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Dr. Pam Cantor is working to reengineer public schools to respond to the recurring challenges of teaching and learning that stem from the traumatic impact of poverty.
The New Idea
A practicing child psychiatrist for eighteen years, Pam was trained to look for recurring and predictable patterns among presented symptoms, and to design solutions that could address each of the contributing factors behind seemingly “disordered” behavior.
Pam recognized that trauma inflicts predictable challenges to the learning environment. In each case, the most disruptive students absorbed the majority of teachers’ and administrators’ time and imperiled other students’ ability learn; teachers were not trained to meet students’ behavioral or emotional needs; and administrators were overwhelmed by a culture of failure they didn’t know how to repair.
Pam developed a sequenced intervention designed to help schools confront the symptoms of trauma by building lasting improvements in student support, teacher skills, and leadership capacity. Through a combination of bottom-up and top-down strategies, she sought to translate known practices in the medical field into language that educators could easily act on. By partnering with school districts to embed Turnaround for Children principles in teacher development standards and practice, codifying what works, establishing clear metrics and accountability tools, and advocating for clear policy changes at the federal level, Pam is out to ensure that every school is equipped with the tools and strategies it needs to facilitate effective teaching and learning.
The result is a delivery system that goes beyond mere service provision to tackle at scale the debilitating impact of poverty inside schools. To date, Turnaround has partnered with 77 schools in Washington, DC and New York City, and is working closely with the Department of Education, members of Congress, and high-profile district leaders to move today’s education reform debate beyond teacher accountability, to establishing conditions for whole-school change.
In the weeks after 9/11, Pam led a team that assessed the emotional impact of the attacks on New York City’s public school students. She discovered that most of the children were traumatized less by what they had witnessed that terrifying September day than by the violence and deprivation they faced every day growing up in poverty. She also found schools woefully ill-equipped to educate children with such intense needs.
Over the last ten years, the education reform movement in the US has worked to close the oft-discussed achievement gap through two primary mechanisms: first, by increasing standards for all students, and second, by increasing teacher accountability and performance metrics. Popularly termed the “no excuses model,” this approach was premised on the belief that “zip code should not determine destiny,” and that the primary causes of poor achievement among low-income students were low expectations and a resigned belief among teachers and administrators that there was nothing they could do in the face of seemingly intractable child poverty. Champions of reform shared a conviction that all students can learn, regardless of circumstance.
While laudable for its attempts to curb inaction, the reform movement and the solutions it posed overlooked what decades of research in neuroscience have revealed: namely that poverty does have a marked effect on students’ ability to learn. When confronted with stress, the brain produces a surge in cortisol—popularly known as the stress hormone—which inhibits individuals’ ability to absorb new information and to connect emotionally with others. In students, cortisol has been found to limit focus and relationship-building, and produces what is known as a “fight or flight” response: children become anxious, tuned out, impulsive, and emotionally volatile, losing access to working memory, energy, and stamina. The result is a vicious cycle: students experiencing trauma at home come to school ill-prepared to learn and unable to forge trusting relationships, leaving them more isolated and subject to failure, which further increases stress levels.
Violence and neglect are not the only causes of trauma in children. Studies have shown that poverty itself can lead to a state of chronic trauma, and produce similar results. In the US, one in four children lives in poverty. In many of today’s urban and rural schools, the percentage of low-income students frequently exceeds 80 percent. Such concentrations of poverty pose a challenge to today’s schools, which were designed at best to take care of the 5 to 10 percent of students regarded as “high-needs.” On average, there is one guidance counselor for every 459 students, supplemented at times by a school social worker, who may serve anywhere between 400 to 800 students. Schools serving 1,000 students or more lack the resources and capacity to direct every student who needs it to traditional therapy, and teachers, untrained in how to care for traumatized children, are left ill-equipped to exercise control over their classrooms.
