Parenting and the poverty gap

Poor kids are behind — way behind — on the first day of school, said Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia professor, at an Education Writers Association discussion on equity, poverty, and education. Seventy percent of the achievement gap at age 11 was there when lower-income children started kindergarten, she said.

Boston has launched a campaign called “The Boston Basics,” led by Ronald Ferguson’s Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, to help parents nurture their children in the first three years of life.

There are five basics: maximize love and manage stress; talk, sing, and point; count, group, and compare; explore through movement and play; and read and discuss stories.

Paul Tough, author of Helping Children Succeed, talked about improving children’s environment at home and at school.

When kids grow up in a calm, nurturing environment their brains send them signals to relax, and that encourages them to be curious and take risks, Tough explained. In contrast, kids who live in chaotic environments get brain signals that fire up “fight-or-flight” responses, he said.

“It’s hard for them to concentrate,” Tough explained. “They’re distracted by the emotions and anxieties that are flooding their nervous systems.”

Grit and resilience can’t be taught like math or reading, writes Tough in The Atlantic. However, some teachers and schools are able to reach stressed students.

The central premise of EL schools is that character is built . . .  through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.

. . . In general, when schools do try to directly address the impact that a stress-filled childhood might have on disadvantaged students, the first—and often the only—approach they employ has to do with their students’ emotional health, with relationships and belonging.

That’s not enough, writes Tough. “For a student to truly feel motivated by and about school, he also has to perceive that he is doing work that is challenging, rigorous, and meaningful.”

Kids need ‘serve-and-return’ parents, teachers

Skills such as self-control, resilience and grit are products of a child’s home and school environment, writes Paul Tough in his new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.

What’s most important is “the way the adults in their lives interact with them, especially in times of stress.”

That sums up nearly all we need to know about parenting and teaching, writes Annie Murphy Paul on Brilliant Blog.

Warm, “serve-and-return parenting,” which can be done in many ways, “conveys to [children] some deep, even transcendent messages about belonging, security, stability, and their place in the world.”

Effective teachers “convey to their students deep messages—often implicitly or even subliminally—about belonging, connection, ability, and opportunity . . . In the same way that responsive parenting in early childhood creates a kind of mental space where a child’s first tentative steps toward intellectual learning can take place, so do the right kind of messages from teachers in school create a mental space that allows a student to engage in more advanced and demanding academic learning.”

In addition, writes Paul, students must be exposed to deep, meaningful, sensibly sequenced knowledge.”

Getting grit: Balance challenge, support

In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth tells stories about exceptionally gritty people, including NFL football players, West Point cadets and successful business leaders.

The book includes Duckworth’s personal story, writes Evie Blad in Education Week.  When she was a child, her father would say: “You know, you’re no genius!”

After earning a Harvard degree and a “genius” award, Duckworth dreams of traveling back in time to confront her father.  “I’m going to grow up to love my work as much as you love yours. I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.”

Educators have “embraced the grit concept in recent years along with a wave of research and policy centered on a variety of non cognitive traits and social-emotional skills, like growth mindset, self control, empathy, and healthy relationship skills,” writes Blad. Stanford’s Carol Dweck gives similar advice on promoting a “growth mindset,” the belief that struggle is a sign you’re learning — not a marker of inevitable failure.

The question is whether schools can “teach” these skills.  Duckworth thinks a mix of challenging assignments and support will enable students to strengthen their ability to overcome obstacles.

Teachers should ask themselves: “Is there a clear learning goal that’s very specific and do my students really know it? Do they have a clear strategy to remove distractions so they can focus 100 percent?” Duckworth said.

And they should offer frequent feedback, she said.

“They should ask themselves, ‘Am I encouraging repetition and refinement, or, as when I hand back your term paper or your test, is it over?’ “

At the Education Writers Association conference last week, Duckworth said schools shouldn’t blame students for lacking grit when they fail. “The whole point of the grownups in the room is that it’s our responsibility to get kids where they need to be,” she said.

In the New York Times, Judith Shulevitz wants grit to be less individualistic and macho.

Black, brown boys need change — not grit

Schools are pushing “soft skills” such as “grit,” compassion and a “growth mindset” to prepare students for college and careers. Black and Brown Boys Don’t Need to Learn Grit; They Need Schools to Stop Being Racist, writes Andre Perry, an education consultant and writer, in The Root.

