What do education policymakers do about “toxic stress”?

My friend Robert Pondiscio and I went head-to-head in a weeklong
Facebook exchange about poverty and education over the holidays. Part of the
debate was spurred by a draft of his recent Core Knowledge post on “     Student Achievement, Poverty, and 'Toxic Stress.'” It is well-worth a
read.

Robert keyed in on a recent study in the journal Pediatrics that
links “toxic stress” in early childhood to “to a host of bad life outcomes
including poor mental and physical health, and cognitive impairment.” Among the
bad things caused by such stress are those affecting learning capacities. It is
an insight which, Robert argues,

[S]hould have a profound impact on educators and education
policymakers.  At the very least,
understanding the language and concept of exposure to toxic stress should
inform the increasingly acrimonious, dead-end debate about accountability and
resources aimed at the lowest-performing schools and students.
What does this look like in the
trenches, where teachers teach and principals lead?

No one can quibble with the obvious – that a child’s environment has an
impact on his/her learning capacity– and it should be equally obvious that the
more research the better to “inform” the education policy debate. But here’s
the rub: translating studies like the one in Pediatrics into policy ain’t
easy.

It’s not a new rub, of course, and much of the acrimonious debate that
bothers Pondiscio is about that translation. What does this look like in the
trenches, where teachers teach and principals lead? Or policymakers make
policy?

By coincidence, part of the answer came when another friend and
colleague, James Baldwin, a superintendent of one of New York’s 37 Boards of Cooperative
Educational Services (BOCES) , wrote an essay in a local
paper
that carries the environmental question foursquare into the policy
realm. After saying that “[t]he struggles of poor children carry serious
social, economic and political implications,” he gets right to the policy
question: 

There is no equity in New
York’s system for public education funding. Data
recently published by the Statewide School Finance Consortium demonstrates that
wealthy districts in the State are often receiving more aid per capita than
similarly sized poorer districts. There is no equity when residents living in
poorer areas pay higher rates of taxes for a less robust educational program
and when the range of annual expenditures per student exceeds $50,000/year in
wealthy districts and is a fraction of that in poorer districts.

Case closed?

Hardly.

As Rick Hess writes in the introduction to one of his more must-read
collections of expert essays (When Research Matters: How Scholarship
Influences Education Policy
, Harvard Press, 2008),

One frequent but ultimately unfruitful line of thought begins
with the presumption that the primary goal for those concerned about the
research-policy nexus is to keep politics from coloring the interpretation or
use of research….The reality, of course, is that expertise and research are
contested terrains in a democratic nation.

While Pondiscio may be right in hoping that the toxic stress study will
have a “profound impact” on policymakers, it remains a long and arduous road –
mined with a million ideologies – to get to a consensus on what to do. In fact,
one of the more important governance questions is whether there needs to be a
consensus.

Same with Baldwin’s suggestion that
the funding equity fix “is not necessarily about spending more and more money”
but about “deploying the resources we have more equitably and with greater
return on our investment in the form of student achievement.” Nothing wrong
with that.

Part of translating good research into good policy is, as Chris Cerf of
New Jersey
has said, making sure that we make the educational interests of children the
political interests of politicians. That’s not easy. But it is, as Hess
suggests, a necessary part of the democratic process; a process that includes a
range of activities, from ivory tower research to grassroots mobilization.

One of the important questions for me – and for this blog – is where
the governing action should be located. Capitol Hill? K Street? State legislatures?  Regional alliances? School districts? Boards
of education? Schools?

A few weeks ago Checker
suggested
that “we need to focus laser-like on the barriers that keep us
from making major-league gains” in education improvement. He lists eight such
barriers, from “archaic governance” structures to “dysfunctional” school
finance systems.  His eighth and final
barrier:

[O]ur preoccupation
with “at risk” populations and with achievement gaps defined as the distance
between demographic groups has led to the benign neglect of millions of kids,
including but not limited to gifted students and high-achieving learners.”

There is still far too much mischaracterization of the “no excuses” school
reformers for my tastes– and no doubt Checker will receive some pushback on
this one (see Michael
Goldstein
). But we have to recognize that politics is the authoritative
allocation of scarce resources and thus seek a method of prioritizing and
distributing those resources in the most equitable, efficient, and democratic manner
possible.

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