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.”

Anti-KIPP: All grit, no morality

KIPP’s grit-heavy character education has three major problems, writes Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, a Carleton education professor, in the New Republic.

The first is that we do not know how to teach character. The second is that character-based education is untethered from any conception of morality. And lastly, this mode of education drastically constricts the overall purpose of education.

KIPP focuses on seven character strengths—grit, zest, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity — which KIPP believes predict success in “college and life.” Founder David Levin  aims for “dual purpose” instruction to reach both academic and character goals, he says in his online course.

But KIPP’s list of character strengths is “devoid of value judgment,” Levin told Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. “The inevitable problem with the values-and-ethics approach is that you get into, well, whose values? Whose ethics?”

KIPP’s values are “relentlessly focused on individual achievement rather than “good and evil or citizenship and the commonweal,” complains Snyder.

. . . the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” . . . In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas. Today’s grit and self-control are basically industry and temperance in the guise of psychological constructs rather than moral imperatives.

. . . This is “tiger mother” territory here — a place where the “vulgar sense” of success prevails.

KIPP’s mission is to help students —  95 percent are African American or Latino — get “into and through” college.  That’s “laudable,” Snyder concedes. But really . . . “Educators who have embraced performance character seem to live in a world where their students are more likely to win a Nobel Prize than earn a living as a beautician, electrician, or police officer.”

We may not know how to teach character, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Perhaps few students will go on to win Nobel Prizes, but that doesn’t mean the school should give up on preparing students for success in college. The future electricians, police officers, teachers and accountants will need that — not just the future nuclear physicists.

I do think that KIPP should consider adding citizenship to its list of character strengths. And stop worrying about whose values the schools are promoting. These are the values of the parents who choose KIPP as their “tiger” school. They want their kids to succeed, however “vulgar” that may seem to others. If they wanted a school that saw their kids as future beauticians, they have other options.

Tough on grit

Via This Week In Education, here’s Paul Tough talking about the importance of grit.

Grit is good, but it’s not enough

Is Grit Enough?  In his look at Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Robert Pondiscio highlights the chapter on the winning chess team at a Brooklyn middle school. Coach Elizabeth Spiegel spends “most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments, Tough writes. “She does not hug.”

One of her stars, James Black, achieved master status before turning 13 and became a national champion. He beat a Ukrainian grand master. Despite good grades (a sign of grit), he does poorly on state exams. Spiegel pledged to prepare him for  New York City’s entrance exam for elite public high schools. But there was too much to learn.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. . . . When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Despite his “keen intelligence” and grit, James couldn’t beat the test. Years of academic knowledge and skill isn’t crammable, writes Pondiscio.

Spiegel was angry about how little non-chess information James had been taught, she told Tough.

“He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation. He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade. It feels like he should have learned more.”

Without educated parents, James needed to be taught academic knowledge and vocabulary in school, Pondiscio writes.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.

Tough talks about character and schools with Ed Week blogger Larry Ferlazzo.


Grit, curiosity, character and success

Brains aren’ t everything writes Paul Tough (great name!) in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Children who can work at a boring task, control their impulses, commit to a distant goal and learn from failure tend to do well in school, college and the workplace.

Affluent children may be shielded from failure, Tough writes. Poor kids learn about failure, but not about how to overcome it.

He profiles a KIPP school that reports to parents not just on their children’s academic performance but on their progress in developing noncognitive skills such as grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.  Experience has shown that KIPP graduates with strong academic skills may lose their way in college unless they have the fortitude to deal with academic, social and financial challenges.

Grit is translated as ganas at Downtown College Prep, the school in Our School.  “We’re not good now, but we can get better,” students told each other. Their teachers said, “Do the work.”

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” is poor advice, writes Tough. If you can dream it, foresee the obstacles and come up with a plan to deal with them, you can do it.

Programs that focus on raising low-income children’s cognitive ability show no long-standing gains, notes Thomas Toch in a Washington Monthly review of the book. It’s the behavioral and social skills that make a lasting difference.

Childhood psychological traumas, including neglect, abuse, parental addiction and divorce, can do lasting damage, researchers tell Tough.

Children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointment, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school.

