What’s Missing ?… A gaping hole in “Education Reform”

What’s Missing ?

“Education Reform” discussions often revolve around: 1) a “Common Core”, or “national standards”, plus,  2) Standardized Testing and,  3)  a  “Value Added Measurement” of teachers.

Photo © Daun Kauffman
Photo © Daun Kauffman

Clearly, something is missing in the  “Reform” discussions.


The Common Core, is an attempt to develop common learning objectives within individual states and ultimately, across all U. S. schools.  It’s  faulted for lack of practitioner input (primary years especially absent),  for being developmentally inappropriate, and for how it was constructed and benchmarked.  Other outcries against the Common Core include the heavy hand of ‘Uncle Sam’ into States’ Rights and the sort of “Stepford Wives”, one size fits all, implications.

Photo: Nico Hogg Flickr
Photo: Nico Hogg Flickr

Standardized Testing is theoretically connected to the common learning objectives via a common, or “standard”,  test.  Standardized Testing is attacked for errors, for  secrecy, and for its propensity to beget a plethora of “interim” or “benchmark” tests along the way, leading to reduced time for teaching and learning :   over testing.   A single, “standardized” test is seen as a poor representation of student learning and as having little correlation with college or career success. Next the high stakes of the test for both children and schools generate high levels of toxic stress.  The high stakes also lead to “teaching to the test”, (often to the exclusion of a well-rounded curriculum), and sometimes to cheating(by adults).  Finally, the test results are already being wielded to punish, via value-added measures, below,  before having validated the Common Core which the tests are based on.

The “Value-Added-Measure” component is meant to identify “great teachers”.  The  issues with that goal are abundant.  The ability to measure value-added of “great” teachers of course depends on a clear definition of “great teaching” as a starting point.  Great teaching can not, defacto be defined by a test,  ergo, what should happen if we “lose” the test , or declare the test invalid ?  How will we define “great teaching” without a test ?  No such definition exists in the measure.

If any one of the flaws proves true for a single component of reform, then of course the connections between the components change “reform”  from a teetering paradigm to a fallen paradigm.

Photo: Indenture, Flickr
Photo: Indenture, Flickr

As one example, the connections between the tenuous  trio teeter on the temerity of the titans who publish the textbooks — textbooks which are necessary to do well on the tests, the tests which are also published by the very same businesses.   (See “Conflict of Interest“).  As another example, the idea that “great teaching” can be defined by a single number from a single, “standardized” test, generally has no evidence base at all.  Sometimes a circular argument is offered : “great” teachers cause students to get great scores on the test, so the test identifies “great” teachers.  Literally circular nonsense.

Meanwhile, “reformers” continue to chase marginal advances — only marginal increments — as mentioned above — then sometimes curriculum tweaks,  charter school businesses, more technology, less funding,  increase teacher incentives, eliminate tenure, add zero tolerance discipline, longer school days, close schools, privatize education and more.  None delivers the order-of-magnitude change we all desire.

Much of this education “reform” is backed by big money, national foundations and private, venture capitalists (with little or no classroom teaching experience). Little-to-none of the money gets to public school classrooms, especially in urban areas.

See “Translate this: it’s not about learning


              Whatever your personal view of these                                          particular education “reform” issues,  

           I submit that the key element is                                        not even included in the discussions yet.

Photo © Daun Kauffman
Photo © Daun Kauffman


What’s Missing in Education “Reform”  ?

Photo © Daun Kauffman
Photo © Daun Kauffman

The child  – the customer –  is what is missing from Education “Reform” discussions.  

Specifically, the massive incidence of childhood trauma, and its laser-like connection to cognition and education is missing.  The scope of childhood trauma is measured in a range, from  25%  to 50% of children, seemingly highest in urban settings, as detailed below.  (Also see “Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm ?”).

Not only is the child missing,   but Education “Reform” is often  ANTI-child in its effect,  at least for our most vulnerable children.  (See  “Danny goes to school”)

Public Health Data  and Neuroscience Research are missing

Researchers define the scope of childhood trauma as massive, “an epidemic”, or a “national crisis”, particularly in urban areas.

Findings from groundbreaking public health research are shocking:  “Adverse childhood experiences(ACE) Study” by Felitti and Anda/CDC.  The ACE research found a

“strong correlation between the extent of exposure to childhood… [ACEs] and several leading causes of death… in adulthood, including depression, heart disease, liver disease and stroke.”


ACEs in the research included:    Abuse:  physical, emotional, sexual,

Household member with addiction or mental illness,

Witnessing household violence,         Neglect:  physical, emotional,

Parent(s) absent due to separation, divorce or incarceration

This was not “soft” qualitative research, this was a massive, 17,000+ participant, quantitative study over several years.  Ultimately, CDC researchers found 22%, or roughly one-fourth,  of suburban, middle class, mostly white, working folks with medical insurance had experienced 3+ ACEs!

Three+ ACEs is significant. because experiencing 3+ ACEs correlates with doubled risk of depression, adolescent pregnancy, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism and STDs.  There is a 5X increase in attempted suicide.  All as only a few examples of the impacts.

Photo: Artemis-Twitches
Photo: Artemis-Twitches

Even more alarming, urban researchers found an average rate of ACEs across one major city (Philadelphia, PA) at 37% with 4+ categories of childhood trauma (2013).

In the “rougher” zip codes the urban rate of ACEs exceeded 45%+ , or almost half of the children with 4+ categories of trauma. For a point of perspective, the rate of ELL students in the same city is about 10%, and for another comparison the IEP rate is about 14%. There are three times as many trauma-impacted children as either ELL and IEP students.

