Helping Poor Kids Get Grit. Part 3: The Grit-Builders - Communities, Schools and Families

This is the third in a series of five blogs that we will post on grit and what it means for poor kids.
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This is the third in a series of five blogs that we will post on grit and what it means for poor kids.

In the first blog, we introduced the concept of grit and discussed how important it is for poor kids. In the second, we examined how quality education in early childhood and beyond can contribute to grit-building. In this blog, we focus on the three most essential grit-builders.

In 2013 we wrote a blog about making the educational connections and introduced the concept of a triangle with the student at the center, with the family at the top, and, the school and the community at either tip as an integrated framework for improving the quality of education for kids.

As we have studied and looked at this since then, that construct also seems appropriate as a framework for building grit using communities, schools and families as the pivot points.

Robert Putnam, names those same three points in his book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis when he describes the plight of poor kids who "...through no fault of their own, are less prepared by their families, their schools, and their communities to develop their God-given talents as fully as rich kids."

What can be done to fill that preparation gap - or what might be labeled the grit gap- of poor kids? Let's look at each of these pivot points in turn beginning with communities.

Communities as Grit-Builders

As we discussed in the second blog of this series, the comprehensive pre-K interventions in Union City and New York City provide models worth studying and potentially replicating. Professor David Kirp advises that there are other "successful pre-K programs" in places such as Boston, North Carolina and Tulsa, OK that also warrant investigation and consideration.

Probably the most comprehensive community-based approach is the work that has been done by Geoffrey Canada and his organization the Harlem Children's Zone to provide wrap around services and a "conveyor belt" that would carry kids from infancy through higher levels of educational success and into the middle class. Paul Tough examines this approach in detail in his book, Whatever It Takes.

The U.S. Department of Education's (DOE) Promise Neighborhood Program is modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone program. DOE has given planning grants of $500,000 to 21 programs across the country and will provide $30 million annually to these programs by focusing on "their needs outside school such as health and nutrition.

Neighborhood Schools as Grit-Builders

The focus on neighborhoods is an appropriate one for changing both communities and schools. Two studies by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren and by Chetty and Hendren with Lawrence Katz, disclosed that children who moved into "good" neighborhoods fared much better than those who were stuck in "the ghetto." Those studies also showed that the beneficial effects were greatest for those youth who moved at a young age.

It is financially and socially infeasible to implement a whole scale migration of kids to good neighborhoods. The alternative is to take actions that can change poor neighborhoods and the schools in them.

Professor Putnam proposed a number of corrective measures in this regard in the final chapter of his book. They include: Increasing family income by $3,000 during a child's first five years through government cash transfers. Public subsidized mixed income housing. Neighborhood regeneration. Dedicating more money to school districts with high poverty. Putting and paying higher quality teachers to work in those districts.

Professor Putnam also recommends having charter schools run by community organizations. As KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) has proven, charter schools can make a difference in the quality of education, the development of grit and educational achievement and advancement.

Research shows, however, that KIPP is an outlier and that charter school performance overall is "average" and in general charter schools perform about the same as public schools. More importantly, the scaling costs of implementing a KIPP like approach could be $4,800 to $5,000 per student more than its peers.

So, the answer appears to be to buttress the neighborhood school - whether that school is charter or public. Another answer could be collaboration among public and private schools in poorer neighborhoods.

In December 2012, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided $25 million in grants to seven cities to back public charter cooperation to fund joint approaches to benefit students. In January 2014, the Foundation awarded $500,000 in competitive grants to five new cities.

Families as Grit-Builders

Finally, we come to the pivot point of families. Inarguably, the pivot point that matters the most and should come first in terms of developing poor kids' grit. The problem is that this is most difficult area to address.

The reasons that families are the pivot points that matter most are because that is where a child develops cognitively, emotionally and socially. And, it is well documented that there is a substantial and significant difference between the experiences and progress of poor kids and their middle-class and wealthier peers in their home environment. To highlight just a few:

  • In the early 1960's, Dr. Bettye Caldwell, director of the Children's Center at Syracuse University was involved with a pilot project that suggested that children born into poor families developed normally until about 1 year old but then did not keep pace with their peers in terms of intellectual development.
  • Dr. Betty Hart and Todd Risley reported in their landmark 1995 book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, in words heard, the average child in a welfare family heard 616 words per hour at home, as opposed to 1,251 for the average child in a working class family, and 2,153 for the average child in a professional family. Hart and Risley, also found that there was a difference in other areas such as "tone of voice and positive and negative feedback to the child."
  • In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough explains that one of the reasons that poor kids have difficulty in developing grit can be attributed to a troubled home environment. He writes, "The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions."
  • Esther Cepeda, opinion columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group has written extensively on how parental behavior (e.g. yelling and using abusive language with kids; not having regular bed time hours for them; and not developing planning skills) impacts the success and failure of children from low income families and high poverty neighborhoods.

Cepeda has stated that it is a bigger challenge to ingrain "...the qualities of planning and perseverance in low income parents" than it is do so with low income children. She has also suggested "serious consideration" be given to a universal parenting school in order to address all that is holding back poor kids as students today.

Given the findings that we have highlighted, we are in total agreement with Ms. Cepeda's observations and the direction of her recommendation. This nation needs a major initiative directed at assisting low-income parents to enable them to become grit-builders.

The W.W. Kellogg Foundation and other groups and individuals who have committed funds to support projects to strengthen the low income families' capacity and competence to contribute to the positive cognitive, social and emotional development of their children are to be commended. Given the expanding scope and intensifying nature of the need, however, something much bigger is demanded.

There is a critical need for a major governmental intervention. Having said that, let us advance again a "radical idea" that we first made three years ago.

We propose a national Welfare to Homework program funded by the federal government. In this program, low income parents would be trained in something like what Professor Duckworth calls "Wise Parenting" skills. They would then be paid not to leave home to go to work but to stay home and become part of the educational team. These parents might even be paid a bonus for their children's attendance at and performance in school.

That was a radical idea in 2013. In this election year, where the political discussions in both parties have been dominated by populist concerns and the issues of the middle class, it is probably even more radical.

Nonetheless, the need for an innovative and comprehensive governmental intervention is more critical than ever - and much more necessary, in our opinion, than most of the issues that have been discussed in the presidential political debates to date.

[We'll explain why we think that in the next blog in this series.]

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