There Is a Huge Education Gap Between Poor Students and Their Wealthier Peers - What Needs to Be Done?

The following is an excerpt from the new book Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016): 

In 2013, the United States reached an educational milestone. For the first time, a majority of the country’s public school students—51 percent of them, to be precise—fell below the federal government’s threshold for being “low income,” meaning they were eligible for a free or subsidized school lunch. This wasn’t an overnight development; according to data compiled by the Southern Education Foundation, the percentage of American public school students who are low income has been rising steadily since the foundation started tracking the number in 1989. (Back then fewer than a third of students met the definition.) Passing the 50 percent mark may be a symbolic distinction, but as symbols go it is an important one. It means that the challenge of teaching low-income children can no longer be considered a side issue in American education. Helping poor kids succeed is now, by definition, the central mission of American public schools and, by extension, a central responsibility of the American public.

It is a responsibility we are failing to meet. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, the gap in eighth-grade reading and math test scores between low-income students and their wealthier peers hasn’t shrunk at all over the past 20 years. (The gap between poor and wealthier fourth-grade students narrowed during those two decades, but only by a tiny amount.) Meanwhile, the difference between the SAT scores of wealthy and poor high school seniors has actually increased over the past 30 years, from a 90-point gap (on an 800-point scale) in the 1980s to a 125-point gap today. The disparity in college-attainment rates between affluent and low-income students has also risen sharply. And these days, unless children from poor families get a college degree, their economic mobility is severely restricted: Young people who grow up in families in the lowest income quintile (with household income below about $21,500) and don’t obtain a B.A. now have just a one in two chance of escaping that bottom economic bracket as adults.

These disparities are growing despite the fact that over the past two decades, closing the test-score gaps between affluent and poor children has been a central aim of national education policy, as embodied in President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program.

These government efforts have been supported and supplemented by a constellation of nonprofit groups, often backed by philanthropists with deep pockets and an abiding commitment to addressing educational inequality. Along the way, certainly, those efforts have produced individual successes—schools and programs that make a genuine difference for some low-income students—but they have led to little or no improvement in the performance of low-income children as a whole.

The ongoing national discussion over how to close those gaps, and whether they even can be closed at all, has not been confined to policy makers and philanthropists. Educators across the country are intimately familiar with the struggles of children experiencing adversity, as are social workers, mentors, pediatricians, and parents. If you work with kids who are growing up in poverty or other adverse circumstances, you know that they can be difficult for teachers and other professionals to reach, hard to motivate, hard to calm down, hard to connect with. Many educators have been able to overcome these barriers (with some of their students, at least). But I’ve spoken with hundreds more in recent years who feel burned out by, even desperate over, the frustrations of their work.

Those of us who seek to overcome these educational disparities face many obstacles—some financial, some political, and some bureaucratic. But the first obstacle, I would argue, is conceptual: We don’t yet entirely understand the mechanisms behind childhood adversity. What is it about growing up in poverty that leads to so many troubling outcomes? Or to put the question another way: What is it that growing up in affluence provides to children that growing up in poverty does not?

These are the questions that I have been trying to answer in my reporting for more than a decade. My first book, Whatever It Takes, took as its subject the work of Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and examined, among other topics, how neighborhoods affect children’s outcomes, and particularly how the experience of living in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty constrains children’s opportunities. My second book, How Children Succeed, considered the challenges of disadvantaged children through a different lens: the skills and capacities they develop (or don’t develop) as they make their way through childhood.

The particular focus of How Children Succeed was the role that a group of factors often referred to as noncognitive or “soft” skills—qualities like perseverance, conscientiousness, self-control, and optimism—play in the challenges poor children face and the strategies that might help them succeed. These qualities, which are also sometimes called character strengths, have in recent years become a source of intensifying interest and growing optimism among those who study child development. Many people, myself included, now believe that they are critical tools for improving outcomes for low-income children.

Part of the evidence supporting this belief comes from neuroscience and pediatrics, where recent research shows that harsh or unstable environments can create biological changes in the growing brains and bodies of infants and children. Those changes impair the development of an important set of mental capacities that help children regulate their thoughts and feelings, and that impairment makes it difficult later on for them to process information and manage emotions in ways that allow them to succeed at school.

That neurobiological research is complemented by longterm psychological studies showing that children who exhibit certain noncognitive capacities (including self-control and conscientiousness) are more likely to experience a variety of improved outcomes in adulthood. The most thorough of these studies, which has tracked for decades 1,000 children born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in the early 1970s, showed that children with strong noncognitive capacities go on to complete more years of education and experience better health. They’re also less likely to be single parents, to run into problems with credit, or to wind up in jail.