The scale is epidemic !  The life impacts are heartbreaking.

The neuroscience is also clear. Childhood trauma connects directly to education via its toxic stress effects on development of the physical brain for young children.  When children live in an unresolved chronic, traumatic state of survival, the toxic stress damages the function and structure of their young, developing brains. These injuries relate specifically to the prefrontal cortex and academic processes, especially crucial executive function, memory and literacy. The physiological process also leads kids to distorted perceptions of social cues, which alter their behaviors in response.

The classroom challenge is even bigger than the ACE epidemic.  The huge ACE percentage is only the starting point.  The crisis impacts all the children in the same classroom:   when you experience the classroom dynamics and disruptions from one frightened,  trauma-impacted child, triggering another trauma-impacted child, who attacks a third child trying to work.  It diverts teaching and learning focus for 100% of the classroom.

The children are not bad or sick,  they are injured.  At best they are invisible in the data,  at worst they mislead our interpretation of the data and resulting prescriptions. Presently, attempts to analyze data all miss the massive scale of Childhood Trauma injuries completely.  Pivotal decisions are then based on these flawed analyses . . .

Photo: Eja2k
Photo: Eja2k

The current protocol could generally, theoretically be to write and implement a formal “504 Plan” for each trauma-impacted child’s access to education (and safety).  Given a rough estimate  25% to 50% of children(50,000 to 100,000+ school children in our one city), who are trauma-impacted, we need to vastly increase resources, or revise the protocol.  A prime target for real Reform.


Education Leader’s “Response” ?

Even Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, says  “measurement needs to compare like students to like students.”  The rates of Childhood Trauma vary widely by zip code and school, yet this crucial, broad, and deep variable is ignored when serving students and especially when measuring and analyzing student results.  A 25% to 50% shift in local scores due to shifts in local  childhood trauma rates is a far more powerful shift than any of the “reformers” systemic prescriptions.

Additionally, childhood trauma may be a significant explanatory variable of the “achievement gap”, given the skewing of ACEs to urban settings, settings which themselves can sometimes skew to children of color.  Either way, our ignorance of the trauma epidemic dramatically confuses “reading” test results.

Photo © Daun Kauffman
Photo © Daun Kauffman

Meanwhile, following  “reformer’s” prescriptions is like setting up a new baseball league, using all new fields  with all new uniforms, and brand new equipment, while 6 to 12 players (25-50% of your team) are all dealing with 4+ serious injuries: shoulder, hamstring, groin AND knee…and then the heavily injured team is told to get out on the field and play !  Is there any question what the outcome will be ?


 Putting  the customer, the child, first                                                                              is the absent strategy.

missing child
Photo © Daun Kauffman

Reformers ignore the child and the related massive, public health data and the latest learning in neurobiology.

Instead, reformers’ focus seems to be limited to national programs and “systems”.


But that is not all:                                                                                    Beyond missing the child,                                                   reformers miss blatant justice issues.

Missing Justice piece
Photo © Daun Kauffman
Justice is missing in “Education Reform”:
.1) Equal access to education,    then
2) funding equity  and
3) effective interventions to address the achievement gap


Photo by Alex
Photo by Alex “eflon” on Flickr

First, it doesn’t matter how adequate the funding, or how good the curriculum or national standards or how “great” the teachers, if the children in ‘survival mode’ can’t engage cognitively.

Children can’t efficiently engage in ANY process while in ‘survival’ mode; struggling with trauma and related defenses that impair cognition. They need trauma-competent schools for equal access to education.  Meanwhile, adults seem to focus on managing reform to systems and trying to manage the financial budget, oblivious to the gaping trauma-hole in the bottom.  The children are left on their own to continue struggling for equity, or equal access to their education.


Second, reformers take no responsibility for funding equity.   The concept of National Standards and/or Common Core, without providing “national” funding, or “common” funding   is fraught with structural inequity as a basic tenet.  Common Core learning goals without Common Funding is an unstable proposition, and given the demographics, and tax bases,  it is also firmly in the camp of institutional racism.


Photo: Rick Hunter
Photo: Rick Hunter

Third,  by not providing resource adjustments for the  achievement gap at the starting point, reformers are setting up a “race” between healthy children and injured children.

The race course itself is unfair, and it’s also unfairly funded.

Reformers have set up a predictable, and inequitable finish line.


Let’s add it up:

What’s Missing in Education Reform? 


Photo: danobrienmuzyka
Photo: danobrienmuzyka
  • The child is missing.  The child, in the center of a ‘national crisis’ of childhood trauma,  with all its devastation, is ignored —  in a rough range of 25% to 50% of children, depending on location.
  • Equity is missing in the paradigm of a Common Core without common funding.
  • Equity is missing, given the painfully old achievement gap, without priority on corrective interventions and resources.
Photo © Daun Kauffman
Photo © Daun Kauffman

Becoming active

Don’t let “system” reformers or Big Money run over our children.
  • Listen to a child’s story.  Go back to the child; listen again.
  • Be part of a group (or start one) which invests one-to-one with a group of trauma-impacted children.
  • Help raise awareness of trauma in your school and community.  “Share” this blog broadly.
  • Vote.

Course corrections must all start with the child as the priority.

                       “. . . we must not look away”

12 thoughts on “What’s Missing ?… A gaping hole in “Education Reform””

Comment here (Really, please).

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.