of the poor often do something similar: They look for programs that work and try to replicate them, scale them up to reach as broad an audience as possible.
There are solid reasons behind the replication strategy. It is the basic growth paradigm of the technology world, in fact: Try a bunch of new things, identify the one that is most successful, and ramp it up. Focusing on successful models is an attractive approach for a narrative journalist, too, because people generally prefer reading emotionally resonant stories about individuals in pursuit of a worthy goal to slogging through lots of dry research and statistics. But there are limitations to this kind of journalism — and this kind of philanthropy, too.
The social-science literature is rife with examples of small, high-quality programs that seem to become much less effective when they expand and replicate. And the focus on individual stories, while satisfying in a narrative sense, can also distract us from what is arguably a more significant question: If this school or preschool or mentoring program works, why does it work?
40 model essays
What are the principles and practices that make it successful? So my aim here is to examine interventions not as model programs to be replicated but as expressions of certain underlying ideas and strategies. My premise is that no program or school is perfect, but that each successful intervention contains some clues about how and why it works that can inform the rest of the field. My goal is to extract and explain the core principles of each program I write about and look for common threads running through them.
There is a second challenge facing anyone trying to find strategies to address the problems of disadvantaged children. In this country, at least, we tend to divide childhood into a series of discrete chapters, segmented like clothing sizes or the aisles in a public library: This is broadly true of researchers, of advocacy groups, of philanthropies, and of government bureaucracies.
This same bureaucratic divide occurs at the state and county level, where, with rare exceptions, early-childhood and school-system administrators do not collaborate or even communicate much. These divisions are understandable. Trying to take on the full scope of childhood can seem too sprawling a mission for any one government agency or foundation, let alone any teacher or mentor or social worker.
I aim here to follow a different strategy: Skills Play Video James Heckman on Non-Cognitive Skills Because noncognitive qualities like grit, curiosity, self-control, optimism, and conscientiousness are often described, with some accuracy, as skills, educators eager to develop these qualities in their students quite naturally tend to treat them like the skills that we already know how to teach: And as the value of noncognitive skills has become more widely acknowledged, demand has grown for a curriculum or a textbook or a teaching strategy to guide us in helping students develop these skills.
Some schools have developed comprehensive approaches to teaching character strengths, and in classrooms across the country, teachers are talking to their students more than ever about qualities like grit and perseverance. But in my reporting for How Children Succeed, I noticed a strange paradox: Many of the educators I encountered who seemed best able to engender noncognitive abilities in their students never said a word about these skills in the classroom.
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She teaches chess at Intermediate School , a traditional, non-magnet public school in Brooklyn that enrolls mostly low-income students of color.
As I described in the book, she turned the I. It was clear to me, watching her work, that she was teaching her students something more than chess knowledge; she was also conveying to them a sense of belonging and self-confidence and purpose. And among the skills her students were mastering were many that looked exactly like what other educators called character: She talked to her students only about chess.
Instead, her main pedagogical technique was to intensely analyze their games with them, talking frankly and in detail about the mistakes they had made, helping them see what they could have done differently. Or take Lanita Reed.
She was a hairdresser who owned her own salon, called Gifted Hanz, on the South Side of Chicago, and she worked part-time as a mentor for a group called Youth Advocate Programs, which had been hired by the Chicago schools department to provide intensive mentoring services to students who had been identified as being most at risk of committing or being a victim of gun violence.
Distribution of wealth
When I met Reed, she was working with a year-old girl named Keitha Jones, whose childhood had been extremely difficult and painful and who expressed her frustration and anger by starting a fistfight, nearly every morning, with the first student at her high school who looked at her the wrong way. Over the course of several months, Reed spent hours talking with Keitha — at her salon, at fast-food restaurants, at bowling alleys — listening to her troubles and giving her big-sisterly advice.
Reed was a fantastic mentor, empathetic and kind but no softy. While she bonded and sympathized with Keitha over the ways Keitha had been mistreated, she also made sure Keitha understood that transforming her life was going to take a lot of hard work.
She became more persistent, more resilient, more optimistic, more self-controlled, more willing to forgo short-term gratification for a chance at long-term happiness. And it happened without any explicit talk about noncognitive skills or character strengths. Though I observed this phenomenon during my reporting, it was only later, after the book was published, that I began to ask whether the teaching paradigm might be the wrong one to use when it comes to helping young people develop noncognitive strengths.
It was also clear that certain pedagogical techniques that work well in math or history are ineffective when it comes to character strengths. Tweet this This dawning understanding led me to some new questions: What if noncognitive capacities are categorically different than cognitive skills?
What if they are not primarily the result of training and practice? What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment. Stress Which leads to a new and pressing question: Exactly what is it in the daily life of a disadvantaged child that most acutely hampers the development of the skills he needs to succeed?
Part of the answer has to do with basic issues of health: Poor children, on average, eat less nutritious food than well-off children, and they get worse medical care. Another part of the answer has to do with early cognitive stimulation: And yet neuroscientists, psychologists, and other researchers have begun to focus on a new and different set of causes for the problems of children who grow up in adversity, and their research is recalibrating how we think about disadvantage and opportunity.
Certain environmental factors, experienced over time, produce unhealthy and sustained levels of stress in children, and those stressors, to an extent far greater than we previously understood, undermine healthy development, both physiological and psychological. Adversity, especially in early childhood, has a powerful effect on the development of the intricate stress-response network within each of us that links together the brain, the immune system, and the endocrine system the glands that produce and release stress hormones, including cortisol.