Why rich kids do better in school than poor kids

Why do rich kids do better in school than poor kids? Daniel Willingham provides two answers in an American Educator article.

First, wealthier parents can invest more in their children. They can afford “enrichment experiences in the summer, more books in the home, a tutor if one is needed, better access to health care, and so on.”

Wealthier parents are also likely to be higher in human capital–that is, they know more stuff. Wealthier parents speak more often to their children, and with a richer vocabulary, with more complex syntax, and in a way that elicits ideas from the child. Wealthier parents are also more likely to read to their children and to buy toys that teach letters and the names of shapes and colors.

Children who grow up in poverty are prey to “stress caused by crowding, by crime-ridden neighborhoods, by food uncertainty, and other factors.”  Warm, supportive parents can counteract this, but stress may affect parents’ ability to raise their children well, Willingham writes. “Stress also leads directly to brain changes in children. Both of these factors lead to emotional and cognitive disadvantage for kids.”

What can teachers do? Teach academic knowledge and skills that kids won’t get at home, but also teach “how to interact with peers and adults, how to interact with large institutions like a school or a government agency, how to interact with authority figures, how to schedule one’s time, strategies to regulate one’s emotions and so on,” Willingham writes.

A “calm atmosphere” is important for kids who come from noisy, crowded and thratening neighborhoods and homes, he adds. “Kids in more chaotic classrooms show higher levels of stress hormones.”

Poverty gap widens

The achievement gap is widening between high-income and low-income children, even as the black-white  gap is narrowing, reports the New York Times, citing research at Stanford and the University of Michigan.

. . . wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Frank Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. By 2007, upper-class parents were spending twice as much on their children as wealthy parents in 1972; spending by low-income parents grew by 20 percent.

While low-income children are watching TV, affluent children are visiting the museum, the aquarium and the library.

The cultural divide between well-educated and less-educated Americans is growing, argues Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. “When the economy recovers, you’ll still see all these problems persisting for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture,” he said.

Update: On his new blog, Dan Willingham suggests another possible explanation for the poverty gap. Poor parents and children live under constant, debilitating stress. He also finds cause for optimism:

Some countries, (e.g., Hong Kong), despite an enormous disparity between rich and poor, manage to even the playing field when the kids are at school. The US does a particularly poor job at this task; wealthy kids enjoy a huge advantage over poor kids.

Yes, Hong Kong is different from the U.S., Willingham concedes. But we should try to learn what they’re doing right.

Reading, ‘riting and wellness

Fifteen San Francisco high schools offer a wellness center where students can discuss depression, anger, anxiety, addiction or just stress.

In a recent districtwide survey of teachers who had referred students to Wellness Centers, three-quarters reported greater academic success. Eighty-six percent said they noticed that the students had improved emotional well-being.

“Our No. 1 need is more mental health clinicians,” said Jessica Stein Colvin, who runs the wellness center at Galilieo High. “There is mental health therapy happening here all the time. Every single clinical space is used every hour of the day.”

Rahsaan, a 17-year-old a senior at Galileo, broke up with his girlfriend last year. He is estranged from his parents and siblings — he has lived in the Bayview district with his disabled grandfather, whom he has cared for for more than 10 years.

Last semester, he said, his grades plummeted when he hit an emotional wall.

“I was outside and one of the teachers saw me crying and they brought me down here,” Rahsaan said. “Jessica and the other teacher stayed here after school to make sure I wasn’t going to harm myself or anything. It helped me a lot because I was, like, literally going to kick somebody’s ass and not care about the consequences.”

The wellness centers were started after the Columbine massacre, when many schools were trying to reach troubled teenagers. “We took an approach that was particular to random acts of violence and decided to go broad and provide a spectrum of services so we could reach as many students as possible,” said Kevin Gogin, director of School Health Programs.

Elite schools ease up on homework

Some ultra-competitive private schools are assigning less homework to avoid overstressing students, reports the New York Times.  Of course, that means cutting back to only four hours a night or perhaps even 3.5 hours.

Dalton invited Harris Cooper, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Duke University, to speak last spring about the link between homework and learning. “At five hours a night,” he said of the homework burden, “they likely won’t do any worse if they only bring home four.”

. . . Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford School of Education, co-authored a 2007 paper that looked at 496 students at one private and one public school and found that those with more than 3.5 hours of homework a night had an increased risk of physical and mental health issues, like sleep deprivation, ulcers and headaches. In a separate study of 26 schools, Ms. Pope said, 67 percent of more than 10,000 students reported that they were “often” or “always” stressed out.

“At some point, we say too much is too much,” Ms. Pope said. “In our study, that’s 3.5 hours.”

Not all schools are scaling back: Some parents equate heavy backpacks and sleep deprivation with excellence.

Nothing to fear (about math) but fear itself

Students have nothing to fear (about math) but fear itself, according to a new study published in Cerebral Cortex. Math-anxious students who do well with math questions used a part of the brain associated with cognitive control, focus, and regulating negative emotions to control their stress. Anxious students can be taught to do this, researchers say.

