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SMART PROGRAM SHOWS PROMISE FOR STUDENTS LIVING IN POVERTY


“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires,” said the late famous author William Arthur Ward.

Almost 80 percent of the 160,000 students in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) attend a high-poverty school. Teachers in these struggling, poverty-stricken schools are often stymied with the challenge of instilling learning skills while producing curious, adaptive and original thinkers in the classroom.

However, overall, teachers’ targeted efforts –- in concert with school administrators and city officials –- have led to improvement: The graduation rate among DISD students has increased steadily since 2008 from around 60 percent to over 86 percent.

Despite this promising statistic, there is still work to be done. Less than 15 percent of graduating seniors in Dallas are considered college-ready, according to the Texas Education Agency’s standards for reading and math.

The problem of inequality in education is not unique to Dallas.

The problem of inequality in education is not unique to Dallas.

When it comes to math and science scores, the U.S. currently lags behind most of the other 33 advanced industrialized countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States also ranks last when compared with other developed countries in terms of technology skills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And nationwide, one in five students fails to graduate high school on time, with graduation rates significantly lower for low-income, African-American and Hispanic students.

POVERTY CAN PHYSICALLY CHANGE A CHILD’S BRAIN

Science has shown that growing up in poverty changes the wiring and even physical dimensions of a child’s brain, with negative effects on language, learning and attention.

But, this devastating news does not have to be a permanent limitation.

In fact, our research at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas reveals that the detrimental effects of poverty on cognition can be mitigated and potentially overcome after short-term, targeted intervention.

The key is teaching students how to learn and create original ideas, not just instructing what details are important to memorize.

 … detrimental effects of poverty on cognition can be mitigated and potentially overcome after short-term, targeted intervention.

The research-based intervention for teenagers that has been developed, tested and implemented with more than 50,000 youth and 300 teachers across the country is called Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART).

SMART focuses on the important — but too often neglected — fourth “R” of education: reasoning.

Reasoning involves a top-down approach to learning that helps students understand and quickly synthesize complex information by constructing innovative interpretations and novel big ideas.

The strategies encourage students to innovatively generate multiple possibilities of global ideas first, not to seek “the correct answer” to a specific question.

In a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, our research team, led by Dr. Jacque Gamino, found students living in poverty showed as much as a 25 percent increase in gist reasoning, or the ability to derive abstract meaning from information presented, after SMART training. This is comparable to the gains made by their peers living above the poverty line.

USING THE BRAIN’S STRATEGIC REASONING CAPACITY

Additionally, the SMART-trained group, regardless of socioeconomic status, showed significant generalized gains and as much as an 18 percent improvement in increased memory for facts, even though this skill was not specifically targeted during training. Commended scores were approximately double on reading, math, science and social studies.

Training middle school students how to use their brain’s strategic reasoning and innovative cognitive capacity has also been shown to strengthen brain systems in children from all socioeconomic backgrounds, according to our research.

With the support of private philanthropists, five DISD middle schools have adopted the SMART program on their campuses: T.W. Browne Middle School, John B. Hood Middle School, Raul Quintanilla Sr. Middle School, Thomas J. Rusk Middle School and Sam Tasby Middle School.

The strategies encourage students to innovatively generate multiple possibilities of global ideas first, not to seek “the correct answer” to a specific question.

Preliminary data from these schools shows as much as 40 percent increase in reasoning ability, 10 percent increase in STAAR reading scores and improved student retention rates. Teachers who have implemented the program report a more energized, creative and thought-filled classroom, and parents have stated their children are more confident and excited to learn.

We hope to partner with Mayor Rawlings’ GrowSouth and Neighbor Up campaigns to expand SMART adoption in DISD schools located in the southern sector of Dallas, if funding can be secured.

Our next step will be to determine whether strategic reasoning training can close the academic achievement gap by conducting longitudinal research to follow students, who have participated in SMART, through high school graduation and college entry.

The goal is to determine ways to insure that gains in middle school are lasting and that students are prepared to tackle the complexities of a future world that will not be solved by simply knowing the facts of today.

Fostering critical reasoning skills elevates healthy decision-making in real-life, encourages classroom engagement, and empowers students to take advantage of the immense potential right inside their head. These gains will build mental resilience and ultimately translate into improved emotional and social maturity while also increasing academic achievement and professional attainment, whether from advantaged or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Increasing cognitive capacity across all our neighborhoods will be the greatest economic driver to solve poverty and inequality, thus enriching lives and enhancing Dallas communities for generations to come.


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Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., Founder and Chief Director of the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, is committed to maximizing cognitive potential across the entire lifespan. As(...)

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