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Education Politician Ignores Reality of Poor Children’s Brains

Education Politician Ignores Reality of Poor Children’s Brains

Hanna Skandera can be difficult to understand. The governor’s secretary-designate of education uses terms like “Obviously,” as though what she’s saying makes plain and perfect sense. It does not. Her controlled politician’s speaking style lacks specifics and thus works as defense against hard truths. This is why a person can keep clucking the same meaningless talking points while children cry out silently for help against bears who plague their frightened lives.   

We’ll come back to the bears. First, this is what Skandera told the Journal, in a story Monday headlined “Poverty, School Grades Still Linked”: “One of our goals was to begin to level that playing field and begin to measure growth and improvement. Obviously, I believe we achieved that goal of finding a much better and more accurate picture, regardless of background and demographics.” 

What is she talking about? What playing field? Does she mean “leveling” in terms of closing the achievement gap between poor and prosperous children? She doesn’t say that. She makes no connection between the level playing field and measuring growth and improvement. 

This is an important story, especially given the ongoing Chicago public school teachers’ strike, which some reports say boils down to teachers’ unwillingness to be evaluated based on standardized test scores. The argument against test-centric teacher evaluations is that there are too many other factors influencing kids’ lives, like hunger or substance abuse or gangs. Outside experiences directly affect how well they learn in classrooms, so you are disregarding reality when you rate teachers based on test scores.  

Skandera is pushing teacher evaluations hard, but she’s already sold an even grander lie: entire schools themselves getting letter grades.  

And what do you know? From the Journal: “(A)ll 69 schools that received ‘F’ grades under the new system are high-poverty, defined by the federal government as those where at least half the students qualify for lunch subsidies. Among schools that received a ‘D,’ about 95 percent are high-poverty. Conversely, only 41 percent of the 39 schools that received ‘A’ grades are high-poverty.” 

Yet this story somehow claims – on its own, without attribution – “The PED controlled for poverty in calculating A-F grades by looking at changes over time in individual student test scores, rather than raw scores at one point in time.” 

So what? What does a change over time in test scores have to do with poverty? Can’t rich kids’ scores change too? 

Skandera points to one school that’s in poverty and didn’t get an F. This demonstrates, she says, the shakiness of an argument that poverty and low test scores are linked. She also disses the teachers: “Skandera pointed to studies that show an effective teacher can make a big difference for students from all backgrounds, and that teachers vary widely in how much their students’ test scores improve from year to year.” 

Effective teachers certainly impact education, but the conversation does not need to be abstract or vague when scientists are actively studying how children’s brains learn.  

Being attacked by a bear is a high-stress situation for any human being. In the new episode of This American Life, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician who runs a children’s clinic in San Francisco, uses the bear metaphor to explain why kids who live in poverty have a hard time learning. 

Harris says she was being sent kids who purportedly had ADHD, from parents who claimed that was why they weren’t good in school. When Harris studied them carefully, though, she found their problem wasn’t ADHD at all. It was trauma. 

Trauma at a young age – and this is something else majors studies have shown – impacts a person’s health into adulthood. It also impacts a young person’s ability to learn. 

Harris: “If you look on the molecular level, you’re walking through the forest and you see a bear, right? So you can either fight the bear or run from the bear. That’s kind of your fight or flight system.”

The body releases adrenaline, our short-term stress hormone, and cortisol, a longer-term stress hormone. The pupils dilate. Your heart beats faster. Blood gets pulled from anywhere it isn’t absolutely needed, so the skin gets cold and clammy. 

“The other thing that it does – now, you can imagine that if you’re about to fight a bear, you need some gumption to fight that bear, right? So it kind of shuts off the thinking portion of your brain, right? That executive function cognitive part. And it turns on the real primal aggression and the things that you need to be able to think that you’re going to go into a fight with a bear and come out on the winning side.”

That’s really good if you’re fighting a bear, Harris says. “The problem is when that bear comes home from the bar every night.” The poor kids Harris was seeing suffered such frequent stress that their bodies are constantly activating the emergency fight-or-flight response.

This was the point teachers kept trying to make with Skandera when she heard public comments on her evaluation plan: You can’t fairly judge how we’re doing with these kids based on test scores, because there’s too much other stuff going on that’s directly impacting their ability to be taught. 

“As a secondary teacher, a high school teacher, I deal with pregnant teenagers or girls who think they’re pregnant,” a teacher told Skandera. “I deal with kids who are drug abusers. I deal with kids who are drunk when they come to school, or their parents are drunk and they have to take care of them. I deal with kids who don’t come to school because they’re taking care of their little brothers or sisters, because their parents don’t have the money to pay for day care.” 

That stress that comes with living in poverty – these recurring confrontations with metaphorical bears – chemically impacts children’s brains and makes it harder for them to learn. 

Again, from This American Life: “When the brain does something over and over and over again, it creates pathways that get more and more ingrained. So this kind of repeated stress affects the development of these kids’ brains, and especially affected in this situation is a specific part of the brain that’s called the prefrontal cortex, which is where a lot of these non-cognitive skills happen – self control and impulse control, certain kinds of memory and reasoning. Skills they call executive functions.” 

Doctors can actually see this happening in brain scans. For kids who are under constant stress, “the bear basically never goes away. They still feel its effects even when they’re just trying to sit quietly in English class.” 

Try asking a kid, in that state, to diagram a sentence. Or to spend days quietly taking standardized tests so their schools can be graded. Is that smart policy? 

So let’s bring this all back to the obvious truth aroused by these ludicrous grades and ignored by the most powerful education official in our state: The schools with the most students from poor families are performing worst, and that isn’t due to teachers. It’s because when life is really difficult – when violence or hunger are a big part of your world – getting good grades on tests doesn’t matter. Not to a child. 

That’s what’s obvious here. 

Equally obvious is that Skandera and other politicians are going to continue ignoring the true causes of problems in our education system. Teachers need help. Parents too. What they get is empty words from a bureaucrat who’s laser-focused on political agendas that don’t make schools better. 

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