Fine Word – ‘Legitimate’

by Guest Blogger
January 31st, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

I love words. I love that words have history, and ancestors, and family trees. I love that geography, culture, economics, and historical events give birth to words and shape their evolution over time.

I never wanted to be a Latin teacher, but I suppose it was inevitable. After I accepted my current job as an English and Latin teacher, my aunt revealed that my grandmother had wanted to be a Latin teacher more than anything in the world, but she could not, due to marriage, family obligations, and money. She became the first female (and, as I understand from my family, the youngest) court stenographer for the Kentucky Supreme Court. Her father had to go to work with her, she was so young. She deserved to do whatever she wanted to do. And so it’s fitting – and more than an honor – to fulfill her posthumous dream. It’s in my blood, I suppose.

I find it fascinating that denied the opportunity to teach others about her love of words, she spent her entire career recording spoken English, condensing its sounds into squiggles and lines. She used to hone her shorthand skills by transcribing entire soap opera episodes and telephone conversations on. Ask her what my father ate for lunch during a mid-day phone call in 1972, and she could have flipped right to the combination of squiggles for “soup, a pickle, and a Heineken.”

I like to think she would have enjoyed my classes; particularly the time I spent on etymology, the study of word origins. I teach one vocabulary/etymology word a day at the very beginning of class when I teach my cultural literacy item of the day. Today’s word? Spurious. A great word, one that my grandmother would have loved.

‘Spurious’ describes something that is false, or inauthentic, but it comes from the Latin spurius, meaning “bastard” or “illegitimate.” Spurius was related to all sorts of lovely words such as spurcitia, meaning “filthiness” or “dirt,” and spurcare, “to make dirty” or “to defile.” The Romans thought highly of their illegitimate children, clearly. They even turned spurius into a proper name for all those illegitimate offspring roaming around ancient Rome. If your name was Spurius, you were likely illegitimate.

Which segues nicely into my cultural literacy item of the day. I got to thinking: If the Roman naming convention had continued into the Elizabethan era, and Shakespeare had known about it, and he’d named Gloucester’s illegitimate son Spurius instead of Edmund, the first speech in Act II of King Lear would be even more awesome than it already is.

Edmund (a.k.a Spurius) was the illegitimate son of Gloucester, close advisor to Lear. Gloucester lavishes all of his love on the legitimate son, Edgar, which drives Edmund nuts. He hates being a bastard because it renders him less than – more base - than his bookish brother Edgar. Anger drives him to deceit in the form of a tragic plot against his brother that leads to Oedipus-style eye removal, nakedness, and rampant baseness among all concerned. The fact that Edmund is, in fact, the spurious (illegitimate) son causes him to become spurious (false) and deceive his father. See that? That’s just lovely, if you ask me.

I recommend this PBS performance of King Lear, as the Edmund is a hottie and does this extremely appealing L- and T- thing with his tongue on the word “legitimate” that causes giggles among the middle school girls. Oh, not me. I would never. Not in English class, anyway.

Act I, Scene 2

The Earl of Gloucester’s castle

Enter [Edmund, the bastard] alone, with a letter [the one he's going to use to trick his father, Gloucester, into disavowing his good and true son, Edgar]

Edmund (Spurius, the bad-boy hottie I mentioned)

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I                      335
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,                       340
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality                                  345
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund                      350
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word- ‘legitimate’!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’ legitimate. I grow; I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!                                       355

The girls may adore the hunky, bad-boy Edmund, but despite my dorky enthusiasm for the nickname, they absolutely refuse to call him Spurius. My love for the symmetry of it all was loudly and eagerly trumped by the fact that ‘Edmund’ sounds a lot like ‘Edward,’ the vapid vampire guy from Twilight - or, as I like to call it, “That book I won’t give you independent reading credit for, so don’t even bother to ask me.”

Did I mention that my preferred word for the time of day between daylight and nighttime is not, in fact ’twilight,’ but gloaming, from the Old English glomung, a derivative of glom, from…aw, crap. Crappity-crap-crap.

From glom, Old English for ’twilight.’

