Should we fix schools by fixing poverty or fixing teaching? How about trying both? (Part 1)

Turnaround for Children aims to improve low-performing schools by addressing the effects of poverty both inside and outside the classroom. This year the organization is working in 5 DCPS schools and hopes that the school system will incorporate its approach on a broader scale in the future.

Photo by Brian Hatton

Generally speaking, there have been two polarized camps in the education debate: those who say you can't fix education until you fix poverty, and the "no excuses" camp that says a good teacher can educate any child regardless of her income level.

Turnaround for Children (TFC) occupies a middle position. Recognizing that kids don't leave the effects of poverty at the schoolroom door, the program tries to connect persistently disruptive students at a struggling school with the social services they need. At the same time, it trains teachers in a school-wide approach to teaching and classroom management that aims to both foster social and emotional skills and raise academic performance for all students. (Disclosure: I have contributed financially to TFC.)

TFC has partnered with over 80 schools, mostly in New York City, and has been in DC since 2010. This year it's involved with 3 DCPS elementary schools and two K-8 campuses.

All 5 schools have a 99% poverty rate (as measured by eligibility for free and reduced-price meals), and 95% or more of their students are African-American. Their proficiency rates on DC's standardized tests average 29% in math and 24% in reading, meaning that about three quarters of students are performing below grade level.

Founded in 2002 by child psychiatrist Pamela Cantor, TFC began its work in New York. Cantor had been asked to assess the level of trauma among schoolchildren after the events of 9/11, but she came to realize that an even bigger cause of trauma for children in the city was living in poverty.

Research has shown that the stress associated with poverty has effects on the brain that make it harder for kids to focus, to control their impulses, and generally to do the things they need to succeed in school. That's one reason high-poverty schools have more than their share of children with behavior problems. And those kids make it difficult for all students to learn.

The good news is that these effects can be reversed, especially in children. To do that, TFC has devised what it calls a "fortified environment for teaching and learning." The organization partners with a school for 3 to 5 years, bringing in a team consisting of a social work consultant, an instructional coach, and a program director.

The goal is that instead of relying on suspensions or even visits from the police to maintain order, schools will develop a nurturing, positive culture that will drastically decrease the need for serious disciplinary measures.

Walker-Jones Education Campus

That seems to be happening already at Walker-Jones Education Campus in Ward 6, a K-8 school that is in its first year of a TFC partnership. Principal Michael Moss says that when he arrived at the school, it had more suspensions per year than any other DCPS school below the high school level: 452, in a school of about 420 students.

The school has had a troubled history. Moss is the 13th principal there in the past 10 years, and there's a thriving drug culture in the neighborhood. (The Sursum Corda and Tyler House housing projects are nearby.) Moss recounts the story of one 3rd-grader who came to school last year with "3 baggies of crack and was trying to sell them in class."

Moss realizes that many kids at Walker-Jones have a lot going on in their lives. "We've got to be a sanctuary for our students," he says. And although at first he was skeptical of TFC, after hearing Cantor speak, he thought: "She's got it, right on the nose."

TFC works with teachers to develop common procedures they can use to establish order throughout the building. To ask for quiet, for example, teachers hold up a hand and say, "Give me 5 please." Moss even uses the phrase when making announcements over the PA system and to get attention at faculty meetings.

In addition, a team meets regularly to discuss individual students who are experiencing significant difficulties. If the school itself can't address the student's needs, the team connects the student's family with Hillcrest Children and Family Center, a mental health provider. The costs of treatment are generally covered by Medicaid.

And TFC provides an instructional coach who helps teachers learn to head off or defuse disruptive situations. The coach also introduces teachers to "cooperative learning" techniques that are designed to foster social and emotional skills at the same time they teach kids content.

In part two of this post, we'll look at how TFC's approach is working at Walker-Jones and another DCPS school and how the organization plans to broaden its reach in DC in the future.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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On a general baisis these programs are helpful, but I wonder if we don't also need interventions for those children who show a lot of promise? One of the best books out there on issues that stil affect DC children is book, Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind. Cedric has so much potential and it takes a lot of intervention for him to succeed, I can't help but thinking there are a lot more Cedrics out there that require not just general interventions but focused attention by adults beyond the social work and education fields.

by DC Parent on Feb 27, 2014 3:13 pm • linkreport

Fix poverty? Good luck with that.