Why so many hyperactive kids?

Nine percent of school-age children in America have attention deficit disorder, according to a health professional.   Why so many? Pediatrician Lawrence Diller blames a growing willingness to medicalize childhood misbehavior.  Uncertain about discipline and worried too much about self-esteem, parents turn to professionals, who are quick to prescribe drugs for what may be “minor differences in children’s behavior or performance.”

Children are under more stress at school, Diller adds.

. . . more than 20 years ago kindergartners only had to sing the ABCs and play “ring around the rosie.” Now, they are expected to read and do simple math before the start of first grade.

When both parents are working, children spend a long day trying to meet the “behavioral demands” of structured preschool and  after-school programs, he writes. “Parents are tired, too, when they finally get their kids at the end of the day.”

Via I Speak of Dreams.

South Korea: Kids, stop studying so hard!

South Korea is enforcing a cram-school curfew, writes Time’s Amanda Ripley, who embeds with government inspectors on a hagwon raid. Tutoring sessions are supposed to end by 10 pm.

South Korea’s hagwon crackdown is one part of a larger quest to tame the country’s culture of educational masochism. At the national and local levels, politicians are changing school testing and university admissions policies to reduce student stress and reward softer qualities like creativity.

In 2010, 74 percent of students received private after-school instruction at an average cost of $2,600 per year.  There are more tutors than teachers in South Korea.

South Korean students are the best in the world on international reading and math tests. (Mellow Finland does well too.)

But the country’s leaders worry that unless its rigid, hierarchical system starts to nurture more innovation, economic growth will stall – and fertility rates will continue to decline as families feel the pressure of paying for all that tutoring. “You Americans see a bright side of the Korean system,” Education Minister Lee Ju-ho tells me, “but Koreans are not happy with it.”

South Korean students are encouraged to stay up late studying and sleep in class, Ripley writes. “The typical academic schedule begins at 8 a.m. and ends sometime from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., depending on the ambition of the student.”

When I visited some schools, I saw classrooms in which a third of the students slept while the teacher continued lecturing, seemingly unfazed. Gift stores sell special pillows that slip over your forearm to make desktop napping more comfortable.

Success in South Korea requires winning a spot in a top university.  To reduce the incentives to cram, “500 admissions officers have been appointed to the country’s universities, to judge applicants not only on their test scores and grades but also other abilities,” Ripley writes.

Still hagwons are responding to the curfew by putting lessons online so students can study late at home. Other hagwons claim to be “self-study” libraries to evade the 10 pm curfew. Accompanying government inspectors, Ripley sees 40 teenagers sitting in carrels in “a warren of small study rooms with low ceilings and fluorescent lights.” The air is stale. “It is a disturbing scene, sort of like a sweatshop for children’s brains,” she writes.


What is this teacher stress study about?

I was a bit puzzled when I read the GothamSchools “remainder”: “Researchers in Houston are asking whether students can give teachers post-traumatic stress.” Post-traumatic stress? Is the study investigating whether teachers have bouts of depression, nightmares, etc. after they have stopped teaching?

I followed the link to the Edweek blog by Sarah Sparks, which bears the headline, “Can a Class of 7th Graders Give Teachers Post-traumatic Stress?” But the article itself made it seem as though this were a study of teacher stress, not post-traumatic stress. (Sometimes the headlines are written by someone other than the blog’s author.)

In diligent Internet-research style, I followed the Edweek link to the description of the study itself. There was no mention of post-traumatic stress at all, only stress.

So, what is this study about?

The study, to be conducted by researchers at the University of Houston, consists, at least in part, of a “prospective multi-method, multi-time scale investigation of the proposed mediational chain (i.e., stressors lead to teacher stress response which lead to teacher work and health stress outcomes which lead to teacher effectiveness which lead to student behavioral and academic outcomes).” It will follow 160 seventh- and eighth-grade math, science, or social studies teachers over three years.

The information gathered and analyzed during this project may be used “to guide future development of interventions to mitigate teacher stress and consequently improve teacher effectiveness and student behavior and learning.”

It’s pretty well known that teaching middle school is highly challenging, if not stressful from a medical perspective. (Granted, this depends a great deal on the school.) Moreover, it’s well known that certain kinds or levels of stress can affect the health. (A degree of stress can be a good thing.) So, what will the study uncover that is not well known or obvious? It seems that the researchers are most interested in the possible link between teacher stress and student outcomes (behavior and performance).

Because, you see, if teacher stress were bringing student performance down, then of course something would have to be done about that, and funds might appear. If teacher stress were not showing adverse effects on student performance, then it would be harder to convince funders and policymakers that any sort of intervention was needed.

