What is the biggest determinant of achievement in education?

Think bigger than teachers. It’s economics.

What is the biggest determinate of a quality education? Is it teachers, or is it something far beyond the reach of teachers? What are the factors that continue to keep the achievement gap a seething sea of despair?

I'll start here and tell you that it comes down to economics, plain and simple. We may blame it on a whole bunch of other things and give it many names, but it boils down to economics.

As an educator in the public school system for the past 18 years, I've worked in priority—schools that tend to score the lowest on standardized assessments—and non-priority schools, and spent time as an African Nova Scotian support worker, employment/life skill counsellor, income assistance worker, family skills worker and curriculum consultant. I clearly see economics as the biggest culprit in determining how students fare emotionally, socially, mentally, physically and academically. Until these former needs are met, students are not able to work to their full academic potential.

Let's start with one of these economic culprits: Nutrition. It's likely students who have poor diets are not functioning to their full potential. If that diet consists of refined sugars, chances are students will have difficulty focusing and be more likely to make poor decisions that lead to behavioural difficulties.

I've seen students consume upwards of 60 grams of sugar in less than 15 minutes during their recess snack, compared to students who have balanced diets with less than 10 grams of added sugar during their learning day. It is not difficult to predict the behavioural effects of diet on both these groups.

Simply put, eating healthy can be challenging and expensive.

Another determinate as an effect of economics is trauma. Students who are exposed to multiple traumas during their formative years have an increased chance of displaying traits that closely mimic those of ADHD. Often these behaviours are treated with medication to relieve the symptoms and render these students more "ready to learn" in a classroom environment.

Students who have been exposed to multiple traumas without interventions are at increased risk of long-term behavourial problems and chronic diseases.

Expose a brain to trauma and the effects can be long-lasting, possibly generational. Intervention can play a key role: The brain has a way of rewiring and rendering itself moldable, especially in children. A safe, engaging environment can foster healthy brain growth. If we can't control trauma, we can at least treat it. There are ways, even in the classroom that trauma can be dealt with, or at least addressed.

When trauma and diet are not addressed as reasons for low academic achievement, the practice of teaching is. The expectation is that teachers need to become better at their practice. Teachers need to be unwavering, unbreakable and more accountable. The reality is that teaching is hard and working in "priority" schools tends to be more demanding.

Schools in affluent neighbourhoods traditionally have better assessment results, fewer issues with behaviour and subsequently, higher teacher retention. Why? Are the teachers better at these schools? I know this not to be the case. Regionally, teachers are all exposed to the same types of professional development and are certified based on the same criteria.

These two determinants of education—diet and trauma—are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the link between economics and education. Add race to this and, well, that's a whole other article.

Opinionated is a rotating column by Halifax writers featured regularly in The Coast. The views published are those of the author.

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