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Esther Cepeda: Seeking a path to academic success for low-income children

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Esther J. Cepeda
Saturday, June 25, 2016

CHICAGO -- In his new book, “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why,” journalist Paul Tough investigates the challenge of educating low-income children, who now account for more than half of all public school students.

Tough walks readers through a list of potential interventions—at home, in communities and at school—to help children who lack well-organized, responsive parenting and nourishing relationships.

Without the secure emotional base that a stable and calm home life can provide, countless research has concluded, children aren’t able to develop the noncognitive skills—such as social skills, self-regulation and persistence—that make for successful academic progress.

Tough profiles several innovative community and home-based programs that help under-resourced parents understand and model behaviors such as patience, empathy and a high-interaction style of communication. These help develop and strengthen young children’s neural connections in the brain between the regions that control emotion, cognition, language and memory.

But probably the most scalable of the interventions Tough outlines are those that can happen in individual classrooms, by teachers who can execute on two distinct and important fronts:

(1) Teach in a dynamic, well-organized style that makes use of proven pedagogical approaches to promote student engagement in the learning process via less lecture time, fewer repetitive worksheets and more time spent working in small groups solving problems, engaging in discussions, and collaborating on longer-term creative projects.

(2) Create a classroom environment that reinforces students’ ability to grow with effort and gives them the opportunity to succeed and a sense that the work has value to their lives and that they belong to an academic community that values their input.

If you’ve never been at the head of a classroom, it’s very, very difficult to understand what a Herculean task this is. And if you knew anything about the quality of teacher preparation and development programs in this country, you’d be even more skeptical.

“Teachers can make a huge difference in individual classrooms and schools, and how we prepare teachers is very important,” Tough told me in a recent interview. “It’s important to know that the traditional professional development seminars that teachers undergo don’t usually get into the depth of coaching individual instructors on how to create a dynamic climate and environment, how to shape the emotional and psychological mood in a classroom.

“Not to mention the fact that over the last 16 years—between No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—there has been this major change in how we talk about and treat teachers,” Tough said. “There’s been so much talk about making teaching more professional, and I think there are good motivations behind that. But focusing so much on standardized test scores is the opposite of how members of most professions are evaluated.”

At the end of his book, Tough says we are at the point in the education debate where we must begin by agreeing that we can all do better by our students.

“We’re actually in this weird moment in education. For 15 years, education has been dominated by federal policy, and that moment is only now ending—and not with a bang, but with a whimper,” he told me. “We had good, ambitious goals to eliminate achievement gaps for poor students and we just failed. We failed big time, too—we didn’t get half-way there, we got none of the way there and we didn’t talk much about that failure, we just rewrote the laws.

“Faced with those numbers,” he added, “it’s easy to think maybe we can’t do it, maybe it’s not possible. But I do think that no matter what side of the traditional education debate you’re on, we can envision that things can be different, that we can take different approaches and things can change. I have my optimistic days and my pessimistic days, but it comes down to this: We have a much better understanding than a decade ago about how adversity affects kids’ developments and why achievement gaps are as persistent as they are. And I don’t think they’re inevitable.”

Coming from Tough, someone who has spent time in classrooms of some of the neediest children in America, that’s really saying something. And it demands that we bolster our own societal willingness to look for workable solutions even as our public education challenges seem insurmountable.



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