The idea that students carry unmet social and emotional needs into the classroom has not gone unnoticed. There are a growing number of efforts designed to deepen mindfulness practice in kids, and to cultivate empathy and other pro-social skills beginning at a young age, while a number of organizations have arisen to connect schools to professional mental health services and afterschool resources. Often deemed “add-ons,” those efforts have taken a largely piecemeal approach, addressing one aspect of the learning environment or a single group of stakeholders, rather than the system at-large. Others have attempted to “refer out” problems, rather than heal schools from the inside, or sought to wholly dismantle existing schools and restart with a fresh staff. The result has been a series of isolated success stories too often locked behind the walls of one particular school or program, with little impact on the education system at-large.
Pam found that the challenges faced by high-poverty schools fall largely into three categories: inadequate student support systems, ineffective teaching practices, and a school culture characterized by persistent disruptions and low expectations. Changing those conditions, she realized, would require a sequenced intervention, and building teacher and staff capacity to play a role they had not been trained to perform.
Pam began by developing an intensive partnership model aimed at redesigning an entire school to explicitly meet the needs of students confronting poverty and violence. Teams of three, consisting of a Social Work Consultant, Instructional Coach and Program Director, embed for three-to-five years in a small group of schools, working hand-in-hand with school leadership, teachers, and mental health professionals in the surrounding community.
The Turnaround intervention starts by establishing practices and processes through which teachers and school staff can identify the students most at-risk—typically the 15 percent of students whom Pam refers to as “negatively charismatic,” who threaten to derail the learning environment for everyone—and refer them to immediate mental health services. The Turnaround team establishes contracts with local mental health providers, and works with the school staff to identify other barriers that prevent students from getting the help they need, addressing issues such as parental consent, stigma, and payment coverage, for instance, by incentivizing mental health providers to provide crisis intervention by front-loading payment. As part of the partnership, each school hires its own full-time social worker, paid for by a combination of local and federal funds. Rather than serve each student individually, the social worker acts as the hub of a wheel, coordinating with the entire staff and surrounding community to monitor behaviors across the school and intervene where necessary.
Pam realized however, that it was not enough to take care of the 15 percent of students who demonstrated the most visible signs of trauma. In every high-poverty school, an average of 60 percent of children has a level of stress sufficient to impair functioning. Addressing those needs however, is beyond the capacity of any one social worker or clinic. Instead, teachers have to be equipped with a core set of strategies and tools aimed directly at curbing challenging behaviors, and deepening trust, motivation, and engagement among students. The instructional coach trains teachers in a variety of instructional practices designed to nurture healthy social-emotional development in students, offering everything from formative assessment tools, wherein students help to identify their own learning plans, to differentiated teaching practices, to cooperative learning structures. Teachers are also taught a variety of proven techniques designed to improve behavior management and defuse conflict. Finally, the team works closely with the principal to create a safe, positive discipline environment, to build a culture of high expectations, and to plan for long-term sustainability beyond the three-to-five year partnership period.
In America today, it is estimated that 40 percent of urban and rural schools are plagued by concentrated poverty and are thus subject to the same challenges Turnaround seeks to address. Given the enormity of the issue, Pam understood that she could not tackle it through direct intervention alone. She is thus turning her attention to embedding Turnaround principles into district practices and federal policies, through a combination of direct partnership, research and development, and targeted advocacy.
First, Pam is working to establish a series of proof points that capture what districts could do to improve readiness among high-poverty schools. Pam saw that districts could serve as a powerful lever for changing the way high-poverty schools approach teaching and learning, because they are responsible for supporting students, developing teachers, and rolling out curricula and standards. At the same time, she realized that when it comes to meeting student needs, most fail to adequately train their social workers, and professional development efforts tend to focus on content, rather than on the typical challenges of a high-poverty classroom. Finally, assessments are used to reward or punish, rather than to identify areas for growth, and have no non-academic dimensions. Using the proven practices established through each of Turnaround’s school partnerships, Pam, along with her team, is developing partnerships with the central offices of Newark and DC Public Schools to strengthen their teacher and student development practices, which began in the 2013-14 school year.