My suspicion is that the findings will be mixed. Sometimes the teachers with the brightest outer face are the ones with the most stress. They may be delivering wonderful lessons and bringing their students to great heights–but they put intense pressure on themselves not to show their fatigue and bad moods in the classroom. Until they up and quit, they may seem to be doing fine.

Other teachers may let off a lot of steam in the classroom. They may seem to be under more stress than the others, but a medical test might show otherwise.

What if the study could not demonstrate a link between teacher stress and student outcomes? Or what if it correlated positively with student achievement? Or what if it were impossible to separate correlation from causation?

Stress (beyond a certain point) is a serious enough problem that it should be tackled for its own sake. A link between teacher stress and student outcomes may exist, but my guess is that it will be weak. We shall see.

I do hope that the study will consider curriculum, because it is much more stressful to teach without a curriculum (or with a bad one) than to teach with a good one. Some middle schools are curricular wastelands. I hope that it will also look at the schools’ discipline practices (not just policies). In other words, I hope it will look into the reasons for teacher stress in middle schools. Not all of this is inevitable, and not all of it is due to the kids’ ages.

Away from home, Asian students slide

Asian-American students’ grades slide in their first year of college — unless they live at home — concludes a study at University of California at Irvine, where Asian-American students outnumber whites. White students’ grades dropped slightly, compared to their 12th-grade GPA, while Asians’ grades fell dramatically in both natural and social sciences, according to University of Denver psychologist Julia Dmitrieva. From Miller McCune:

. . .  when Esther Chang studied 120 white and 395 Asian-American undergraduates at a large public university in California, she found that while the white students’ GPAs averaged 3.21, all the Asian-American groups’ GPAs were significantly lower — 3.04 for East Asian, 2.99 for Southeast Asians and 2.94 for Filipinos.

The Asian-American students studied less, went to the library and to class less than the white students, says Chang. She and Dmitrieva speculate that Asian-American parents’ involvement in their children’s out-of-school activities leaves the kids unprepared to manage their time in college. Dmitrieva’s study supports that hypothesis, since the grades of that Asian-American freshman who still lived at home, or scored well on a test measuring academic perseverance and diligence, didn’t drop any more than those of the white students.

Dorothy Chin, associate research psychologist at UCLA’S Semel Institute, believes further research will show Asian-American students “find a way to self-regulate and bounce back” by senior year. Graduation rates are strong for Asian-American students.

Also on Miller McCune:

What looks like pushy, high-pressure parenting to Westerners is seen as loving by Asian-American children, says Ruth Chao, a University of California, Riverside, psychologist.

Studies have found that parental behavior that feels controlling to North American and German children feels warm and accepting to Japanese and Korean children.

. . . Western cultures value individuality and independence highly, so Western teenagers feel rejected when their parents exert a great deal of control, explains Gisela Tromssdorff of the Technical University in Aachen, Germany. On the other hand, she writes, “Japanese adolescents … feel rejected by their parents when they experience only little control.”

Asian-American children don’t report more stress, anxiety or depression than white children — until they reach college. Asian-American college students have the highest suicide rate of any ethnicity.

I wonder if that’s also true for Asian-American college students who live at home.

‘Turnaround’ school hit by teacher absenteeism

Teachers at at a low-performing Rhode Island high school were fired last year, then rehired when they agreed to reforms designed to turn Central Falls High around. But teacher absenteeism is high at the “turnaround” high school, reports the Providence Journal. “More than half of the high school’s 840 students didn’t receive a grade in one or more classes for the first quarter” because they missed so much instruction, reports the Journal.

Since the school year started Sept. 1, there has not been a single day when all of the 88 teachers at Central Falls High School have shown up for work.

On that first day, two teachers called in sick and a third took a personal day.

In addition, several teachers resigned after the start of the school year.  Administrators have struggled to hire replacements and substitutes.

Bitterness remains over the mass firing of all the school’s teachers in February, jobs that were eventually won back through a compromise agreement in May. In exchange for their jobs, the teachers agreed to a list of changes administrators said were necessary to turn around the school, which has among the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the state.

Some teachers resent the new requirements, which include tutoring and eating lunch with students each week, attending after-school training sessions and being observed by third-party evaluators.

Fourteen teachers were judged “unsatisfactory” by outside evaluators out of 71 who were observed.

Student absenteeism also is a problem at Central Falls High. Students and teachers complain that the school is disorderly and dangerous.

Officials blame the union contract, which gives teachers 15 paid sick days and two personal days a year: Teachers can accumulate up to 185 sick days.  Teachers with six years on the job are “entitled to 40 days of extended sick leave at full pay,” which goes up to 50 days after 15 years of service.  Six veteran teachers are out on stress-related medical leave; they’ve been replaced by long-term substitutes.

Teacher absenteeism has gotten worse each month, reports the Journal. In recent weeks, an average of 19 teachers a day out of 88 positions have been absent.

Nationwide, 5.3 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, writes Walt Gardner in his Ed Week blog. Stress pushes up the absentee rate.