NPR Back to School: Part 2

I hope you’ve had a chance to listen to the following NPR story that I posted last week.

It’s about an hour long, so you can listen AND knock out some laundry-folding at the same time!  You can also view the transcript at

Here are my highlights from Part 2: The Solution.

Achievement Gap?
It’s not poverty, but stress, that creates the achievement gap.  Stress prevents the development of these non-cognitive skills.  Dr. Nadine Burke Harris provides a clear visualization with the following scenario.

“If you look on the molecular level, you’re walking through the forest and you see a bear, right? So you can either fight the bear or run from the bear. That’s kind of your fight or flight system.  And your body releases a ton of adrenalin, right? Which is your short-term stress hormone, and something else called cortisol, which tends to be more of a long-term stress hormone. And this dilates your pupils, gets your heart beating fast. Your skin gets cold and clammy. That’s because you’re shunting blood from anywhere that isn’t absolutely necessary to the muscles that you need to be able to run from that bear.

The other thing that it does– now, you can imagine that if you’re about to fight a bear, you need some gumption to fight that bear, right? So it kind of shuts off the thinking portion of your brain, right? That executive function cognitive part. And it turns on the real primal aggression and the things that you need to be able to think that you’re going to go into a fight with a bear and come out on the winning side.

And that’s really good if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. The problem is when that bear comes home from the bar every night. Right? And for a lot of these kids, what happens is that this system, this fight or flight response, which is an emergency response in your body, it’s activated over and over and over again.” 

The repetition of this response creates pathways in the brain.  The effect of this repeated stress shows up on brain scans, specifically on the prefrontal cortex where a lot of the non-cognitive skills happen.  Basically, for these kids, the bear never goes away…even when they’re sitting in class.  This leads to things teachers see like difficulty paying attention or sitting still.

The rest of the story explains two significant solutions: one avenue that is more of a preventative one for younger children, as well as another that can be taught at later ages.

Studies have shown that a secure attachment relationship with an empathetic parent can significantly lower the affect of stress on the body.  So imagine a child who has grown up in these circumstances and now is possibly a teenage mother, again living in poverty and all the stresses associated with that. Often lacking role models of her own, she sees the baby as an incomprehensible bundle of need.  But the cycle can end if this mom is taught how to read her baby’s cues, and ways to respond, help and comfort her child—ways that enable the child to be more socially competent, confident, to make friends, rebound from setbacks, and engage in school.

But what if you’re dealing with a teenager now?  Paul Tough observed Kewauna Lerma in a Chicago school program called One Goal.  This program employs teachers as coaches, too, teaching leadership principles like ambition, resilience, professionalism, and resourcefulness.  Students learn grit, self-control, how to rebound from a setback, and more concrete skills like how to present yourself, network, and ask questions.  The idea is that it’s going to be difficult to make up how far behind this student is in cognitive skills and test scores.  Out of the 128 kids that started the program the same year as Kewauna, 85% are in their sophomore year.  That’s remarkable when you consider that 8% of high school freshman in Chicago get a 4-year college degree.

And it’s not just Chicago schools that need help.  The U.S. used to have a higher percentage of students graduate from college than any other country.  Now we have the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.

Heckman’s Conclusion:
Heckman and other educators believe these non-cognitive skills can be taught, making those kids able to seize a better future for themselves.

And this, I think, just changes the way we think about poverty and human opportunity and what can we do to open up more possibilities to more people…I think one of the reasons why people don’t think of this as a possibility is they think these traits are fixed at birth or fixed so early there’s not much we can do about it. 

And I think what we’ve learned is that these human capabilities can be shaped. And as an economist, what I like about it is that it has this possibility of reducing inequality, but not doing it through the standard mechanism of just handing out money and transfers from the rich to the poor. That’s ancient. The idea is you make the poor highly capable. That there really is a possibility of giving people more possibilities. That there really is the chance of improving their capabilities.  And I’m personally very excited by that. And a lot of the evidence comes together, whether it’s neuroscience, psychology, economics. It’s the confluence of these things. There are these happy times in science and social science and knowledge where different strands come together. And I think we’re at such a time.

One response to “NPR Back to School: Part 2

  1. I miss you on here but I know you’re busy. I wanted to thank you sis for being the 5th highest in comments on my page. Thank you so much for making me feel loved :).

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