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, can be found at

Legislating to the Test

by Guest Blogger
January 26th, 2012

By Rachel Levy

It’s legislating season here in Virginia. One bill by state Senator John Miller (D-Newport News) would remove the Science and Social Studies SOL (Standards of Learning) tests from third grade, not because there are too many tests and not because Senator Miller thinks science and social studies shouldn’t be taught, but so that teachers can spend even more time preparing students for the Reading and Math SOL tests, the Reading Test in particular. Here’s the rationale:

“Miller told the subcommittee that the JLARC study showed that 95 percent of third graders who pass the reading proficiency test will pass the reading SOL in fifth grade, while those who fail have a “50 – 50 chance” of failing the fifth grade test, and ultimately failing in school.”

I read this right after writing a post for the Virginia Education Report explaining how we might advance literacy in Virginia, as our Governor says he wants to do. My second suggestion was:

We need to spend much less time teaching reading as a subject and teaching reading strategies beyond their utility and much more time teaching content or subject matters, such as literature, science, social studies, p.e., art music, foreign languages, technical education, etc. Yes, most kids need to be explicitly taught to decode and yes, to a point reading strategies are useful. Of course, content should be taught as reading and writing intensive. However, literacy is largely representative of someone’s background and content knowledge, and knowledge of vocabulary and does not develop or improve without it. As the University of Virginia’s own Dan Willingham says, teaching content is teaching reading. (It’s also much, much more meaningful and interesting for kids.) My regular readers know that I talk about this ad nauseum. In case you’re new to my writing on education, here are some posts that elaborate further: herehere, and here.

So, first of all, yes, we’ve all made that point on this blog a thousand times.

I can tell you as the parent of two public school third graders that plenty of time is already spent preparing for the Reading SOL. I can tell you as a former Virginia public school social studies teacher that the History SOLs seem to be relatively heavy on minutiae and relatively light on essential knowledge and broader concepts. I’ve always been reassured, though, that unlike many other states, at least Virginia has SOLs for numerous subjects and not just for math and reading. Now, whether any of those tests (all multiple choice except for the writing test) are of good quality is another question. Whether the SOL curriculum is of good quality is yet another one. Neither seems necessarily so given what Chris Dovi reports here about what happens to many Virginia public high school graduates who are successful at mastering the Standards of Learning but not very successful once they get to college.

To be clear, while I am pro-assessment and all for data-informed instruction, I am not currently in favor of many aspects of NCLB or high-stakes standardized testing. Even so, I am somewhat sympathetic to the stance taken, by Andrew Rotherham here in this column about cheating scandals:

“We know from research — as well as experience and common sense — that the best way to help students perform well on standardized tests is not to drill them (and certainly not to cheat) but rather to actually teach them. . . . Real teaching is like a well-rounded breakfast: it sustains you. Drilling for a test is like eating a doughnut: it works for a bit, but you’re hungry again before long. After all, what most assessments are testing is the ability of students to encounter and master material that is unfamiliar in its specifics but similar to what they’ve been taught. So the takeaway for parents is straightforward: with good teaching, the tests take care of themselves. When teachers or schools obsess over tests, parents should be concerned — not about the test, but about the school.”

I say “somewhat” because when Rotherham says that, “with good teaching, tests take care of themselves,” he leaves out (or blithely assumes) good curriculum. This comes across as, it doesn’t matter what’s being taught as long as the teaching is good. In that case, it doesn’t matter if you serve doughnuts every day for breakfast so long as the cooking is good; with good cooking, a good report from the doctor’s office takes care of itself. Otherwise, yes, with good teaching and solid curriculum (and an environment where teachers are free to engage in good practice and to teach knowledge-based curriculum), the tests should theoretically take care of themselves.