In the meantime, how about catering to, and protecting, that tier of kids from impoverished areas who want to learn, who have supportive families, and who do not disrupt the classrooms or menace their peers?

While you're trying to "solve poverty," thousands of actually-salvageable kids eager to learn are being tossed under the bus while the dogmatic Utopians bicker over fixing teaching vs. fixing poverty.

Give the equity rhetoric a break and help the kids you can, now, as best you can, now. Yes, that means separating them from the worst hellions and preserving real order in learning spaces so the teachers we have actually have a chance to be effective NOW.

by WhatPrice,Equity? on Feb 27, 2014 3:55 pm • linkreport

I don't think the article is saying TFC's aim is to "fix poverty" so much as it is to teach kids effective coping mechanisms for dealing with the stresses of poverty and to teach teachers effective classroom management skills so that learning can still happen. Hence, the middle ground. I'm all in favor of putting additional resources into high-povery schools, so I certainly hope TFC is able to expand to other schools in DC. It is much needed work.

But my experience being educated in high-poverty schools was one of rarely being in a hard-to-manage classroom with disruptive students. That's likely the result of tracking. Those kids weren't in my classes, and the kids who were in my classes were good students who came to school to learn. Still, there's the issue of what we were being taught, or more accurately, what we weren't being taught. The level of instruction in high-poverty schools, even for kids who have been good students all their lives, are not disruptive, and are eager to learn, is nowhere near the level it should be. There were kids in my high school honors classes who were struggling to pass the state's basic skills exit exam. That's very problematic.

So yes, while part of the problem is the socioeconomic and attendant behavioral issues that TFC is seeking to address, another part of the problem is strengthening the curriculum and teacher credentials at high-poverty schools.

Looking forward to part 2.

by PG2SE on Feb 28, 2014 8:19 am • linkreport

@what price equity it is easy to look at kids acting out and make assumptions. I would guess disruption in poor schools happens as often by board, capable kids as it does any other group. One of the insights I had from the Suskind book I mention above is how many of us on the outside judge the behaviour of kids and allocate chances for those children. We often give them far fewer chances to please the right adults and penalize far more quickly than we do middle and upper class kids. Yes we need to deal with kids who have the personal drive, but differentiating those kids is not as simple as your comment implies.

by DC Parent on Feb 28, 2014 2:25 pm • linkreport

DC Parent wrote: " many of us on the outside judge the behaviour of kids and allocate chances for those children. We often give them far fewer chances to please the right adults and penalize far more quickly than we do middle and upper class kids. Yes we need to deal with kids who have the personal drive, but differentiating those kids is not as simple as your comment implies."

Of course there are differences in classroom management/discipline policy & practice in schools where middle and higher SES kids are dominant. That's in part because those schools mostly function well already; and in part they function well because they have strong and consistent practices for, among other things, maintaining classroom order. By contrast, classrooms in low SES and minority-dominated urban schools are much, much closer to a tipping point much, much more often. In the worst such schools, disorder is never far away and bona fide danger is too often close behind.

I'll grant that tracking or other strategies to help ID and salvage the salvageable kids are complicated and imperfect and do indeed involve some doling out of opportunities. But at least dole out MORE opportunities than you're doling out now.

Sitting on our hands and refusing to sort and to govern kids, thus compelling capable kids to endure steeply-reduced chances of *earning* a successful quality education---all in the name of equality---is anything but fairness. It makes the perfect the direct enemy of the merely good or, in the worst DCPS schools, it quashes the merely good in favor of the uniformly-bad. Crap is crap, even when it is equitably-distributed.

DC must not only allow students and families to sort and self-select into better tracks, better programs and better schools, the city really ought to encourage and expedite it. Until then, most of the parents who authentically give a damn about education will RUN: for the charter schools, the private and parochial schools, the suburbs. They will run for the hills, and so would I.

by WhatPrice,Equity? on Feb 28, 2014 5:03 pm • linkreport

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