Stress, Poverty, and the Childhood Reading Gap
Most Americans think education is the key to upward mobility, that all we need to do to break the cycle is to help the next generation do well in school and rise into the middle class. A growing body of research, however, is showing that poverty and hunger can harm children’s cognitive development. The challenges of poverty, and the often-violent neighborhoods poor children live in, are impeding their progress in school.
Late last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that works to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children in the United States, released a report that added evidence to that idea. It showed only a fifth of low-income fourth-graders were reading at a proficient level, compared to more than half of high-income children. What’s alarming for researchers is the fact that every subject in every class after third grade requires a textbook and critical-reading skills for full engagement in the classroom. Children already need to be able to read well in order to learn. That’s especially true as most high schools move to a college readiness curriculum, and post-high-school education becomes increasingly important for the job market. The Prospect spoke with Ralph Smith, a senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, about the research.
How long have we had this kind of data?
The data on non-completion have been available for a long time. What’s changed is the economy and the realization that a high school diploma is the passport to career success, to college completion or to getting a post-secondary credential. With low-skill and even middle-skill jobs disappearing, there is broad and deep bi-partisan consensus around the importance of high school graduation. And what the KIDS COUNT Data Snapshot says is “if you care about high school graduation, then you have to care about third grade reading.” Because the research confirms that reading at grade level by the end of third grade is one the best predictors of whether kids will graduate from high school on time.
When does the gap begin?
The Data Snapshot refers to a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation—“The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success”—that shows how, for many low-income children, the gap starts early because of health problems at birth that slow cognitive, social, and emotional development. The gap can widen when kids don’t have access to book or language-rich homes or high-quality learning experiences. And it can widen even more for kids growing up poor: Recent research on brain development indicates that the stress caused by poverty can impair children’s cognitive development.
Should we expect schools to make more of a difference?
As the report said, we have to be resolute about holding schools accountable for doing better with the kids they have and not the kids they wished they had. We have to support result-driven solutions to transforming low-performing schools into places where kids are really learning. But the data also makes clear an inconvenient truth: There are some children who will not succeed even in good schools because they start off so far behind due to undetected health impairments, developmental delays, and social and emotional challenges.
Are there other ways kids fall behind?
According to Attendance Works, one of the Campaign’s technical assistance partners, one in 10 kindergartners and first graders are chronically absent—they miss up to 10 percent of the school year. Chronic absence has a much bigger impact on lower income kids. Research by the Teacher’s College at Columbia University shows that missing 10 or more days of school in the early grades has a significant effect on development of literacy skills, and the negative effect on kids from low-income families was up to 75 percent greater than it was for kids from average-income families. And many of the kids who start off behind and miss too much school also lose ground during the summer months. A few years ago, Time magazine ran a cover story that said the “summer slide” is one reason why the achievement gap has been so hard to close. They cited two decades of research showing that low-income kids lose as much as three months of reading comprehension skills over the summer. That is why the Campaign is working with the National Summer Learning Association to help communities make summer a time of rich learning opportunities.
What are the policy approaches we should think about?
The Alliance for Early Success’s Birth Through Age 8 State Policy Framework is a good place to start. We need policies that focus on the whole child and promote healthy development, quality early learning and family support. The magic is in the mix—it’s a matter of better alignment, better linkages, and better integration of services and supports during the early years and the early grades. We need more seamless systems with fewer gaps and cracks through which families can fall. Bringing those systems on board and funding those systems are policy issues as well. But in addition, there’s the challenge of building a culture that is committed less to finding the perfect program and more to helping parents succeed to help produce good outcomes for their kids.
Like the wraparound services Head Start provides?
It’s more than the wraparound services—it’s a wraparound community where the pathways to good outcomes are clear because there are a set of norms and a culture that promotes children’s success. It is about putting into a place a coherent system of early care and education that is aligned, integrated, and coordinated with what kids need from birth through the end of third grade.
How do we do that?
Supporting successful parenting is part of the answer. In the early years, parents are the first, most significant and most enduring influence in giving their children the right start and putting them on a path for success. What we’re learning about how children’s brains develop in the first years of life means we have to appreciate even more how parents are their children’s principal brain developer. If we want to close the readiness gap, we have to invest in learning early, to ensure high quality learning experiences begin at birth. That means making sure parents, guardians, extended family members, and caregivers get from their communities the information and tools they need to nurture children’s full and healthy development. And, as the Data Snapshot notes, we also have to support parent’s economic stability and emotional health if we want them to be fully engaged in their children’s learning every day.
You mentioned earlier that the stress of living in poverty can affect a child’s brain development. Can you elaborate?
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who is the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, says that brain development is not so much genetically hardwired as it is influenced by life experiences. And poverty is a life experience that causes the kind of stress that interferes with how parents and children interact with each other—parents can’t be as responsive as they want to be to their children, and that undermines their efforts to create the kind of positive learning environment that all parents want to create for their kids. Dr. Perri Klass, who is a pediatrician and a writer, did an article last May for the New York Times in which she called poverty a childhood disease, because the toxic stress of poverty can, in her words, “actually re-set the neurological and hormonal systems, permanently affecting children’s brains and even, as we are learning, their genes.” The good news is that Dr. Klass and others are raising awareness among pediatricians to address childhood poverty as they would any other serious health threat. That approach has merit for the public, private and social sectors as well.
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