The Marshall Memo Features Helping Children Succeed and EL Education
The Marshall Memo, which is read by thousands of educators around the world, featured an insightful summary of Paul Tough’s new book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why that cites EL Education as a promising example of what’s working in American education. Tough notes that "The central premise of EL schools is that character is built not through lectures or direct instruction from teachers but through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.”
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Successfully Educating Children Who Have Experienced Toxic Stress
In this article in The Atlantic, author Paul Tough notes three recent developments in U.S. schools: (a) As of 2013, a majority of public-school students (51 percent) were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; (b) Despite two decades of national attention, the achievement gap between poor and better-off students has not appreciably narrowed; and (c) Research on non- cognitive skills – resilience, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit – has captured the attention of educators and parents as a key variable in student success. “But here’s the problem,” says Tough. “For all our talk about noncognitive skills, nobody has yet found a reliable way to teach kids to be grittier or more resilient. And it has become clear, at the same time, that the educators who are best able to engender noncognitive abilities in their students often do so without really ‘teaching’ these capacities the way one might teach math or reading – indeed, they often do so without ever saying a word about them in the classroom.”
So how are noncognitive skills shaped? For fortunate children, they come from a number of subtle, intricate environmental forces at home and in classrooms. Kids who grow up with calm, consistent, warm, and responsive parenting, and without significant adversity, internalize these messages: You’re safe; life is going to be fine. Let down your guard; the people around you will protect you and provide for you. Be curious about the world; it’s full of fascinating surprises. Almost all of these children will do well when they get to kindergarten.
But toxic stress at home produces physiological and neurological adaptations that have a very negative effect on children’s development. There is a very strong correlation between adverse experiences in the home – abuse, neglect, and adult dysfunction – and later health and behavioral problems. “When parents behave harshly or unpredictably – especially at moments when their children are upset – the children are less likely over time to develop the ability to manage strong emotions and respond effectively to stressful situations,” says Tough.
Children’s threat-detection system – which links the brain, the immune system, and the endocrine system – is shaped by severe and chronic stress, raising blood pressure, increasing the production of adrenaline, and heightening vigilance. “On the emotional level,” says Tough, “toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system that’s constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers.” Executive function is also weakened, impeding children’s ability to navigate the complexity and constant distractions of school.
“In the classroom,” says Tough, “neurocognitive difficulties can quickly turn into academic difficulties. Students don’t learn to read on time, because it is harder for them to concentrate on the words on the page. They don’t learn the basics of number sense, because they are too distracted by the emotions and anxieties overloading their nervous systems. As academic material becomes more complicated, they fall further behind. The more they fall behind, the worse they feel about themselves and about school. That creates more stress, which tends to feed into behavioral problems, which leads to stigmatization and punishment in the classroom, which keeps their stress levels elevated, which makes it still harder to concentrate – and so on, throughout elementary school.”
When these children reach middle and high school, problems escalate. Teachers and principals tend to assume that when students misbehave, “they’re doing so because they have considered the consequences of their actions and calculated that the benefits of misbehavior outweigh the costs,” says Tough. “So our natural response is to increase the cost of misbehavior by ratcheting up punishment.” Suspension rates for poor and minority youth are orders of magnitude higher than for their more-affluent and white peers. But the forces leading to misbehavior are far from rational, and harsh punishments are ineffective in motivating troubled youth to behave, concentrate, and succeed.
Most school suspensions and other punishments are for non-violent infractions – talking back to teachers, breaking the rules, disruptive behavior. “With the neurobiological research in mind,” says Tough, “it’s easy to see that kind of behavior – refusing to do what adults tell you to do, basically – as an expression not of a bad attitude or a defiant personality but of a poorly regulated stress-response system. Talking back and acting up in class are, at least in part, symptoms of a child’s inability to control impulses, de-escalate confrontations, and manage anger and other strong feelings – the whole stew of self-regulation issues that can usually be traced to impaired executive-function development in early childhood.”
What this suggests, says Tough, is that we need to rethink classroom pedagogy, taking into account the burdens with which many children are entering school. He reports on one failed effort: Harvard professor Roland Fryer conducted a number of experiments in large school districts using monetary rewards to get students to read books, come to school, study harder; to get teachers to teach in ways that improve test scores; and to get parents to attend report-card conferences. Fryer’s incentive studies are one of the biggest and most thorough educational experiments ever. They had virtually no impact, and in one case students who were given rewards did worse. “The impact of financial incentives on student achievement,” says Fryer, “is statistically zero in each city.”
Why didn’t monetary rewards work? Tough believes that children growing up in difficult circumstances already have important extrinsic incentives to do the right thing in school – the prospect of higher earnings, better health, and less chance of being arrested and incarcerated. “Young people know this,” he says. “And yet when it comes time to make any of the many crucial decisions that affect their likelihood of reaching those educational milestones, kids growing up in adversity often make choices that seem in flagrant opposition to their self- interest, rendering those goals more distant and difficult to attain.”
