Low-income students can learn; schools must adapt

Doug Ross

Can Michigan public schools overcome the disadvantages many low-income children bring to the classroom and educate them as well as more affluent children? The question is not trivial given that almost half of public school students in Michigan qualify for free or reduced-price federal lunches.

The answer based on the data and my own experience as a Detroit educator is “yes” and “no.” Yes, there are public schools that consistently educate their low-income students to meet and even exceed the statewide averages on standardized tests — important evidence of what’s possible. Also, a growing number of poverty-area schools are able to graduate their students and enroll them in college at rates similar to top suburban schools.

But no, we have made little progress in closing the achievement gap between low-income and middle-class students in the U.S. or Michigan over the past quarter century. And no, low-income children who enter college complete at much lower rates than middle-class students — a fact that prevents thousands of young people from escaping poverty.

It is critical to add that “low-income” here is not a euphemism for children of color. More white kids live in poverty in the U.S. than either Hispanic or African-American children. This is a challenge regarding all who grow up in families that lack the financial resources — and often the life experiences — to ready their children for school success.

The quest to figure out how to educate poor children well has its roots in the Perry School preschool experiments of the 1960s. Offering low-income children preschool was based on the belief that their less educated and often harried parents provided less conversation and access to books that resulted in them entering kindergarten with only a fraction of the vocabulary of middle-class children. While students who attended the Perry School preschool for two years and were exposed to books and words entered kindergarten with stronger learning skills than their peers that were afforded no preschool, this academic edge vanished by third grade — seemingly rendering the experiment a failure.

Except, something surprising happened. The Perry School researchers followed both the students who attended preschool and those who did not for their entire lives. They found that, compared to those who didn’t attend the preschool, those who did were more likely to graduate high school, earn larger salaries, and less likely to have been arrested or spent time on welfare.

What was at work here was further clarified by subsequent research findings that a student’s high school grade-point average is a better predictor of whether that student would complete college than the student’s SAT score. The reason, the research concluded, is high school grades “reveal qualities of motivation and perseverance — as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills — that will tell us a great deal about the chances that a student will complete a college program.” What the Perry School results and this research data told us is that more than straight academic skills, the so-called non-cognitive qualities like self-discipline and persistence had more to do with a child’s likely college and life success.

Recent neuroscience findings filled in more blanks. Researchers discovered that the brains of children who grow up in homes with high levels of stress resulting from chaos and profound dysfunction with parents experiencing mental illness or substance abuse were impacted in ways that damaged their self-control, focus, memory and persistence — qualities that determine success in school. Such stress was more prevalent in the homes of low-income children. The good news is there is growing evidence that the right kind of school can help affected students overcome some of these disadvantages.

Bottom line: While we have made some progress, we still do not know how to provide low-income children with an education that gives them an equal shot at earning a post-secondary degree and achieving the American dream, though we have new avenues to explore. One thing is clear, traditional schools that focus strictly on teaching the three Rs in standard teacher-centered classrooms aren’t going to transform poor children’s prospects because they don’t deal with the root causes of their learning struggles. We’re still inventing the public schools to replace them.

Doug Ross is a former U.S. assistant secretary of labor, founder of the University Prep Schools, former chief innovation officer of Detroit Public Schools and co-founder of American Promise Schools.

Fixing Michigan’s Schools

This is part of a series of editorials and commentaries exploring ideas for improving our state’s schools. More on 3B.

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