Sunday, January 4, 2015

Stress, Poverty, and Learning

         Each year I tell my students I was born BPC, before the age of personal computing. It's part of my classroom schtick.  Due to timing, I never learned to touch type but I recently decided this was going to change. I tried several different programs but I saw very little progress.  Realizing my most effective form of learning involves positive feedback and a sense of accomplishment, I went on a quest for a program that spoke to this style. I recently found a website that generates a series of short samples to complete.  When I do especially well with speed and accuracy, the program posts a little medal at the top of the page.  The awards remind me of Galaga, a video game with which I spent many happy hours during my youth. 
        The award image gives me a sense of accomplishment makes me feel happy.  I noticed that when I worked especially hard to get the medal, I earned a slower speed score with more mistakes.  When I relaxed and just let the score be whatever it was I did better.  This started me thinking about how stress surrounding academic outcome might affect student scores. If the brain is similar to a computer, could processing stress slow down our our learning and memory processes?  The answer is yes!
         In the Journal of Neuroscience, March 2008, researchers at UC Irvine found a strong link between stress and memory issues. "Although it is known that long-term or chronic stress can affect the brain’s learning and memory region, a new finding discovers short-term stress, lasting as little as a few hours, can also impair brain-cell communication in these critical areas."  You can read the link here             
          Students feel pressure to perform well on these tests.  They want to do well because the outcome affects the annual grade.  There is also pressure from the school, the parents and sometimes inexperienced teachers.  There are practice tests throughout the year reminding them the day is just around the corner. Testing looms large in the narrative of the schools.  There is a threat of loss for students who under perform.  All of these things may add up to additional stress.
        Most students do not respond well to learning by threat.  The possibility of loss of standing or loss of a dearly loved teacher could be enough to make these test feel threatening to students.  Based on that alone it's reasonable to conclude, high stakes testing is leading us the wrong direction.  The effects of the perceived threat can be greater for students who are struggling with issues of poverty or are differently-able.
       Our most vulnerable students experience a stronger effect from the stress than others.  If a child is subject to long term stress, such as poverty or illness, they have additional struggles in learning.  The child only managing the short term stress of feeling he needs to do well on the TCAP this week will not be as handicapped.  Children who already struggle to perform in school have additional burdens placed on the learning center of their brain by long term and then short term stress.  It doesn't seem this is the best way to help struggling students achieve great educational gains.  High stakes testing is counter-productive for children in poverty.
          This is the age we live in.  We are in an era of high stakes testing and high stress education for K-12.  The education reformers claim they have found the answer to raise our student's test scores. One of their chief conjectures is teachers need accountability for educational outcomes and there is no better way to measure outcome than through student scores on commercially-produced-annual tests. These yearly tests have become a powerful force deciding if teachers are allowed to continue teaching and a source of significant stress for students.  These tests leave many students with the message they are failures. Students are hearing the accusation of they can do as well as any other student but they just choose not to.  This is disingenuous.
        While children from middle class homes tend to perform well,  these students only have the issues that come with short term stress to do well on the test.  Children in poverty do not generally score as well.  One of the factors is the long term stress of poverty.  If we want to bring up our scores nation wide we have to bring up the scores of the children living in poverty in America.   With this in mind can anyone be taken seriously when they tell us they plan to improve scores without addressing issues of childhood poverty?

.          This blog post does not address the rising rates of poverty and homeless among Americas children. The USA has the highest rate of childhood poverty among first world nations. This post doesn't delve into the question of whether there is any correlation between student test scores and life outcomes, or United States overall scores and world status. It doesn't question the motivation of reformers, some of which stand to make significant money from reform. There are many questions for us to consider about the Global Education Reform Movement or GERM.  Best keep our hands washed as we delve deeper into the issues surrounding GERM.  I look forward to writing to you about these and other topics over the next few weeks.

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