The idea that testing isn’t the problem, though, lets policy makers off the hook. Educational malpractice cannot solely be laid at the feet of bad teachers or bad teaching. Senator Miller’s bill is case in point that practice and curriculum are influenced by policy. This bill essentially dictates bad practice. This well-meaning legislator in Virginia said expressly that he was legislating to the “test,” passing a bill that is meant to mandate that teachers spend more time preparing for a reading test, the stated goal being to get those reading scores up. The stated rationale is not: it’s better educational practice (it’s not); it will make for better education (it won’t); or, explicit preparation for standardized reading tests make students better readers (it doesn’t); rather, it’s getting pass rates up.

If we want teachers to stop teaching to ill-conceived tests then lawmakers are going to have to stop legislating to those tests, lobbyists are going to have to stop lobbying to the tests, and reporters are going to have to stop reporting to the tests. While I think good policy can create the conditions to spur meaningful education reforms, I have serious doubts that we can directly legislate better teaching and more meaningful, knowledge-based learning. If the powers that be are going to try anyway, may they at least legislate sound practice and a broad and rich curriculum, and not more vapid reading test prep.

UPDATE: The bill has been passed 33-7 in the Senate (and, by the way, was supported widely by groups representing Virginia educators). Senator Miller said,“I believe it makes common sense to concentrate on reading and math, and give a good basic foundation in those two core subjects for our students.”

Unfortunately, this is what is accepted as common sense in education today, but it’s far from common sense. People learn to read and there are some reading strategies that can be of great use, but people do not learn reading; it’s not a subject. By assuming and then legislating as if it is, we undermine our students’ acquisition of knowledge and their literacy development. I understand that many Virginians want fewer SOL tests and I don’t blame them, but all this bill will likely do is replace subject matter instruction with more reading instruction, and make it so that Virginia’s kids struggle with literacy more. Without background knowledge, exposure to vocabulary, and instruction in content, literacy does not develop.

Rachel Levy is a writer and a former (and likely future) ESOL and Social Studies teacher who lives in Ashland, Virginia, with her husband and three children. She blogs about education at All Things Education.

Meet Students Where They Are…And When They’re Ready

by Robert Pondiscio
January 25th, 2012

President Obama used his State of the Union address last night to propose requiring students to stay in high school until they either graduate or turn 18.  “We know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” he said.

Perhaps so, but let’s be honest:  what’s the value of a diploma that is conferred by coercion?  And where’s the win in forcing kids to stay in “dropout factory” schools against their will and where they get seat time and nothing of use or relevance?

Listening to the President, I was reminded of an idea floated by Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH Charter school a few years back.  In an email to the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, Goldstein suggested that if kids are bound and determined to drop out, we should let them leave—and set aside the money saved as a kind of education IRA.  The funds would be waiting for the dropouts if or when they woke up to the benefit of further education or training.  In Goldstein’s view, a little taste of the dead-end life of a dropout would be a more powerful inducement to get an education than the exhortations of any teacher.

Here’s what Mike wrote in 2008:

“At first, for a Jonathan Lewis, nobody bugs you to get up in the morning. . . . You like it, freedom. After a few months, you realize you’re a loser, other people are going places but not you. You maybe get a job and it’s a boring security job at $8/hour. And, maybe by age 20, or 26, or whatever, some maturity. THEN a Jonathan Lewis can start over. He can use the set-aside money from the years of high school he missed for GED tutoring or perhaps special charter high schools set up for older students, then college or other higher ed. But he controls the money; he’s essentially buying the service. Other options could spring up. Maybe even [in] the junior/senior year, $30,000 could be given to the military, which could set up programs where a high school dropout could attend a military-run boot camp, get a degree, then enlist”

Goldstein correctly observed at the time that at present lots of kids merely go through the motions “but resist every effort to learn.”  Even if “Jonathan” manages to graduate, “he’s still a kid with very low academic skills. The win is not much of a win,” he wrote. “The option should be ‘Graduate from a high school which features only rigorous classes’ or ‘Bank the money we want to invest in your education and do your own thing for a while,’” Goldstein concluded.