Because noncognitive qualities like grit, curiosity, self-control, optimism, and conscientiousness are often described, with some accuracy, as skills, educators eager to develop these qualities in their students quite naturally tend to treat them like the skills that we already know how to teach: reading, calculating, analyzing, and so on. And as the value of noncognitive skills has become more widely acknowledged, demand has grown for a curriculum or a textbook or a teaching strategy to guide us in helping students develop these skills. If we can all agree on the most effective way to teach the Pythagorean theorem, can’t we also agree on the best way to teach grit?

In practice, though, it hasn’t been so simple. Some schools have developed comprehensive approaches to teaching character strengths, and in classrooms across the country, teachers are talking to their students more than ever about qualities like grit and perseverance. But in my reporting for How Children Succeed, I noticed a strange paradox: Many of the educators I encountered who seemed best able to engender noncognitive abilities in their students never said a word about these skills in the classroom.

Take Elizabeth Spiegel, the chess instructor I profiled at length in How Children Succeed. She teaches chess at Intermediate School 318, a traditional, non-magnet public school in Brooklyn that enrolls mostly low-income students of color. As I described in the book, she turned the I.S. 318 chess team into a competitive powerhouse, one that regularly beats better-funded private-school teams and wins national championships. It was clear to me, watching her work, that she was teaching her students something more than chess knowledge; she was also conveying to them a sense of belonging and self-confidence and purpose. And among the skills her students were mastering were many that looked exactly like what other educators called character: the students persisted at difficult tasks, overcoming great obstacles; they handled frustration and loss and failure with aplomb and resilience; they devoted themselves to long-term goals that often seemed impossibly distant.

And yet, in all the time I spent watching her teach, I never once heard Elizabeth Spiegel use words like grit or character or self-control. She talked to her students only about chess. She didn’t even really give them pep talks or motivational speeches. Instead, her main pedagogical technique was to intensely analyze their games with them, talking frankly and in detail about the mistakes they had made, helping them see what they could have done differently. Something in her careful and close attention to her students’ work changed not only their chess ability but also their approach to life.

Or take Lanita Reed. She was one of the best teachers of character I met—yet not only did she not talk much about character, she wasn’t even a teacher. She was a hairdresser who owned her own salon, called Gifted Hanz, on the South Side of Chicago, and she worked part-time as a mentor for a group called Youth Advocate Programs, which had been hired by the Chicago schools department to provide intensive mentoring services to students who had been identified as being most at risk of committing or being a victim of gun violence. When I met Reed, she was working with a 17-year-old girl named Keitha Jones, whose childhood had been extremely difficult and painful and who expressed her frustration and anger by starting a fistfight, nearly every morning, with the first student at her high school who looked at her the wrong way.

Over the course of several months, Reed spent hours talking with Keitha—at her salon, at fast-food restaurants, at bowling alleys—listening to her troubles and giving her big-sisterly advice. Reed was a fantastic mentor, empathetic and kind but no softy. While she bonded and sympathized with Keitha over the ways Keitha had been mistreated, she also made sure Keitha understood that transforming her life was going to take a lot of hard work. With Reed’s support, Keitha changed in exactly the way character-focused educators would hope: She became more persistent, more resilient, more optimistic, more self-controlled, more willing to forgo short-term gratification for a chance at long-term happiness. And it happened without any explicit talk about noncognitive skills or character strengths.

Though I observed this phenomenon during my reporting, it was only later, after the book was published, that I began to ask whether the teaching paradigm might be the wrong one to use when it comes to helping young people develop noncognitive strengths. Maybe you can’t teach character the way you teach math. It seems axiomatic that you can’t teach the quadratic equation without actually talking about the quadratic equation, and yet it was clear from my reporting that you could make students more self-controlled without ever talking to them about the virtue of self-control. It was also clear that certain pedagogical techniques that work well in math or history are ineffective when it comes to character strengths. No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets; hearing lectures on perseverance doesn’t seem to have much impact on the extent to which young people persevere.

This dawning understanding led me to some new questions: What if noncognitive capacities are categorically different than cognitive skills? What if they are not primarily the result of training and practice? And what if the process of developing them doesn’t actually look anything like the process of learning stuff like reading and writing and math?

Rather than consider noncognitive capacities as skills to be taught, I came to conclude, it’s more accurate and useful to look at them as products of a child’s environment. There is certainly strong evidence that this is true in early childhood; we have in recent years learned a great deal about the effects that adverse environments have on children’s early development. And there is growing evidence that even in middle and high school, children’s noncognitive capacities are primarily a reflection of the environments in which they are embedded, including, centrally, their school environment.

This is big news for those of us who are trying to figure out how to help kids develop these abilities—and, more broadly, it’s important news for those of us seeking to shrink class-based achievement gaps and provide broader avenues of opportunity for children growing up in adversity. If we want to improve a child’s grit or resilience or self-control, it turns out that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment.

Excerpted from HELPING CHILDREN SUCCEED: What Works and Why by Paul Tough. Copyright © 2016 by Paul Tough. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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