Soft-skills training is disguised bootstrapping, which insidiously blames youths for failing in racist systems designed to block their success, and it absolves the middle class of any responsibility to uproot inequality. It is racism that really keeps students out of college and careers, not a child’s lack of resilience. Students are ready for college and jobs. Postsecondary institutions and employers are not ready for black and brown youths.

“Men and boys of color need to learn how to deconstruct systems rather than adapt to broken ones,” writes Perry.

Louisiana students called for the state to stop prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults in an April 6 protest at the State Capitol.

Students called for juvenile-justice reform on April 6 at the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge.

For example, the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition organized teens to call for juvenile-justice reform at the State Capitol. They urged legislators and the governor to support a bill that would end the practice of prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults.

“Saying that a kid from Baltimore, St. Louis or New Orleans needs grit is like saying a mountain climber needs to get rid of her fear of falling,” Perry concludes.

That’s a good line. But is it really true that black and brown youths are ready for college and jobs, blocked only by racism? Do they already have the academic skills — and grit — needed to succeed?

SEL for all or just for disruptive students?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the newest edu-fad, writes Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. Believers say devoting time to SEL activities will raise academic achievement.

“Disruptive, distracting behavior imposes a tremendous drain on teaching/learning — for perpetrators and victims alike,” she writes. But, she wonders if SEL activities make sense for all students — or just those who are unable to behave properly in class.

Students participate in a SEL program run by the Holistic Life Foundation.

Students participate in a SEL program run by the Holistic Life Foundation.

She proposes splitting teaching and classroom management into two jobs with “highly qualified teachers up front, and highly qualified classroom managers in back.” Class sizes would be increased to pay for the extra adults.

In her scheme, the classroom manager would be able to remove disruptive students, temporarily or for the long term. The money that would have been spent on SEL instruction for the entire student body” would be spent to provide “special psychiatric and academic services for disruptive students.”

Can teachers develop students’ social-emotional strengths while teaching academics? Or will SEL inevitably be an add-on that competes with academics for time?

Teachers, what do you think?

Don’t grade schools on grit

Don’t grade schools on grit, writes Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, who practically invented grit, in the New York Times.images

Character traits such as self-control affect students’ success, she writes. Schools can help students develop these traits.

But character measures aren’t accurate enough to be used for accountability.

Encouraged by ESSA, the new federal education law, nine California districts are experimenting with using measures of “soft skills” to evaluate school effectiveness.

Duckworth’s research has identified three clusters of character strengths.

One includes strengths like grit, self-control and optimism. They help you achieve your goals. The second includes social intelligence and gratitude; these strengths help you relate to, and help, other people. The third includes curiosity, open-mindedness and zest for learning, which enable independent thinking.

Educators and researchers are looking for ways to assess these traits, raise students’ awareness of their shortcomings and provide “strategies for what to do differently,” she writes. Turning that research into a high-stakes assessment would be a mistake.

Non-cognitive measures aren’t reliable and may never be good enough to use for accountability writes Jay Greene. For a new study, his team tested students with different measures of “non-cognitive” skills. They wanted “to see if we get consistent results. We didn’t.”

W need “hard thinking on soft skills,” writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst. These skills are “far too important to suffer the fad-like fate” of other education reforms.

Testing for joy and grit? 

Jade Cooney leads “good-behavior games” with her fifth-grade class at Visitacion Valley Elementary School in San Francisco. Photo: Elizabeth D. Herman, New York Times

Schools are trying to measure students’ “social and emotional skills,” reports Kate Zernike in the New York Times. But how do you measure “joy” and “grit?” Nobody really knows.

SAN FRANCISCO — The fifth graders in Jade Cooney’s classroom compete against a kitchen timer during lessons to see how long they can sustain good behavior — raising hands, disagreeing respectfully and looking one another in the eye — without losing time to insults or side conversations.

As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors.

And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness that the games aim to cultivate — ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.

The newly revised federal education law “requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance,” notes Zernike.  But advocates of teaching social-emotional skills “warn that the definitions are unclear and the tests faulty.”

“I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Angela Duckworth, the Stanford psychologist who popularized the “growth mindset.” Her new book, out in May, is titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

. . . Last spring, after attending a White House meeting on measuring social-emotional skills, she and a colleague wrote a paper warning that there were no reliable ways to do so. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said.