I emailed Mike this morning to ask if hindsight and the President’s desire to raise the bar on compulsory education has altered his thinking at all. Nope. “I still like my idea more than President Obama’s,” he replied.  “I think it’s win-win-win for kids, teachers, and society.”  Finland only requires kids to stick around until 16 (“I thought everyone wants to copy Finland!” he writes).  More to the point, Goldstein cites a Rennie Center study that uncovered “little research to support the effectiveness of compulsory attendance laws” in decreasing the number of dropouts or increasing the graduation rate.

Most critically, Goldstein’s idea does not write off dropouts. Rather it “holds constant the amount of education that someone receives.”  Is it sometimes appropriate to delay spending on a resistant student at age 17 or 18, and instead spend on that same person a few years down the road?  Goldstein believes it is.

“Interesting that President Obama also called for government supported job training.  My proposal essentially self-funds a certain amount of job training for the least employable people.  It simply shifts a 17 year old from sitting in a required 11th grade history class in Raleigh where he is totally ignoring the teacher and possibly distracting other kids, to that same human being as a 22-year-old who might be sitting in a chosen community college class getting training on a technical job with Siemens with the same public dollars.”

Veteran teachers know that there is a subset of teenagers who simply do not want to be there, regardless of how hard their teachers work or how engaging their lessons might be.  Raising the compulsory age, like so many ideas in education, effectively translates to “work harder” and “engage more kids.”  By contrast, Goldstein’s idea makes good, intuitive sense.

A standard classroom homily is “Meet the students where they are.” To that we might add: “And when they are ready.”

Larry Summers Calls Higher Education Stubborn and Anachronistic, Offers Suggestions

by Robert Pondiscio
January 23rd, 2012

The following guest post is from Cedar Riener, assistant professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College  in Ashland, Virginia.   He blogs about education reform, college teaching, history and philosophy of science at Cedar’s Digest, where this post also appears.

I squirmed a lot reading Larry Summers’ recent piece in the New York Times on where he thinks and hopes higher education will go in the future. Here’s a point by point analysis:

He begins by undermining his own credibility:

A paradox of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman.

REALLY? Have you paid attention to any of the K-12 school reform of the administration you have been a part of? The encouraged emphasis on basic reading and math skills at the cost of social studies, science, physical education and extracurricular activities runs exactly counter to the template of colleges and universities in which diverse offerings, and choices of majors proliferate. But I’ll forgive this vague handwaving and move on. Summers’ point is that colleges are seen as cutting edge, but in fact offer stale education which is stuck in the past because tenured faculty (who are often in charge of the curriculum) are stubborn. Dismissed college president says faculty are stubborn and old-fashioned, the Times is ON IT!

The paragraph in which he lays out the reasons that colleges are old fashioned seemed to me to be amazingly disingenuous. Colleges are staid and stuck in the past because… departments and courses have the same names as they did 50 years ago? Students take four classes and exams in blue books? Students pick a major? So the biology major is the same as it was 50 years ago because it is still called biology? Really?

Summers wants higher education to better reflect how the mind and world works. But as someone with expertise in mental processes who works in higher education, Summers’ understanding of both the current state of higher education and the science of cognitive psychology are simplistic and off base. As a result, we shouldn’t take his six “guesses and hopes” seriously except as a warning of the perils of breezy theorizing by famous intellectuals.

1) College curriculum will become “more about how to process information and less about imparting it”.

This is the standard: “You don’t need to know any facts because you can Google them, you just need critical thinking skills of finding and evaluating facts.” It is so tempting. Information is everywhere, it is at our fingertips, and the ubiquity of this information will spare us from keeping any of it in our heads, just like we don’t have to remember phone numbers, or directions anymore. Unfortunately, this is not how the brain works. As Daniel Willingham reminds us in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” “Factual knowledge precedes skill.” Whenever cognitive psychologists look closely at critical thinking, we find that it is tightly integrated with background knowledge. Any definition of critical thinking involves the creative and rigorous application of a network of facts. It is impossible to think critically about neuroscience unless you know dopamine from acetylcholine, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex from the occipitotemporal junction. Not remembering phone numbers is not the same as facts which we will sometime need to recruit to do our thinking. Summers shows he doesn’t have certain facts about language education and cognitive psychology, which he could easily look up, but which undermine the validity of his “critical thinking.” Read the rest of this entry »

