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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Can We Fix Poor Schools Without Fixing Poverty? (Hint: It's About Trauma)

From the Education Law Prof Blog
A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

By Derek Black
July 6, 2015

An article in the Atlantic, drawing on the research of Pamela Cantor, says we can.

Cantor frames the problem as one of childhood trauma. She finds that poverty has effects on brain and other development that mirrors that of other types of childhood trauma.

"[Poor children] had all experienced loss, violence, neglect, or other adversity. And no matter what traumatic events they had experienced, the results were similar: they showed up distrustful, easily triggered and distractible. I couldn’t make the adversity they faced go away. But I could and did change how they surmounted that adversity.

What I saw in Washington Heights students were the same manifestations of trauma I had seen in my patients. I saw how adversity gets under the skin, into the brains and bodies of children through the mechanisms of stress.

And I saw that when lots of kids experience high levels of stress together, it produces a very specific collection of challenges to a school, a classroom, and to the students themselves."

The solution she says is to develop interventions aimed at the trauma of poverty, rather than chasing the illusive solution to poverty itself. In a separate paper, she proposes:
  • Mandate the incorporation of systems of support, culture change, and service integration into all reform options (transformation, turnaround, alternative management, and restart) for high poverty schools and school districts.
  • Invest in the scaling of models that address systems of support, culture change, and service integration in high poverty schools.
  • Fund school-centered services for high poverty students and: (1) institutionalize the role of a school-based clinical social worker; (2) improve funding for evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies (e.g., counseling) that can preempt more expensive mental health interventions and Special Education classification; and (3) improve the integration of schools and child-serving systems by expanding public funding streams to cover current funding gaps (e.g., for case management, crisis intervention services, family outreach, and teacher consultation).
  • Provide adequate funding for interventions for children with intense needs (e.g., autism, developmental disabilities, severe mental health issues).
  • Promote the development of student support and climate measures that can be incorporated into accountability systems, and establish incentive structures that promote the adoption of school culture and climate improvement models.
  • Establish standards and provide funding for leader and teacher preparation that addresses poverty-related barriers in high poverty schools. If our national education system is to fulfill the promise of providing a quality public education and an escape from poverty, then we must seriously address the poverty-related barriers to learning that are preventing our schools from leading the way out.

None of this is to say that poverty itself does not matter. It is to say that poverty matters more than policymakers currently appreciate. Unless we intend to actually end poverty, we must begin to treat its effects on children. Not assume that generalized educational improvements are enough.

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