A week-long series created by WBEZ Radio and the Daily Herald in Chicago has been focusing on the persistent connection between students in poverty and low academic performance.
What is missing in this discussion is connecting it to the neuroscience of poverty. Recent research was characterized in a New Yorker article this way: “Poverty perpetuates poverty, generation after generation, by acting on the brain.” Children living in poverty have, on average, less well-developed cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts. This does not mean that they have less ability – the WBEZ/Daily Herald article referred to as “college DNA.” In fact, we can say confidently that poor children also have “college DNA,” just as more affluent children do. But DNA is expressed in interaction with the environment. What it does mean is that, on average, they are cognitively behind (not just academically behind). If you put a 1st or 2nd grader’s brain into a 4th-grade classroom, standards and other external factors are not enough.
The next missing part of the discussion is the growing evidence that the cognitive skills that underpin learning can be developed in a short period of time with the right tools. It is not just a matter of school spending or standards or even instruction – because these skills operate at a non-conscious level. A teacher can’t explain to a student how to sustain their attention, or hold more information in working memory, or process information faster (to name just a few examples). But, with the right tools, teachers can support students in developing their cognitive capacity (distinguishing innate ability from developed capacity) with dramatic results in closing the achievement gap.
To be sure, school funding needs to be fairer, standards need to be high, technology needs to be available, and teachers well prepared. But we also need to account for the cognitive capacity of the students in our classrooms and our responsibility to develop their capacity to learn and to take advantage of the educational resources we offer them.
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