Classroom Practices That Need to Be Reconsidered

by Robert Pondiscio
January 19th, 2012

Teaching ideas whose time has come…and gone? Courtesy of yours truly and Alice Wiggins, who oversees the Core Knowledge Foundation’s Schools Department, here are common classroom practices that need to go away, be rethought, or curtailed:

1.      Data Driven…What?

An increasingly common feature in classrooms are data walls—bright, cheerful displays that show if students are advanced, proficient, basic or below basic in ELA and math.  As Rick Hess has written, schools have gone from not using data to inform decision making, to using data in half-baked or simplistic ways. Displaying decontextualized data is a prime example.  What exactly do we expect a third-grader to do with the knowledge that he or she is “approaching proficiency” in reading?  If data isn’t being used to drive instruction thoughtfully, what’s the point?

2.      Fiction Only Read-alouds

Fortunately, very few elementary school teachers need to be sold on the benefits of read-alouds.  They’re great for language development and exposing kids to rich vocabulary, since a child’s ability to read with comprehension doesn’t catch up with listening comprehension until about 8th grade. But if teachers aren’t devoting significant class time to nonfiction readalouds, they’re missing out on a golden opportunity to build background knowledge, which is essential for reading comprehension.

3.      Dumb Test Prep

Decrying test prep as a misuse of class time is a little like complaining that your kids are watching Fear Factor when they could be reading Chaucer. It’s true, but it’s not likely to change anytime soon.  But if we have to waste devote precious class time to test prep, let’s stop trying to teach and reinforce decontextualized reading skills like making inferences and finding the main idea that are content-specific, and cannot be mastered in the abstract.  More effective might be what Dan Willingham calls practice that reinforces the basic skills required for the learning of more advanced skills, protects against forgetting, and improves transfer.

4.      Reciting Lesson Aim and Standard

There’s nothing wrong with standards for planning and focusing lessons.  However, the idea of standards-based instruction is often misinterpreted.  Sure, students should be introduced to what they are about to learn, but having kindergarteners recite, “Through this lesson I will develop phonemic awareness and understanding of alphabetic principles” does nothing to support attainment of this standard or develop these students reading achievement.  In other cases, rather than using the standards to guide instruction on meaningful content, the standards become the instruction. Neither practice is an effective use of limited instructional time.

5.      Overusing Teaching Strategies

Too many classrooms seem to function on the principal that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.  Group work and differentiated instruction are two prime examples.  In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov writes that group work is “as likely to yield discussions of last night’s episode of American Idol as it is higher-order discussions of content.”  Asking frequent, targeted, rigorous questions of students, Lemov believes, “is a powerful and much simpler tool for differentiating.”  Too many classroom practices are used based on a compliance mentality—students are in groups because “that’s what administration wants to see”—rather that because it makes sense for a particular unit, lesson or activity.  Like using data to drive instruction rather than as bulletin board fodder (see above) there needs to be a sound instructional strategy underlying pedagogical choices.  And let’s not even talk about learning styles.

6.      The “Theme of the Month”

It’s standard practice to organize instruction by “themes,” such as holidays, seasons, my neighborhood or foods of the world, for example.  Organize units around knowledge “domains” instead.  A teacher might use the theme “Our Great Big World” in kindergarten to invite children to explore the setting of a story.  But since every story has a setting, that “theme” is arbitrary and doesn’t coherently build background knowledge.  A domain-based approach to “Our Great Big World” might include teaching children about continents, countries, climates and land forms in a coherent fashion.

7.      Reading Comprehension Skills

We can’t say it enough and Dan Willingham said it best:  Teaching content is teaching reading.  The most overused tool in the box in elementary school is reading strategies.  Yes, there are benefits to reading strategies, but there’s no evidence that repeated practice yields additional benefits.  Comprehension typically breaks down and test scores plummet because of a lack of background knowledge, not because kids have failed to master reading strategies.

