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.

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?


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 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.

-Peter Meyer

This post also appears on Board’s Eye View.

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