Failing to heed the research, we have been torturing our students and teachers for two decades. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) created the misconception learning gaps between rich and poor were a problem created by schools. Disciplinarians accepted the notion misbehavior is always a willful act requiring punishment. Scores of research studies have proven learning gaps and much misbehavior are largely due to one cause - cortisol.
Cortisol is the fight or flight hormone. Constant stress, as in poverty, produces toxic levels of cortisol. Psychology Today describes cortisol as public health enemy Number One. It relates that unreleased it, wreaks havoc on your mind and body. The damage is most severe for adolescents.
MIT News reports high exposure to poverty induced stress leads to brain changes correlated to poor standardized tests scores. It is these tests NCLB used to identify learning gaps. However, NCLB had drawn the wrong conclusion, that gaps were created by schools.
Over the next two decades, ignoring much research suggesting otherwise, NCLB and the Every Student Succeeds Act, have continued to focus on learning gaps being school driven. Billions of dollars have been spent in an effort to improve schools that failed by not closing gaps. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress make it abundantly clear, even with billions spent, the gaps did not close. Why? According to all the available research, the schools were not the source of the gaps - cortisol was and is.
The mistaken notion schools caused the gaps and the draconian remedies mandated by NCLB to correct them have left careers ruined, teacher morale at a low point, destroyed public confidence in our public schools and ultimately hurt children by not identifying and addressing the real problem.
Cortisol does not limit its damage to learning. Excessive amounts of cortisol lead to changes in the hippocampus and amygdala – parts essential to the brains executive function. This not only negatively impacts behavior and emotions but also short-term memory and concentration. Bathed in cortisol, a developing brain does not produce the controls for behavior and emotions a non-impaired brain creates.
The Rhode Island ACLU recently entered the fray over the inordinate number of school suspensions suffered by minority, mostly poor, students. One might expect needy white children suffer the same. inappropriate behaviors result from the stresses of living in poverty and the resultant overdoses of cortisol.
We are punishing our neediest students for conditions over which they have no control. Severe behavioral disorders qualify a child for special needs services. There are no interventions addressing the needs of children living in poverty. Our neediest children are victims of their circumstances.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) test gauges the amount of stress an individual has experienced. The more stress an individual has experienced the higher the ACE score with subsequent negative learning, health and mental consequences throughout life.
Are children living in poverty doomed to less learning, poorer health and more mental illness than wealthy children? Fortunately, no. Virtually all of the research points to the brains resilience and elasticity.
What to do? Recognize children exposed to high levels of cortisol are not willfully misbehaving but are impaired in their ability to behave and express emotions. Provide interventions other than punishment. Learning gaps are related to cortisol exposure (and other elements of living in poverty), they are not the fault of our teachers. Extended school days and school years for needy children, in nurturing school environments, will reduce learning gaps.
We know well what doesn’t work. We’ve been doing it for twenty years. If we are going to help our neediest children, we need to do it right.
Joseph H. Crowley is the Past president of the Rhode Island Association of School Principals; co-author, with Alfred Colella, Ph.D., of Poverty & Despair vs Education & Opportunity and the former director of the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center.