Goals in schools won't overcome generational poverty

2013-07-07T00:00:00Z Goals in schools won't overcome generational povertyEsther Cepeda Washington Post Writers Group Arizona Daily Star

Teachers in low-income school districts often get specialized training about the culture of poverty in order to better understand their students' lives and take those challenges into account in the classroom. As a high school teacher, I was trained in Ruby K. Payne's "A Framework for Understanding Poverty."

Payne has a 20-item list of the characteristics of generational poverty, which includes constant high levels of background noise, the overvaluation of entertainment as a respite from the exertions of survival, a strong belief in destiny or fate because choices are in low supply.

Also pervasive in the culture of poverty is the sense that time isn't for measuring, that it occurs only in the present, and that the future exists only as a word.

Living in the moment is the rule: "Being proactive, setting goals and planning ahead are not a part of generational poverty," Payne writes. "Most of what occurs is reactive and in the moment. Future implications of present actions are seldom considered." This also explains poverty's lack of organization and order. "Devices for organization (files, planners, etc.) don't exist."

If this sounds like the perfect environment for producing students with few prospects for academic achievement, you're right.

In a recent report by Cornell University, "The Role of Planning Skills in the Income-Achievement Gap," researchers used longitudinal data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development to establish a significant link between early childhood poverty and weak math and reading achievement in the primary grades, regardless of IQ.

Previous research has shown that income-related gaps in academic achievement start as early as kindergarten and continue through high school. But this is the first time the income-achievement gap has been explained with the behavioral measurement of ability to plan efficiently, from such a young age.

This Cornell study quantifies what every math and reading teacher in low-income schools knows about the difference between students who excel and those who languish: It's all about who can persevere through the difficulty of a task instead of giving up. Success hangs on whether a child can, as the study defines it, "plan in a goal-oriented manner."

As both a first-grade and a high school teacher in high-poverty schools, I saw these differences firsthand. The first-grader who grew tired after just a few minutes of encountering text with unfamiliar words was generally the same student who also could not keep items in his desk in order and was easily frustrated by the unfamiliar.

In contrast, the first-graders who had a sense of the days of the week, could keep from losing their personal belongings and exhibited small signs of patience were less likely to immediately quit such challenging tasks as learning how to subtract with cubes.

Unfortunately, the education system is at a tremendous disadvantage here. Formulating a plan, making the preparations to execute it and then having the determination to persist even in the face of obstacles - Paul Tough, author of "How Children Succeed," has recently popularized the term "grit" - is not something that can simply be taught in the classroom.

The children likeliest to navigate the mind-boggling intricacies of applying for admission to college and financial aid will almost certainly be the ones who, from their earliest memory, had adults in their lives who set clear goals, methodically worked toward fulfilling them and successfully dealt with setbacks.

This leaves us with a much tougher education puzzle than just adding "goal-setting" to the common core curriculum.

Ultimately, ingraining the qualities associated with planning and perseverance in low-income children is really the remarkably bigger challenge of how to instill them in their parents.

Email Esther Cepeda at estherjcepeda@washpost.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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