Opinion
Education Opinion

Jumpstarting Learning for Children in Poverty

By Matthew Lynch — September 19, 2016 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Written by Eric Jensen

Contrary to popular belief, DNA is not a child’s destiny. IQ is not fixed. Cognitive skills can change. This is critically important in K-12 schools because of the poverty gap -- the difference between a child’s chronological age and developmental age.

In a healthy environment, a child’s developmental age will match his or her chronological age. In a high-risk environment, research shows that while a child’s chronological age is five years old, his or her developmental age is closer to 3 years old. This has an enormous impact on school readiness and performance.

Today, 51 percent of all students in U.S. public schools are poor. Our public education system is designed to help students achieve a year of academic growth in a school year. For economically disadvantaged children, that’s a problem.

This issue, of course, is not new. In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published their groundbreaking research study that uncovered the widely cited 30-million word gap between children from low-income homes and their more economically advantaged peers. Not only does that gap still exist today, but it’s also becoming more prevalent as the poverty rate climbs.

The bottom line is that if children from poverty are not achieving more than one year of academic growth in a school year, they’re failing -- and we as educators are failing them.

Poverty, however, doesn’t have to be an overwhelming obstacle to a child’s success. Schools and teachers can make a difference, but there’s no time to waste if we want to ensure that every child graduates, joins the workforce, and contributes to our economy in a productive way.

Building cognitive capacity

There’s a persistent misconception in our education system that struggling students lack effort. The reality is that many only need to build their cognitive capacity. Without this, students have no chance of catching up.

Cognitive capacity is a core skill. It’s not about a child “trying harder.” It’s about getting a child’s brain to work more effectively and efficiently.

Cognitive capacity is the sum of our concurrent mental actions that learn, process, understand, judge, recall, evaluate, calculate, reason, solve problems, reflect, and make decisions. Greater cognitive capacity is correlated with enhanced student learning and achievement. And the good news is that cognitive ability can be taught.

Addressing brain differences

Students do not arrive at school “preassembled” by their DNA. Instead, they are “glued together” by life experiences. By the time they reach school age, the brains of children born into lower socioeconomic status (SES) households are different from those raised in higher SES households. These differences include the areas of the brain responsible for working memory, impulse regulation, visuospatial skills, language, and cognitive control.

Changing the brain

Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, means that the brain can change throughout an individual’s life. This means that a child can be influenced by good teaching and good instructional programs. This also means that good schools can, in fact, raise a child’s IQ.

This is important because unless students from poverty make at least one to one-and-a-half years of academic progress for each school year, they may drop out. So, to be effective, teachers must be more than “average” for students from poverty.

Teachers matter

As Eric A. Hanushek demonstrated in “The Economics of School Quality,” published in 2005 in the German Economic Review, improving teacher quality can yield sizable gains in student performance: “If a student had a good teacher as opposed to an average teacher for five years in a row, the increased learning would be sufficient to close entirely the average gap between a typical low-income student and a higher-income student (i.e. one not on free or reduced lunch).”

Thus, teachers matter more than poverty -- and the most successful teachers are those that teach cognitive capacity.

Working memory predicts learning success

Research by other experts demonstrates that cognitive skill-building can yield impressive effect sizes as well. For example, working memory training or auditory language strategies can produce gains equal to 1.5 to 2.5 years of progress in a single school year.

Working memory is, in fact, the number one predictor of a child’s learning success. It’s a greater predictor than a child’s reading or math scores, or their motivation or a positive attitude. So, unless teachers and schools have a reliable way of building working memory, students will continue to struggle. Why? Working memory is the driver of cognition. It is required for every higher-order thinking process.

Research shows us that students in poverty have weaker working memory. But it is teachable. This is where technology can help.

Building working memory

To build working memory, we must engage the rules of neuroplasticity. To change the brain, skills must be presented to the student, with increasing challenge and complexity. Students’ brains also need error-correction. Then, once they get something right, they need the practice to make it stick. Sounds kind of like a video game, right? The best formats for building working memory are, in fact, game-like.

Neuroscience-based programs such as the Fast ForWord program, which is supported by more than 250 research studies, can help by building a child’s memory, attention, and processing speed -- cognitive skills need for better reading and learning. Rather than just providing accommodations, it addresses the cause of students’ difficulty -- the underlying issues that keep struggling students from making progress in school.

Solving problems systemically

Solving problems systemically in our schools means anticipating and addressing issues with children living in poverty since they now represent more than half of the students in our public education system.

Implementing proven programs to help children develop cognitive capacity -- which is necessary for learning in all subjects and grade levels -- is essential to move forward, and it must be done quickly. Our children’s future and our nation’s future are at stake.

About Eric Jensen

A former teacher and educational leader, Dr. Eric Jensen is an author, speaker, and pioneer in brain-based teaching and learning. For over two decades, he has synthesized brain research and developed practical applications for educators. He has authored over 29 books including three bestsellers. His books include Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Tools for Engagement, Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain, Poor Students Rich Students and Different Brains, Different Learners. Jensen is a member of the invitation-only Society for Neuroscience, the President’s Club at Salk Institute of Biological Studies, and the New York Academy of Sciences. His M.A. is in Organizational Development, and his Ph.D. is in Human Development. He can be reached at info@jensenlearning.com

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP