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The Hope Factor

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Why do some children succeed in school and others don't?

We know children are influenced by everything from family income and dynamics to what happens in the classroom.

But don't discount the "hope" factor.

Hope -- defined as the combination of ideas, energy and excitement for goals -- is a strong motivator, according to Gallup, the research and analytics firm. It affects attendance, engagement and achievement -- in school as well as in life.

The good news is that schools can help to nurture hope, even if families fail to do so. The bad news is that we are not doing enough in the classroom to encourage passion and cultivate hope in our young people.

Sadly, much of the present education reform is deficit- and test-driven. This relentless focus may cause learners to develop a "fixed mindset" rather than the "growth mindset" so necessary to learn from mistakes and develop the confidence, perseverance and self-control required for deep and sustained thinking.

Helping students uncover their strengths, rather than their weaknesses, and develop their potential should be the paramount focus for education. In a recent poll, 45 percent of students in grades 5-12, for example, said they planned to start their own businesses, Gallup reported. Yet only 5 percent of students spend more than one hour a week working in or being exposed to a business, he said. We need to do a better job of listening and responding to our children's dreams.

When strengths are guided and coached by a teacher, intrinsic satisfaction, passion and curiosity often result. Over time, students learn to innovate, create, invent, and to think critically and reflectively.

Last year, freshmen students at large high schools in the Midwest who described themselves as hopeful completed more credits and had better report cards -- by nearly one full letter grade, Gallup reported. In the bigger picture, hope also is a better predictor of student success than SAT scores, ACT scores or grade-point average, according to Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.

More than just a "soft science," hope has an authentic biology. The "hopeful" brain emits more endorphins, enkephalins, oxytocins, serotonin and norepinephrine. The fewer of these our brain produces, the less we are able to feel hopeful, according to medical researchers such as Jerome Groopman of Harvard University. These also are the endogenous chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body. The hopeful brain strengthens processing and transmission of thoughts and binds them to our memories, intensifying learning.

But we can't encourage students to be hopeful unless we can engage their attention. Gallup found a significant drop in student engagement between elementary school, when eight in 10 students are engaged, to high school, when the number dips to 4 in 10.

Why do so many students tune out?

"There are several things that might help to explain why this is happening -- ranging from our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula, to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students -- not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go to college," Busteed wrote earlier this year.

When schools fail to engage students in their future, hope meets a dead-end.

Are we sufficiently preparing our students for the challenges they will face, encouraging their passion and creativity to take them where IQ and testing cannot go?

Not yet. But we hope for better.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org.