A 2011 analysis of 213 school-based social-emotional skills programs found that they improved academic achievement, writes Zernike. The next year, Paul Tough extolled schools that teach “grit” in How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character

Next year, the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress will include questions about students’ social-emotional skills.

Parents don’t want Uncle Sam to become Uncle Shrink, writes Robert Holland in Townhall.

You gotta know when to fold ’em

Kenny Rogers’ Gambler was right, concludes a new study in the Journal of Research in Personality. You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, but you also have to know when to fold ’em.

Grittier people — those who strongly agreed to statements such as “setbacks don’t discourage me” and “I finish whatever I begin” — proved to be more persistent in the face of an impossible task.

But, sometimes, quitting would have been the best strategy, writes Olga Khazan.

For the final test, the researchers gave the subjects a math game, which was also rigged so that some of the participants felt like they were fighting an uphill battle. They also gave the participants an offer: When things got tough, they could either drop out of the experiment and get $1 for their troubles, or they could press on and get $2 if they won, but nothing if they lost. Grittier people didn’t solve any more math problems than their lazier counterparts, even though they felt more optimistic about the test than the others. They were, however, more likely to continue the game when they were losing, even though they risked walking away with nothing.

Grit predicts what researchers call “costly persistence.”

It’s important to know when to quit and reevaluate rather than blindly push through,” said Gale Lucas, a researcher with the USC Institute for Creative Technologies.

Or, as W.C. Fields put it: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”

A college dream lost

An “academic superstar” at his Washington D.C. high school, Christopher Feaster struggled in college, lost heart and dropped out, writes WAMU’s Kavitha Cardoza.

Christopher Feaster sits at home with his high school awards.

Christopher Feaster sits at home with his high school awards.

Three years ago, as a senior at a small, supportive school called Hospitality High, he “seemed in a lot of ways like the poster child for grit and determination,” she recalls.

“During much of high school, he and his mother were homeless and living in a shelter,” yet he earned high grades, “won every academic award imaginable and received a full-ride, four-year scholarship” to Michigan State’s hospitality business program.

At Michigan State, Feaster was shocked to receive C’s instead of the A’s or B’s he expected. He stopped turning in homework and spent most of his time in his room.

His high school principals, Michael Cucciardo and Tiffany Godbout-Williams, flew out to Michigan — spending their own money — to talk to him.

Christopher told them about his poor grades, how much he worried about his mother, and his fears of not belonging.

. . . They stayed for two days, met Christopher’s professors, sat in on his classes and set up a plan for him — all the structures they had used to help him be successful in high school.

. . . But Christopher slid even further into depression and stopped answering texts or phone calls. He felt he had disappointed everyone.

He failed all his final exams and was told not to return.

Feaster now works at a restaurant as a host and lives with his mother in subsidized housing.

Was it too much support in high school, inflated grades or depression? (Feaster’s mother, who dropped out of college after one year, when she became pregnant with him, suffers from depression.)

Only one out of every four low-income students that attend college will earn a degree, according to the Pell Institute for Opportunity in Higher Education.

Character matters, but what can schools do?

“Character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills,” writes James Heckman in the lead essay of Brookings’ new book, Does Character Matter? Policymakers should look for opportunities to shape both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, writes Heckman.

Other essays deal with parenting, conscientiousness, grit, the effects of chronic adversity and creating “schools of character.”

“The journey from good idea to good policy is a minefield,” writes Robert Pondiscio.

. . . Third Way policy analyst Lanae Erickson Hatalsky notes in her essay (that) if Democrats talk about character, “it runs the risk of sounding like apostasy, blaming poor children for their own situation in life and chiding them to simply have more grit and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” (Likewise, the Left dares not invoke the miasma of family structure.)

Character talk may feel more at home in Republican talking points, but it carries the risk of foot-in-mouth disease, “setting the stage for politicians to inadvertently say something that sounds patronizing to the poor, demeaning to single women, or offensive to African Americans (or all three).” Just so.

The book lacks an essay on “school choice as a means of giving educators permission to focus on character development,” writes Pondiscio. KIPP can “worship at the altar of grit” because parents have chosen that model.

Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School, wants “a comprehensive international effort in institutions and in governments to develop intellectual, character and community standards of growth that can be embedded in the ‘curricula’ of schools, universities, workplaces.”

“Don’t expect Common Core character standards any time soon,” responds Pondiscio.