I was taken aback to learn that the Maryland State Department of Education was planning to judge the quality of a school by its academic performance, attendance rate and parent surveys and that this would set the direction for judging our schools for the next 10 to 15 years.
Over the past 60 years, we all have witnessed a fundamental shift in the nuclear family in American society. Twenty-six percent of the children in America live in single-parent families, and another 4 percent of children live with no family member. We know that 20 percent of the children in America — one out of five — suffer from a serious mental health problem related to anxiety, depression, drugs, alcohol or a problem associated with family dysfunction. Then, there are the students who are ravaged by poverty, not to mention the number of children exposed to violence in their neighborhood or home.
We cannot ignore that societal evolution has had a major impact on schools, and this impact requires schools to take on more and more responsibilities in caring for and supporting children — a role that at one time was the sole purview of the family. However, the assumptions underlying American education and teaching continue to focus on the academic component of school rather than on the whole child.
Research in neuroscience demonstrates that even the best teaching and curricula can have surprisingly little effect when a child’s cognitive and emotional readiness to learn is not adequately addressed. Furthermore, unresolved post-traumatic stress can lead to serious long-term consequences into adulthood, such as problems with interpersonal relationships, mental health disorders, substance abuse, depression and an increase in the likelihood of involvement in the justice system. Instead of asking how students in distress can do better, it is time to ask how we can restructure education to do better for students in distress.
A high-quality school should help the most disadvantaged students while benefiting students who are the most socially and intellectually advantaged. So a high-quality rating should be given to schools that possess a culture where students learn how to think within the context of the situation they encounter and where the individual needs of the students are prioritized.
We should judge a good school as one that recognizes that teachers work with a child’s brain. A key component of staff development in a school has to be teaching teachers and administrators how the brain operates and what it needs to learn and positively develop. Given that all learning involves making a memory, it is essential teachers understand the impact of childhood trauma on the brain and, if this distress is not abated, how it eventually creates brain damage, poor social skills, low verbal skills, memory impairment, aggression, impulsiveness, anxiety and dissociation.
A good school is one that understands how to rebuild and repair the brain through neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells; through regular physical activity; meaningful new learning; enriched experiences; managed stress levels; positive nutrition; social support and the time to reflect. This would resolving many of the issues created in schools, families and communities that are caused by at-risk children and youth who are suffering from trauma. Research has demonstrated that unaddressed trauma in our schools and community is the No. 1 child health problem of our times.
Every school should be measured by the yardstick of child well-being, given no student is immune from the problems of growing up, i.e., bullying, divorce, a learning problem, moving, etc. In addition to academic performance, all good schools would have a report card that assures and rates age-appropriate growth in such areas as: dignity and self-worth, cognitive skills, academic performance, self-regulation, physical and mental health, students’ knowledge of and exposure to the arts, and being a contributing member to their school, family and community.
The solution to identifying a quality school is related to measures of how well schools are aligned with addressing the individual needs of the students they have enrolled so that they assure America a workforce that is competitive and able to reinvent itself when cutting-edge advances in artificial intelligence and life sciences change the way we work and live, when the geography of future markets change, and the application of computer code alters the economy.
Andrew L. Ross is president and CEO of the TranZed Alliance, the parent company of The Children’s Guild and Monarch Academy Public Charter Schools, with special needs and public charter schools in Maryland and Washington, D.C. His email address is Ross@ChildrensGuild.org.