Poverty and school reform

Education reformers should note Dan Rodricks' column about schools that envisions "schools that are generators of progress in the neighborhoods where they stand" ("Using the schools as leverage for neighborhoods," Oct. 31).

It is a vision that better addresses what is needed in school reform than does the Common Core curriculum. Author Robert Weissberg, in "Bad Students, Not Bad Schools," clearly makes the case that the neighborhood has more influence on a school than the educators. David Hong, who pictures schools as the focus of Community Investment Zones, says "the health of schools and of neighborhoods are inextricably linked."

Much of educational reform since the No Child Left Behind Act has supposedly been data-driven and based on research. Many reformists reject teachers' claims regarding the impact of impoverished neighborhoods on academic achievement.

But several recent studies suggest that what teachers have been saying is right. Poverty has a substantial impact on brain development and decision-making. The current issue of JAMA Pediatrics reports a study from the Harvard Medical School of brain scans of children growing up impoverished. The finding: a child raised in poverty had a smaller hippocampus and less gray matter, both negatively impacting learning and cognition.

A study published in the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the effects of childhood poverty are long-term. Their study, using brain imaging, suggests that adults raised in impoverished homes are less able to cope with stress. A recent study by Sendhil Mullainathan examined the impact of poverty on decision-making. His findings suggest that the constant stress of poverty actually leaves the brain less processing power for other problem solving, such as school.

There is an increasing amount of literature that indicates the way to improve at-risk schools is to transform schools into centers of neighborhood progress. Medical experts and neurologists seem to have more credibility than reformists with only business backgrounds. So why are the business people the ones empowered to reform schools?

The question we should be asking is not how to improve schools, but why aren't the necessary steps being taken?

Edward Kitlowski, Baltimore

The writer teaches at Kenwood High School.