Dramatic developments — in the demographics of classrooms, in the world of work, and in research into the process of character formation — signal an important moment of transition in our schools.
Just as the schools of my generation of early baby-boomers had to respond to post-war industrial expansion, the civil rights movement, and the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik, so our schools now face pressures from fast-changing digital technology, new forms of work, and a more interconnected world.
The racial-and-ethnic composition of North Carolina public schools parallels national trends. White students now make up roughly half of the state’s 1.4 million total enrollment. Since 2000, black enrollment has declined somewhat, while children of Hispanics and Asians account for almost all of the increase in public school students since 2000.
Perhaps more significant is that more than half of public school students, across all race and ethnic groups, qualify for free and reduced-price lunch — an indication that they come from low-income families. In North Carolina, these young people account for 52-53 percent of students, slightly above the national rate.
“The truth, as many American teachers know firsthand, is that low-income children can be harder to educate than children from more comfortable backgrounds,” writes Paul Tough. “Educators often struggle to motivate them, to calm them down, to connect with them.”
An extensive excerpt from Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why,’’ appears in The Atlantic magazine and online. Tough reports that, while many low-income children do indeed thrive in school, the “toxic stress’’ arising from dysfunctional households leads to “self-defeating’’ behaviors and saps the ability of many young people to deal well with academic pressures. What is emerging, says Tough, is a “new idea: that qualities like grit and resilience are not formed through the traditional mechanics of ‘teaching’; instead a growing number of researchers now believe, they are shaped by several specific environmental forces in the classroom and in the home, sometimes in subtle and intricate ways.”
Among the accumulated research he cites, Tough draws from a study by Northwestern University economist C. Kirabo Jackson, who used North Carolina’s detailed database to track more than 450,000 students from ninth grade through high school from 2005 to 2011 — and to assess the effectiveness of teachers. Jackson’s study identified two types of effective teachers: those who raised academic achievement as measured by test scores and those who succeeded in “developing noncognitive skills’’ that led to students showing up for class, avoiding suspensions, and making steady academic progress.
From Jackson’s North Carolina findings, Tough suggests that “a certain kind of teacher changed something about students’ behavior… Somehow these teachers were able to convey messages — perhaps implicitly or even subliminally — about belonging, connection, ability and opportunity.”
While Tough would have schools reassess and revise long-standing methods of discipline, a paper from the Brookings Institution and the LEGO Foundation questions the continued viability of the “factory model’’ of education of the industrial era. In a contribution to the Brookings-LEGO “Skills for a Changing World’’ project, Rebecca Winthrop and Eileen McGivney write:
“Technological innovations, changes in the workforce and the global nature of many problems we face require a big shift in our approach to how education is delivered.”
Winthrop and McGivney draw on research that shows a decline in jobs requiring routine skills, cognitive as well as manual, and a growth in non-routine jobs requiring analysis and person-to-person relationships.
“Thriving in today’s fast-changing world requires breadth of skills rooted in academic competencies such as literacy, numeracy and science, but also including such things as teamwork, critical thinking, communication, persistence and creativity,” they write.
North Carolina, to be sure, has a deep well of teachers, principals, and school administrators already moving to address the issues raised by the research reported by Tough, Winthrop, and McGivney. Still, reading their essays also leads to lessons for policymakers: 1) the importance of increasing compensation to attract and keep more highly qualified educators; 2) to rebuild strong structures of professional development, and 3) to regain the state’s momentum in extending early childhood enrichment.