To Help Our Most Challenged Students, Listen to Them -- And Embrace Who They Are

Lexi is a bright, confident young woman at one of Washington, D.C.'s best public high schools. Austin is a two-sport student-athlete in western Pennsylvania. David, in his first year of college, is a community scholar at a prestigious Washington, DC university, having made his way here from among the most distressed neighborhoods in Chicago. Very little about their lives is similar, except for the fact that they are all in school. And if you ask them about what they think about what they're learning and why they're succeeding, they'll tell you -- and we all should listen.

Lexi wants to see less competition among students and more teamwork in schools, with "teachers and students on the same page," working together to meet the high expectations that are now placed on all students. Austin thinks it's important for students to have choices -- not just in the classes they take, but also in how they demonstrate that they know what's been taught. David proudly refers to the community of caring and learning of which he is a member.

Why listen to students like Lexi, Austin and David? Because they speak for many more students who do not speak -- or who aren't always heard. In a report released this fall, the Children's Defense Fund points out what those of us in the classroom have known for some time -- the number of children living in poverty has reached record levels. Today, one in five children -- more than 16 million young people -- live in poverty, and one in ten -- more than 7 million -- live in extreme poverty, according to the CDF. "And the younger they are the poorer they are," CDF President Marian Wright Edelman wrote in a blog post. "Inadequate national and state investment in early childhood and education, and government's failure to protect children now from continuing economic downturn, are making them poorer."

Too often, it's taken as a matter of faith that schools are the only institutions capable of addressing the wide-ranging impacts of poverty on young people and children. There's no doubt that our public schools continue to meet children where they are, even as poverty and the challenges it causes continue to grow. Teachers, their unions, school leaders, and outside groups like the NEA Foundation have all worked hard to bring schools closer to their communities through innovative partnerships that give our neediest students and their families the kinds of support that schools alone can't. Growing numbers of communities and schools have come together to provide a broad range of services, including family support, mentoring, out-of-school activities, and one-on-one encouragement. These so-called "wraparound services" can make the difference between students who succeed and those who drop out.

Within schools, teachers need to provide a different -- but just as important -- kind of wraparound service. When teachers embrace students as individuals and recognize their personal strengths and needs, young people in poverty can develop the kind of confidence needed to propel them beyond their circumstances. They adopt a new "mindset," that says our intelligence and ability to succeed is not a fixed trait. A change in mindset is transforming how students approach their learning and the kinds of results they're achieving.

That's the message of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who says that one elementary school teacher made a dramatic difference in his life by making him feel like he could succeed. "Poverty is a diabolical predicament that not only makes scarce one's physical comforts, but drains away one's spiritual strength. It damages hopes and dreams, and having deficits among those things is when the soul begins to die," Blow wrote in a column last year. "I'm thankful for the teachers who saw me when I felt invisible, who reached through my sorrow and my sadness and, in that darkness, lit a fire in me. These are teachers who to this day encourage me like family more than faculty."

Which brings us back to Lexi, David and Austin. If our charge is to instill in all students that same sense of potential, then it's important for us to listen to what they say about learning. Dr. Michael J. Nakkula, chair of applied psychology and the human development division at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, points out that the kinds of things that Lexi, David and Austin support don't just sound good -- they're also backed by research. High standards and creativity are closely related, and people who work in teams and have other forms of social support have been shown to perform better.

That's why we're devoting time during our annual convening of community, union and district leaders from across 20 districts, to hear what Edelman and Blow, as well as students like Lexi, Austin, and David have to say about making teaching and learning a powerful and transformative experience. You're welcome to listen in, and we hope you do. We must all listen.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of the NEA Foundation. The NEA Foundation is a public charity supported by contributions from educators' dues, corporate sponsors, and others who support public education initiatives. We partner with education unions, districts, and communities to create powerful, sustainable improvements in teaching and learning. Visit for more information. Watch excerpts from our convening, featuring Marian Wright Edelman, Linda Darling Hammond, and Charles Blow.