To that end, Pam is using Turnaround as a “think-and-do-tank” in order to develop a series of tools to benefit the field. She is developing a partnership with the American Institutes of Research to establish formative academic and non-academic benchmarks of school improvement at the student, classroom, and whole school levels over time, to reduce the field’s singular reliance on test scores. In Newark, the opportunity will exist to work with Student Achievement Partners, the organization responsible for designing the Common Core Standards. While representing a significant step forward in our ability to measure higher order thinking skills not currently captured by today’s standardized tests, the Common Core Standards’ successful implementation depends first on establishing the kind of conditions in which real learning can take place. Beginning with collaboration in Newark, New Jersey, Pam is working to equip teachers with the skills they need to adjust to the changing standards and pre-empt the potential for frustration and disruption that such a change could spark.
Pam is also influencing federal policymaking and the overall education agenda, and pushing the system to focus more on developing the kind of baseline conditions that facilitate teaching and learning. In 2011, she was invited to speak before the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Retreat, where she shared a paper offering specific components of a successful learning environment in a high-poverty school. Pam has continued to work with members of both the Senate and House Education Committees, as well as a number of key figures in the White House and US Department of Education, on a variety of legislative acts affecting education spending and established standards, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, changes to School Improvement Grant language and to student and teacher assessments, and finally, modifications to Title I and Title II, which fund low-income schools. Asked to submit a thought paper to assist districts in their Race to the Top-District applications, Pam and the team at Turnaround described how to operationalize “foundational conditions for teaching and learning,” and later discovered that that language was incorporated into a number of applications, including that of Newark Public Schools and Puget Sound Educational Service District.
The impact has been profound. Schools once in crisis have grown measurably calmer and safer, and have experienced improved teacher retention and gains in student performance. In a 2008 evaluation, schools reported a 51 percent decrease in police-reported incidences and a 32 percent decrease in suspensions, along with a 77 percent decline in teacher turnover and 34 percent decrease in teacher absences. Other studies have shown notable academic gains, with higher percentages of students performing at or above grade-level. Since launching in 2002, Pam has grown the organization to a $12 million budget, serving a total of 77 schools. Turnaround currently serves 20 schools in New York City and Washington, DC, reaching nearly 8,000 students and almost 800 school staff, with a similar partnership in Newark, NJ underway.
Pam understands the impact of trauma on a child’s development from personal and professional experience. As a young woman, she witnessed how a psychiatrist could restore confidence and faith in a person’s abilities. This was one of the reasons why she decided to become a doctor. At 26, Pam enrolled in pre-med courses at Columbia, and went on to Cornell for medical school, one of just five women in her class, paying her own way through both.
For Pam, one of the most satisfying aspects of her career as a psychiatrist was learning that she could help a child get well regardless of his or her circumstances; that she could separate what had happened to that child from that individual’s sense of self. In the 1990s, she began working with children in the postwar Balkans: an experience that further reinforced the critical sequence required to respond to deep trauma in children. Following Columbine, she went on to consult to Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder’s Children Exposed to Violence Initiative at the Department of Justice, where she helped develop recommendations for schools and communities about how to reduce violence in schools and how to increase resilience in kids. It was here that she discovered that her knowledge about trauma and its effects on children could become part of a larger effort to ensure that children feel emotionally and physically safe in their schools.
Pam was appointed to co-chair the Partnership for Recovery of NYC schools in the weeks after 9/11, and became one of the chief consultants of the NYC Department of Education. There she co-authored one of the largest epidemiologic studies of an urban school system, which found that the most intense symptoms of trauma were to be found in schools of deepest poverty, not at Ground Zero. During this time, Pam toured a high-poverty elementary school in Washington Heights, and was struck by the chaos and how unsafe it felt. There was no learning going on. This was the fourth lowest-performing elementary school in NYC and became Turnaround’s first partner school.
The combination of forces—the realization that poverty could profoundly affect a child’s ability to learn, and the discovery in the halls of a Washington Heights building that no school could meet the needs of every student without a very different approach—inspired her to found Turnaround for Children.