Nicoll: How can student progress in public schools be improved?

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***Editor’s Note: We are pleased to feature a Viewpoint from Mark Nicoll, a veteran social worker. (Click to expand.)

Nicoll earned a BSW and a MSW in social work and has been practicing for over 38 years in the areas of community development, program management, evaluation and social policy. He has worked in and with communities in Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada’s Arctic. He has also supervised many social work practicum students in a variety of settings. Since moving to Cayman in 2018 he has volunteered with community groups and co-founded the Community Shed (shared workshop). He was appointed a Guardian Ad Litem to provide support to children involved in cases before the courts. He is currently contributing to a project in the eastern Caribbean helping countries improve their social services (protection) programs and policies.***

Mark Nicoll MSW

Reading the recent articles in the Cayman Current on findings of the Education Data Report 2020, I was struck that the report implies that responsibility for the state of student progress falls on the public schools they attend:

  • government statistics show that many students are already at a learning disadvantage by the time they exit primary school.
  • “schools are unable to move students that are on the borderline … to the expected level,” according to the report.
  • how prepared a student is for high school could depend on which public primary school they attend.

What’s completely missing in this report is any consideration of factors other than the education provided by the teachers in these schools which also influence student progress. The report provides no information about the students and their life circumstances, so a reader cannot come to any conclusions about what would need to change for these current outcomes to improve.

So what characteristics of these students would be important to know? As noted in a recent essay written by the former Chief Inspector of schools, family income is correlated to student achievement so that would clearly be important to know. Students from wealthier families tend to achieve higher grades compared to poorer students.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs which helps us understand how higher family income influences a student’s achievement.

Students who live in a safe loving home and have enough to eat are better able to focus on learning. Sadly, children who do not have these basic needs met are much less able to focus on learning.

To improve outcomes for students in public schools, another key characteristic to know about them would be how much trauma they have faced in their lives. What is emerging from a growing body of research is the significant impact that such trauma or adversity has on a child’s academic progress along with their physical and mental health over the rest of their lives.

A major study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by the US Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente in the 1990s found that the higher a young person’s ACEs score, the greater the risk they would have in adulthood of chronic disease, mental illness, and premature death. These children also have a far greater future likelihood of either inflicting or being the victim of violence.

Now over two decades old and widely validated by other studies, the ACEs test counts experiences such as abuse, neglect, along with mental illness, drug addiction, and violence in a child’s home life. Those taking the test get one point for each type of trauma experienced on the 10-question survey. The findings show that children with a score of four have a 1,200 percent greater chance of committing suicide and are seven times more likely to become alcoholics.

In short, the real and ongoing cost of poverty and other childhood trauma on children, families and communities is significant and long-lasting.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a study was commissioned to assess the level of trauma in New York public-school students. The study found that 68 percent of the children observed had experienced trauma in growing up in poverty sufficient to impair their school performance. High-poverty schools were characterized by a recurring set of challenges: high stress in the adults and children, low readiness to learn in students, negative culture, and staff that felt nothing in their training had prepared them for the challenges they were facing.

In one large US study (n = 5000, 5- to 6-year-olds), exposure to three or more ACEs was associated with below-average academic and literacy skills and increased teacher-reported behaviour problems.

When examined through the lens of the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences, effectively responding to the important issues raised by the data presented in the 2020 Education Data report clearly needs to involve collaboration among families and organizations well beyond just teachers. There will no doubt be a need for new approaches in classrooms along with changes at home and elsewhere in community programs and services.

Fortunately, a number of jurisdictions have now been using the ACEs research findings for many years to help reduce the number of adverse or traumatic events children experience and/or to mitigate their impacts, so there are many examples of effective interventions that the Cayman Islands can learn from. So much is at stake. Thoughtful and coordinated action is needed now.

***Update: This article looks at how schools in Spokane, Washington, US, have shifted their approaches to better serve students who are dealing with trauma.***

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