What is the Value in a High Value-Added Teacher?

by Guest Blogger
January 12th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

Great news emerged this week for elementary- and middle-school teachers who make gains in their students test scores.  While the teachers themselves may not be pulling down big salaries, their efforts result in increased earnings for their students. In a study that tracked 2.5 million students for over 20 years, researchers found that good teachers have a long-lasting positive effect on their students’ lives, including those higher salaries, lower teen-pregnancy rates, and higher college matriculation rates.

I’m a practical person.  I understand that we spend billions of dollars educating our children and that the taxpayer deserves some assurance that the money is not being squandered.  Accountability matters.  I get it.  Still, as a teacher, it’s hard not to feel a little bit wistful, perhaps even wince a little, reading this study.

It’s important to remember that its authors, Raj Chetty, John N. Freidman, and Jonah E. Rockoff, are all economists. Their study measures tangible, economic outcomes from what they call high versus low “value-added” teachers. This “value-added” approach, which is defined as “the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores,” may work for measuring such measurable outcomes as future earnings, but it misses so much of the point of education.

I asked my Uncle Michael, a professor of law and economics, what he thought of the study, and he compared the proponents of the study’s mathematical economic approach to education to acolytes of The Who’s Tommy, pinball wizards who “sought to isolate themselves from the world so as to improve their perception of a very narrow sliver of that world. The entire ‘assessment’ enterprise defiles education as that word once meant.”

He attempted to explain his feelings about the study in terms of mathematical equations – something to do with linear regression thinking and educational outcomes, but I got lost in the Y = a + bX + errors of it all.

Tim Ogburn, 5th grade teacher in California, phrases the debate a bit more simply: Why are we educating children?

His answer goes like this: Until fairly recently, teachers would have answered that they were educating children to become good Americans or good citizens, but now we seem to teach only to prepare elementary- and middle-school children for high paying jobs. When money figures into the goal, we lose so much along the way, such as curiosity, a love of learning for its own sake, and an awareness that many of the most worthwhile endeavors (both personally and socially) are not those with the highest monetary rewards.

To which I reply: Hear, hear. If economic gain is the measure of our success, we have lost sight our goals in education.

In order to round out the definition of “value” as defined by Chetty’s study, I conducted my own research project. Sure, my sample was smaller – about thirty versus Chetty’s 2.5 million, and the duration of my study was three days rather than 20 years…and of course there might just have been a wee bit of selection bias in my Facebook sampling. Oh, and I chose not to apply Uncle Michael’s formulas because they gave me a headache.

The goal of my study was to find out what some of the other, less measurable benefits of good teaching. I asked people to write in with examples of good teaching, teaching that has resulted in positive outcomes in their lives. Who were their “high value-added” teachers?

Sarah Pinneo, a writer from New Hampshire, recalled her third grade teacher, who took her aside one day and said, “You are going to be a writer. Here’s your portfolio. Every poem you finish, we’re going to save it in here.” Sarah’s first novel will be released on February first, and she still has that poetry portfolio.

Carol Blymire, a food writer and public relations executive in Washington, D.C, recalled her kindergarten teacher “who taught me that letters make words and words make sentences…and is the reason I love to write today.” She counts among her low value-added teachers, “Every other teacher reprimanded me for asking questions that came across as challenging them, even though it was really my way of wanting to know more and understand the bigger picture.”

My favorite example came from Dr. Jeffrey Fast, an English teacher in Massachusetts.

“One morning, when I was a senior, we were discussing Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. While I can no longer remember exactly what I said, it was something about the interaction among the characters. Immediately after I spoke, [my teacher] responded by saying – for all to hear: ‘I like you!’ His response, of course, was coded language to identify and mark – for both me and my peers – something insightful. I felt enormously rewarded. That was the benchmark that I tried to replicate in dealing with literature ever afterwards. That was 50 years ago. He never knew that those three words catapulted me – to a Ph.D. and a career as an English teacher!”

