06/25/2013 05:33 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

Building a Country's Growth Mindset

They say the opinions of others needn't become our reality. Try telling that to the black or brown child who is growing up poor in America.

From the beginning, the opportunity of birth and geography work against these children. Children from wealthier families are nourished through diet, exercise, exposure to arts and literature, and the time and attention of parents and family members. These children live in more expensive neighborhoods, with access to cultural resources and schools that expect and enable academic excellence.

But the black or brown child who is challenged by what Robert Walker of Oxford University calls the "shame of poverty" is not so lucky.

More often than not, that child is born to a household led by a single parent -- usually a mother -- who holds two or three jobs just to eke out a meager existence. There may be no shortage of love, but time and attention are lacking. The home environment is not healthy, with a physical space constructed with inferior materials such as lead paint and in constant disrepair. Junk food, high in carbohydrates and sugar and low in nutrients, anchors the child's diet, because that is what the family's time and finances can afford.

If this reality were not enough, reminders of what poverty does not provide are on television, billboards -- everywhere. The message is that those in poverty are not "getting it right." Poor children internalize this shame, which negatively affects their self-concepts. When stressed, threatened and feeling helpless, their adrenal glands may emit the hormone cortisol into their bodies, which inhibits thinking and memory. There is little wonder that longstanding research on black children's racial preferences and a CNN study suggest that black children often make white bias choices because they have learned from the wider society that these are the "right" choices. Society teaches that the black race is less attractive and less intelligent.

And despite overwhelming evidence from neuroscience and social science research that all people have the capacity to achieve at high levels (David Shenk's 2010 The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong), conservative foundations and social scientists continue to insist that whites are innately superior to black and brown people. Jason Richwine's recent study for the Heritage Foundation reports -- unequivocally and unwaveringly -- that "no one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against."

Turns out children of color aren't the only ones internalizing these views. America buys it, too. In Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (2010), author Tim Wise cites research that two-thirds of Americans believe many African Americans have difficulty getting ahead in life because of personal shortcomings in their work ethic, effort and family life. Just 19 percent blamed racial discrimination.

If these are society's values, can we be surprised when students of color embrace them?

A tutoring volunteer in Indiana shared with me an exchange with students who told him "the newspaper says we're not going to pass the state test." When the tutor asked if they thought they would pass, a girl replied, "Well, they don't think we will, so we probably won't." When the volunteer talked to students about college, a boy said, "Kids from the 'hood don't go to college." I wrote about these attributional ambiguities or "threat identities" in a chapter in The SAGE Handbook of African American Education (2009).

The question is not whether this mindset still exists -- clearly, it does. The issue is what we need to do to prepare children, in schools and within greater society, to replace it with a "growth mindset" -- a belief that achievement is a matter of individual and collective effort, not an accident of birth.

We must recognize that education is society's highest function, and that success is achieved when everyone is able to thrive through guided and deliberative practice provided by educators and families and supported by communities.

We each have a role to play:

• As a society, we must recognize that poverty is a real obstacle -- not an excuse -- to achieving the American dream. Poverty remains a structural failure, not a personal problem.

• The media needs to share more stories of students who overcome poverty through education and social programs that support a positive life trajectory.

• Engaged communities need to fight for improved schools, better health care, and job and housing opportunities for all residents.

• Communities might themselves develop a growth mindset, where growth for all becomes an internalized belief and an operational strategy, i.e., linking early childhood and K-12 schools with homes, secondary schools with business and institutions of higher education and using technology platforms such as iPads, Kinect and Wii to enable the acquisition, use and exchange of knowledge, expanding social and advocacy services with schools, homes, faith-based institutions and community centers.

• We must invest in teachers. Development of "new" structural interventions such as charters, vouchers, privatization and other profit-driven initiatives must not cloud the fact that the teacher remains the most important in-school factor related to learning. We have to recognize their unique responsibilities, partnerships and contributions to developing human capital and the promise of America.

Overcoming poverty and school reform are two sides of the same coin. Policymakers must realize this. We've got to start by taking children where they come to us -- whether it's from a wealthy neighborhood or a ghetto -- and work with them from that point, being honest about how much of a standard or core curriculum they really know, and the social services required to sustain learning.

Difficult? Yes. Doable? Absolutely.

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. Eric can be reached at