Education Opinion

A No Brainer

By Susan Graham — April 08, 2009 1 min read
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According to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, new research done at Cornell explains that

The income–achievement gap is a formidable societal problem…. We show that childhood poverty is inversely related to working memory in young adults. Furthermore, this prospective relationship is mediated by elevated chronic stress during childhood. (Gary Evans and Michelle Shamberg)

Their work adds to the body of knowledge of research on poverty and learning which addresses the concern that

There is a gulf between low and middle Socioeconomic status (SES) children in their performance on just about every test of cognitive development, from the Bayley Infant Behavior Scales to IQ and school achievement tests. Furthermore, these SES disparities are not subtle. (Martha Farar)

This is important news because

Smarts matter in our high-tech age of standardized tests, iPhone entrepreneurs and nanotech venture capitalists. "The future is built on brains, not prom court, as most people can tell you after attending their high school reunion," as the writer Anna Quindlen puts it.( ABC News)

For decades, education researchers have documented the disproportionately low academic performance of poor children and teenagers living in poverty. Called the achievement gap, its proposed sociological explanations are many. Compared to well-off kids, poor children tend to go to ill-equipped and ill-taught schools, have fewer educational resources at home, eat low-nutrition food, and have less access to health care. (Brian Keim)

The research is creating a lot of buzz because

Children with stressed lives, then, find it harder to learn. Put pejoratively, they are stupider. It is not surprising that they do less well at school, end up poor as adults and often visit the same circumstances on their own children. (The Economist)

The policy problem is one that economists and other stakeholders are sometimes slow to acknowledge

We know a lot about raising incomes, a bit about improving test scores, and something about moving people into employment; but stress isn’t an outcome we’re very good at affecting. (Andrew Leigh)

In the meantime, everyday teachers see that

Tough times have trickled down to the youngest generation. Many children of today's recession are reeling along with their parents. Some have been uprooted from their homes and schools. Others are pitching in to pay the bills or seeing fewer of the extras they once enjoyed: camps, vacations, sports teams, allowances. The economy of 2009 has reshaped some expectations about growing up. The Washington Post (Donna St. George)

I just can’t help but wonder why this is news. Teachers have long known that far too many children live with more pressure than most adults could bear. We have witnessed its numbing effect on curious minds and its crushing effect on human spirit.

But when classroom teachers have said children who live in stressful conditions have difficulty learning, we were accused of not believing “All children can learn.”

And when classroom teachers said we agree all children can learn, but when they come tired, hungry, and scared about what they find when they go home they may not learn as much, they told us that we needed to “Set high expectations.”

And when teachers have suggested we assess learning in ways that create less stress on children, we were told “You’re afraid of accountability.”

Research now seems to be bearing out what teachers have been trying to get across for years. Poverty wears the body, preoccupies the mind, and weighs down the spirit.

Unfortunately, there is little satisfaction in saying “I told you so.”

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.