While the studies of economists may add to the discussion about what makes teachers valuable in our lives, I believe that if we reduce teachers’ value to dollars and cents, we run the risk of becoming, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, “the kind of people who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”



Student Achievement, Poverty and “Toxic Stress”

by Robert Pondiscio
January 4th, 2012

It’s a safe bet that not many teachers are avid readers of the medical journal Pediatrics.  But a report that appeared in the publication last week deserves to be read and understood deeply by everyone in education.  It has the potential to transform the way we think and speak about children who grow up in poverty–and education as a means of addressing its worst effects.

The report links “toxic stress” in early childhood to a host of bad life outcomes including poor mental and physical health, and cognitive impairment.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in an accompanying policy statement, calls on its members to “catalyze fundamental change in early childhood policy and services” in response.

The term “toxic stress” is not a familiar one in education circles, but it should be.  The Harvard Center on the Developing Child describes a toxic stress response as occurring “when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support.”  Think of it as one plus one equals negative two:  something bad happens to a child, and there’s no positive adult response to mitigate the trauma.  The lack of adult support is what makes stress, which is largely unavoidable, “toxic” to a child.  Crucially, repeated or prolonged activation of a child’s stress response system “can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years,” notes the Center’s website.

This cannot be dismissed as pseudoscience or a mere hypothesis.  The report and policy statement notes a “strong scientific consensus” and a growing body of research “in a wide range of biological, behavioral, and social sciences,” on “how early environmental influences (the ecology) and genetic predispositions (the biologic program) affect learning capacities, adaptive behaviors, lifelong physical and mental health, and adult productivity.”

“Game changer” is a trite and overused phrase, but it applies here.  The report should have a profound impact on educators and education policymakers.  At the very least, understanding the language and concept of exposure to toxic stress should inform the increasingly acrimonious, dead-end debate about accountability and resources aimed at the lowest-performing schools and students.

On the one hand, those who insist that improving educational outcomes must be viewed within a broader context of health care, community resources and poverty can claim a victory here and a potential ally in the AAP.  Interventions must start from Day One.  Not Day One of school, Day One of life.  Kindergarten is too late.  Those who favor quality preschool programs have crucial evidence to support their case.  The story in four words:  Geoffrey Canada is right.

But it is equally clear (or should be) that low-income status is not synonymous with toxic stress. Even the worst schools and poorest neighborhoods have a significant number of children from stable homes with engaged, caring adults, who are able to provide the consistency and nurturing necessary to buffer the negative effects of even the most traumatic stressors.  “Research shows that, even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response,” according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.

To this end, no less than pediatricians, schools and teachers–especially in early childhood– have an essential role to play.  In the absence of nurturing relationships at home, children may be able to find the support they need within the educational environment.  According to Rebecca Schrag, Ph.D., psychologist at Healthy Steps at Montefiore Medical Center, supportive adult relationships “can no longer be considered the ‘touchy-feely’ domain of child psychologists alone.  Rather, there is hard science suggesting that they are perhaps the number one protective factor against the negative outcomes of a range of stressors.  The AAP has made a huge step forward in releasing its policy statement on toxic stress, and it would be truly wonderful if other professionals who work with children – educators, most notably – followed suit.”

In light of the important role of supportive adult relationships, the takeaway here is clearly not that exposure to toxic stress makes it impossible for schools to succeed with low-income children.  But it should make clearer that the bar is much, much higher for a significant number of kids who endure extreme levels of chaos and disruption in their lives, children whose brains – even by age 5 – show the deleterious effects of toxic stress exposure.  This does not mean we should throw up our hands and say, “let’s not waste time and money on poor kids.  It’s not going to work.”  But it certainly puts the “No Excuses” mindset at a disadvantage, particularly when most children only begin school in kindergarten.  Given the scientific consensus cited by the report, holding to the idea that schools or teachers should be able to reverse unilaterally the worst effects of toxic stress in all cases begins to sound ill-informed and hopelessly naïve.

At present, the standard reform recipe for improving educational outcomes for all children living in poverty is high expectations, improved teacher quality and muscular accountability.  For many low-income kids, perhaps even most, this may indeed be enough.  For others, more – much more – is clearly required.  It is critical that educators and policymakers begin to differentiate between the two.