Poverty and Cognition

There are number of charter school chains operating in New York City, and nationally, which vaunt their “no excuses” approach to student discipline. My own admittedly cursory understanding of this behavioral cosmology is that it means what it says: teachers, school administrators–in other words, the authority figures that matter in school–will accept “no excuses” for poor disciplinary or academic performance in school.

Unsurprisingly, this controversial approach to dealing with students has found its way into public schools, and into the collective consciousness and discourse of administrators and teachers. Whatever the merits or demerits of this approach to managing students’ behavior, it militantly ignores the economic, social and emotional realities of students’s lives. Indeed, the quality of students’ interior and social lives is essentially shunted aside in favor of the metrics that standardized tests provide.There is talk now of a test to measure “grit,” which is the new buzzword to describe a student’s resilience. This has tended to strike me as primarily an ideological and bureaucratic fantasy, and ignores psychological realities, among others.

The “no excuses” ideology has lodged itself among educators in what has begun to look like an institutional denial of poverty as a cause of children’s problems in school. Facebook friends of mine who work as educators complain regularly of their superiors’ unwillingness to discuss the role of poverty, in professional development sessions and the like, in our students’ struggles. This is particularly offensive to many teachers, as it–patently–displays an appalling ignorance of the role of poverty in students who struggle in school. I suspect that for many of us, our understanding of this dynamic is common sense, or instinctual.

Happily, and thanks to Sendal Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir and their excellent book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives, teachers now have ready access to the empirical data they need to support their arguments on poverty’s effect on students’ intellectual lives. Both of these scholars are leaders in their fields. Yet they have written a highly readable, cogent work that presents their important scholarship in plain English.

To make a concise story short for the purposes of this review, Messrs. Mullainathan and Shafir designed a number of basic experiments in cognitive psychology that called upon subjects to consider outcomes and make decisions in circumstances of real or imagined scarcity. What they found, unsurprisingly, is that when people must make decisions in straitened circumstances, they tended to lose several IQ points. In other words, poverty and scarcity hamper clear and effective cognition.

Needless to say, I’d like to see another book from these scholars that explores this further. I don’t know about you, but in the meantime, if I encounter administrators or colleagues who tout the “no excuses” line, I’ll point out that ignorance of this research and its literature is no excuse for not understanding poverty’s effect on our students’ lives.

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