A better explanation of these young people’s behavior, says Tough, is self-determination theory. Its leading proponents are Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester. They believe people are driven by three basic needs – competence, autonomy, and human connection – and that intrinsic motivation is sparked when these needs are being satisfied. “The problem,” says Tough, “is that when disadvantaged children run into trouble in school, either academically or behaviorally, most schools respond by imposing more control on them, not less. This diminishes their fragile sense of autonomy. As these students fall behind their peers academically, they feel less and less competent. And if their relationships with their teachers are wary or even contentious, they are less likely to experience the kind of relatedness that Deci and Ryan describe as being so powerfully motivating for young people in the classroom. Once students reach that point, no collection of material incentives or punishments is going to motivate them, at least not in a deep or sustained way…
“If we want students to act in ways that will maximize their future opportunities – to persevere through challenges, to delay gratification, to control their impulses – we need to consider what might motivate them to take those difficult steps.” Deci and Ryan believe that if teachers are able to create an environment that fosters competence, autonomy, and connection, students are much more likely to feel motivated to work hard. Tough goes on to describe an intriguing study done by Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson on two data points from North Carolina’s ninth graders: their standardized test scores, and a composite measure of their noncognitive status (attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression, and overall GPA). Jackson found that his noncognitive measure was a better predictor than test scores of students’ college attendance, adult wages, and future problems with the law. Jackson then looked at English and algebra teachers’ impact on students’ test scores and noncognitive status. Some teachers were consistently successful at raising students’ standardized test scores, but there was another cohort of teachers, overlapping only a little with the first, who reliably raised students’ performance on his noncognitive measure. “If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort,” says Tough, “you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade. And your overall GPA went up – not just your grades in that particular teacher’s class, but your grades in your other classes, too… “Jackson’s data showed that spending a few hours each week in close proximity to a certain kind of teacher changed something about students’ behavior. And that was what mattered. Somehow these teachers were able to convey deep messages – perhaps implicitly or even subliminally – about belonging, connection, ability, and opportunity. And somehow those messages had a profound impact on students’ psychology, and thus on their behavior.
The environment those teachers created in the classroom, and the messages that environment conveyed, motivated students to start making better decisions – to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical students’ school day. And those decisions improved their lives in meaningful ways. Did the students learn new skills that enabled them to behave differently? Maybe. Or maybe what we are choosing to call ‘skills’ in this case are really just new ways of thinking about the world or about themselves – a new set of attitudes or beliefs that somehow unleash a new way of behaving.”
What is the secret sauce of these teachers? Tough believes the scholar doing the most thoughtful work on this question is Camille Farrington, a former high-school teacher now working at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. The 2012 report she wrote with her colleagues, “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners” (available at http://bit.ly/1pwnNJ3) contains some answers. “There is little evidence that working directly on changing students’ grit or perseverance would be an effective lever for improving their academic performance,” the report said. “While some students are more likely to persist in tasks or exhibit self-discipline than others, all students are more likely to demonstrate perseverance if the school or classroom context helps them develop positive mindsets and effective learning strategies.”
Farrington’s report drew a distinction between stable character traits like grit, which are difficult to change, and academic perseverance, which is highly dependent on the specific context. A student might demonstrate academic perseverance in math but not in history, in tenth grade and not in eleventh. “In essence,” says Tough, “what Farrington found was this: If you are a teacher, you may never be able to get your students to be gritty, in the sense of developing some essential character trait called grit. But you can probably make them act gritty – to behave in gritty ways in your classroom. And those behaviors will help produce the academic outcomes that you (and our students and society at large) are hoping for.”
The key to academic perseverance, says Farrington, is students’ academic mindset, and as Stanford researcher Carol Dweck and others have shown, adults have a tremendous impact on this. “Messages that teachers convey – large and small, explicit and implicit – affect the way students feel in the classroom, and thus they way they behave there,” says Tough.
Farrington has distilled the voluminous mindset research to four key beliefs that, if students embrace them, produce academic perseverance:
- I belong in this academic community.
- My ability and competence grow with my effort.
- I can succeed at this.
- This work has value for me.
But there are two problems: First, many students who experienced trauma early in their lives are resistant to these beliefs – they’re more likely to think, I don’t belong here. This is enemy territory. Everyone in this school is out to get me. Second, many U.S. schools don’t do a very good job nurturing these four beliefs, especially for disadvantaged youth – in fact, “no excuses” discipline policies often create a downward spiral of negative beliefs that are diametrically opposed to the Farrington four.
The good news, Tough says, is that a small number of educators are using the recent insights about the impact of toxic childhood stress to reshape school environments. “These efforts,” says Tough, “target students’ beliefs in two separate categories, each one echoing items on Farrington’s list: first, students’ feelings about their place in the school (I belong in this academic community), and then their feelings about the work they are doing in class (my ability and competence grow with my effort; I can succeed at this; this work has value for me).” Tough cites two examples of promising efforts:
- Turnaround for Children, whose intervention teams of 3-4 people are working in New York City, Newark, and Washington D.C. schools addressing the psychological needs of potentially disruptive students, helping teachers become more strategic and less confrontational with classroom management, and encouraging student-centered instructional approaches like cooperative learning.
- EL Learning (formerly Expeditionary Learning), which is working in 150 schools nationwide to develop students’ academic mindsets using two strategies: belonging and relationships (through Crew, a daily, multiyear discussion and advisory group for students); and highly active, engaging classroom pedagogy – lots of student discussion, group activities, demanding long-term projects conducted by groups of students, and regular student self assessments, including student-led report card conferences.
“Teachers and administrators at EL schools talk quite a bit about character,” says Tough, “– their term for noncognitive skills. The central premise of EL schools is that character is built not through lectures or direct instruction from teachers but through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work… In general, when schools do try to directly address the impact that a stress-filled childhood might have on disadvantaged students, the first – and often the only – approach they employ has to do with their students’ emotional health, with relationships and belonging.” But belonging isn’t enough. To be truly motivated, students also need to believe they are doing work that is challenging, rigorous, and meaningful.
“How Kids Really Succeed” by Paul Tough in The Atlantic, June 2016 (Vol. 317, #5, p. 56- 66), http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/how-kids- really-succeed/480744/; this article is excerpted from Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).