Devos’ Tenure Must be Trauma Informed
Jamaal A. Bowman
The confirmation of Betsy Devos is primed to ignite an old and tired education paradigm: school choice is the answer to all of our public educational problems. Choice, in a democracy, is good at any level. We should all have the freedom to choose how we go about living our lives; unless of course that choice negatively impacts other people. Choice in the context of public education means defunding and demoralizing neighborhood public schools, while reinvesting public school money into school vouchers and charter schools, with limited regulations and oversight. The charter school lobby loves this because they are able to invest private money into schools, while receiving public funds as part of substantial profits within their financial portfolios. This money-laundering scheme has been well documented, as well as its positive impact on little beyond test scores.
But this article is not about the charter lobby or Betsy Devos’ abysmal reform record. Today I am writing about the number one killer of children in the U.S. today – psychological trauma. Psychological trauma is often a silent and slow killer. Its impact grows inside the mind and body while destroying children of every race, creed, and class across the country. We are accustomed to responding when impacted by physical trauma as it is easier to identify and remedy. But psychological trauma, caused by toxic stress, often goes undetected and unnoticed – until students enter a school building.
As an educator of almost two decades in historically disenfranchised communities, I can speak first hand of the traumatic experiences my students continuously face. One former student’s brother was stabbed to death trying to break up a fight. Another cluster of students began self-mutilating to cope with their anxiety and depression. I have had students run away from home, attempt suicide, and be placed in foster care because of abuse or neglect. These are not exceptions; this is the norm in historically disenfranchised communities throughout the country. This, is what public school teachers have to deal with every day.
Poor, Latino, and Black students continue to be overwhelmed by psychological trauma and neglected in our country at disproportionate rates. It is a disgrace that neither during the recent presidential campaign, nor during the Devos hearing, did the impact of trauma on learning (and long term health outcomes for that matter), become a topic of conversation. Why is this the case? Because educators and parents have been excluded from our political discourse, while profiteers have conspired to take over the political arena. America continues to be more concerned with building an economy by training human capital, than nurturing human beings toward a healthy democracy. Profit over people is the mantra. America continues to eat its young.
On almost every negative measure related to education and health outcomes, Black, Latino, and poor people are excessively represented. From Preschool expulsions and K-12 suspensions, to grade level proficiency and college graduation rates, to incarceration and addiction, the effects of trauma are ever-present and continue to baffle our elected officials and financiers. Luckily for our children, parents, educators, students, and researchers remain crystal clear on exactly what needs to be done.
Brain development begins at conception, and rapidly develops between birth and age three. Therefore, early childhood programs that provide childcare and parenting supports are essential for the long-term health and development of our children. Parents need help with creating nurturing environments for their children while also receiving opportunities to continue their education and improve employability. Instead of investing in annual standardized testing that illustrates what we already know, we must invest in early childhood programs to give our neediest children and families the start and support they need. This approach, if done well, will dramatically decrease the trauma experienced in high need communities and will improve long term health and education outcomes. Though I appreciate local and national universal Pre-K program initiatives, it serves as an expensive false solution for most children. Trauma is a daily, moment to moment occurrence when it is chronic, so if the proper supports are not in place beginning at conception, students will enter Pre-K cognitively, emotionally, socially, and physiologically delayed. Pre-K is way too late!!!
A child born to parents with limited formal education, will hear thirty million fewer words than a child born to parents with extensive formal education. Quite often in homes with limited formal education, the words heard carry negative connotations. This reality impacts the emotional and behavioral disposition of a child. In addition to this language deficiency, if the toxic stress, poor diet, and psycho-social elements of poverty are ubiquitous, the child’s executive functions become compromised. Some studies show that poor children literally have smaller brains . This neurological under-development, continues across the life span for students affected by chronic psychological trauma.
My message to Betsy Devos is simply: Engage all of the American people in discussions based on their reality. Listen carefully. Consult with researchers and practitioners who work with children daily. Continue to do your own homework and learn as much as you can about K-16 education. If you do this, the proper path will become abundantly clear. Invest heavily in early childhood education. Remember that for many children, Pre-K is far too late. Ensure our teachers are trained in trauma informed pedagogy and cultural competency, and receive ongoing training in exemplary instructional practices. Implement a child centered, project based 21st century learning curriculum, while working collaboratively with teachers, parents, students, and community members to provide the resources and autonomy necessary to meet each community’s unique needs. Build our education system from the ground up. Incentivize collaboration among stakeholders and create community based learning ecosystems throughout the country.
The vision is clear and the time is now. Our children are waiting on us.
This Saturday, 2/11, a Public Schools March organized by PowerToPublic.org , will send a message loud and clear to the new secretary of education Betsy Devos: public schools are here to stay and we are ready to educate the whole child. You can go to the website to sign up for the march!