. . . In particular, such stressors compromise the higher order thinking skills that allow students to sort out complex and seemingly contradictory information such as when the letter C is pronounced like K (what psychologists call “executive functioning”), and their ability to keep a lot of information in their heads at once, a skill known as “working memory” that’s crucial to success in school, college, and work.

Warm parenting or close relationships with caregivers can  help children develop resilience, Tough writes.

But what happens when parents aren’t on the job? Tough profiles a KIPP school that teaches character strengths and a college mentoring program for disadvantaged students, OneGoal.  He also looks at a success chess program at a New York City middle school: The coach forces players to analyze their failures. But I ended the book, which I strongly recommend, depressed about the prospects of schools or mentoring programs to save kids whose parents aren’t competent.

Can schools make a difference for poor kids?

Teacher Dwayne Betts, guest-posting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic blog, asks: Can schools make a difference for children in poor neighborhoods?

Two months into my first real job teaching poetry at a middle school in Southeast D.C. the English teacher whose class I took over once a week got hit in the eye while breaking up a fight. Two weeks later, after the student who’d struck her hadn’t been expelled, she decided not to return. This was a seventh grade English class, first quarter of the school year. . . . The school never hired another teacher. I watched a rotating cycle of substitutes come in and hand out worksheets to students that ran the gamut from on grade level to barely reading.

Disorder pushes good teachers away from troubled schools, Betts writes.  Most good young teachers in D.C. public schools leave for charter schools or private schools, “even when it means working more hours and longer school years.”

Betts is inspired by James Forman Jr.’s  No Ordinary Success in Boston Review, which compares two reform models: Geoffrey Canada’s Promise Academy builds on an attempt to transform a high-poverty community, while KIPP middle schools work to educate low-income, minority children who can handle a structured, high-expectations model.

Promise Academy faced serious academic and behavior problems with its first middle-school students, who’d come from district-run public schools. Yet test scores went up significantly, even for the most troubled students, Forman writes.

In a visit to KIPP, he found seventh-grade boys discussing Raisin in the Sun, listening to each other politely and citing passages in the text to support their points.

But KIPP is able to hire excellent teachers, Forman writes. There aren’t enough to go around.

. . . many mediocre teachers and administrators do not have the capacity to improve to anywhere near the standard required to achieve KIPP-like results. As much as it thrills us to read about extraordinary people succeeding with poor children, I want to see how ordinary people can do the same.

Forman recommends Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes on Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Jay Mathews’ Work Hard. Be Nice. on KIPP and Charles Payne’s So Much Reform, So Little Change on the “persistence of failure in urban schools,” despite positive models.

In response to the ongoing “fix communities” versus “fix schools” debate, those doing the work in the trenches increasingly are settling on a single answer: do both.

“Canada started out running social programs, but when he peeked inside Harlem classrooms, he quickly realized he could never transform the neighborhood without fixing the schools,” Forman writes.  KIPP is now offering preschool, afterschool and summer school programs in some cities, plus “individual tutoring, social workers for kids in distress, and, at some campuses, classes for parents. It is also actively involved in community partnerships that address families’ medical and other needs.”

It seems to me that fixing poverty is a lot harder and more expensive than creating effective schools that protect teachers (and students) from violent kids.

Via Class Struggle.

Harlem miracle

The Harlem Miracle, a David Brooks column in the New York Times, praises a charter  school that’s dramatically boosted low-income black and Hispanic students’ test scores.  That shows schools can make big changes for children in poverty, Brooks writes. Of course, Promise Academy is part of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides a range of programs to help families, including prenatal care and parenting classes. But children who live in the zone but lost the lottery to attend the charter school didn’t show the same progress. “In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students, Brooks writes.

Promise exemplifies “an emerging model for low-income students,” Brooks writes.

Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.

It takes time to get left-behind students caught up.

Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school.

The middle school struggled in its first few years, writes Paul Tough in Whatever It Takes, the story of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Teacher turnover was high. Too many students were behavior problems. But as students moved from the elementary to the middle school, those problems were solved.

For more on no-excuses, culture-building schools read Sweating the Small Stuff by David Whitman and, of course, Our School by me.

Update: On Gotham Schools, skoolboy calls Brooks gullible.