Neuroscience Demonstrating What We Already Know: Poverty Impacts Learning and Early Intervention is Essential
A cover story by Mike Kemp in Newsweek earlier this month reported on the findings of neuroscience researchers in CA who found that “…children with parents who had lower incomes had reduced brain surface areas in comparison to children from families bringing home $150,000 or more a year.” Given that test results have manifested this for decades, the results are unsurprising. But here’s what researchers MAY be able to impress on policy-makers IF the policy-makers are swayed by science:
“We have [long] known about the social class differences in health and learning outcomes,” says Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. But neuroscience has now linked the environment, behavior and brain activity—and that could lead to a stunning overhaul of both educational and social policies, like rethinking Head Start–style programs that have traditionally emphasized early literacy. New approaches, he says, could focus on social and emotional development as well, since science now tells us that relationships and interactions with the environment sculpt the areas of the brain that control behavior (like the ability to concentrate), which also can affect academic achievement (like learning to read). “We are living in a revolution in biology now,” Shonkoff says, one in which new findings are finally giving us a real understanding of the interaction between nature and nurture.
For decades educators have attempted to offset the effects of poverty by immersing disadvantaged children with books and manipulative and engaging them in intellectual activities analogous to those that more affluent children experience on a daily basis. But researchers are finding that the intellectual stimulation is less important that the social and emotional stimulation. After recounting the trend toward oversimplification of the research findings, Mike Kemp concludes with this potential means of addressing the impacts of poverty on the development of a child’s brain:
Schools could add social and emotional learning courses to their elementary through high school curricula, designed to help children recognize and pay attention to their feelings, especially while coping with trauma and stress. Such courses could become requirements, like reading and math. That would require a massive re-evaluation of the priorities of our educational and development institutions—and some way of funding any new programs and tools deemed necessary.
Getting that to happen could take the kind of power wielded by Congress, local governments, school boards or the U.S. legal system. In 2013, Clancy Blair of the New York University Neuroscience and Education Lab, led a study that found the time a child spent in poverty, and in a household filled with chaos, was significantly related to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Blair says similar findings could be leveraged the way research in the past linked detrimental health outcomes to tobacco, sugar-filled drinks and junk food, and ultimately changed policies and regulation of those industries. Similarly, findings like those in Blair’s study could be used support legislation or even a landmark lawsuit targeting overcrowded living conditions, or unaffordable housing and child care.
Other systems that reinforce the cycle of poverty—inferior schools and community infrastructure; poorly protected neighborhoods and unchecked child abuse; environmental pollution; or lack of health care, public transportation and green space—could face legal challenges or new laws.
As one who is swayed by research findings and who believes that public education can make a difference, I would readily support any legislation that addressed the findings of researchers like Clancy Blair. But as one who witnesses legislators who deny climate change, who demonize teachers instead of making investments of any kind in public schools, and who want cheap, fast, and easy fixes to the complicated problems cited in this article, I fear that nothing will happen…. and the results of doing nothing will be an increase in the kind of heartless children like those described at the beginning of the article: ones who can witness a videotape of Malala Yousafzai and feel “nothing”. If we spend nothing on the improvement of social development we will get children who feel nothing.
Two newspaper articles, one in the New York Times and another in the Valley News in Lebanon, NH, tout recent court rulings that flag inequities in funding… but each ruling has inherent problems and neither is likely to result in changes any time soon.
In the NYTimes article Elizabeth Harris reports that Connecticut Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford said that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to give all children an adequate education. His lengthy decision was rendered in response to a suit filed in 2005— over ten years ago— and includes directives to comprehensively review and overhaul the entire Connecticut education system. His sweeping decision effectively acknowledges that while funding equity is clearly required, improvements in the quality of teaching and increased accountability are equally important. After citing the gross inequities in Connecticut school districts, he calls for “…the attorney general’s office to submit plans within 180 days to fix the areas he had found deficient.” As Ms. Harris notes, “It was not immediately clear who might draw up the proposals or whether the state would appeal the decision.”
Here’s my take on what will happen in Connecticut: 180 days will pass and no plans will be developed and before the 180 days is up the decision will be appealed. Another possibility is that Governor Malloy, a neoliberal “reformer”, will use this as a path for him to introduce privatized deregulated schools into the 30 drastically underfunded districts. Either way, after 180 days pass another school year will be lost making it exactly 12 years between the filing of the lawsuit and any change in the ways schools are funded in Connecticut: exactly the time it takes for a student to progress through school. The bottom line: another generation of children raised in poverty will be lost.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire Valley News reporter Tim Camerato reported that a Judge ruled in favor of plaintiffs from several districts who claimed that the state shortchanged them in the funding of their schools. He writes:
As part of New Hampshire’s constitutional obligation to provide every child with an adequate education, the state funds are based on a formula that considers a district’s student enrollment, the number of children using free and reduced lunch programs, those in English as a second language classes and special education programs, said Caitlin Davis, an internal auditor at the state Department of Education.
Since 2009, each district’s adequacy aid also has been subject to a cap based on a percentage of what the district received in previous years.
Since 2012, the cap on the city of Dover, N.H., short-changed the Seacoast community by more than $7 million and left other communities without $79 million in necessary funding, according to the city’s lawsuit against the state.
In its lawsuit, Dover argued the cap violated the New Hampshire constitution, which previous court rulings have determined calls for state funding of education. Dover also wanted the state to repay all of the money lost to each affected community.
Judge Brian Tucker ruled in the city’s favor on the first argument, but said school districts only are able to collect on the 2016 fiscal year because the money needed to reimburse school districts for previous fiscal years hasn’t been raised.
Having worked in New Hampshire in the 1980s and again in the 2000s I am painfully aware of the New Hampshire legislatures reluctance to meet court mandates. The original lawsuits regarding funding inequities were filed in the 1980s and when they were inadequately addressed another set of suits were filed in the early 2000s. The adequacy aid referenced in Mr. Camerato’s article was the latest effort to address inequity and it, too, has fallen short of the mark because it was insufficiently funded. Will this suit solve the problem? Probably not:
The affected Upper Valley school districts celebrated the decision, but were cautious of a possible appeal.
As intervenors in the case, House Speaker Shawn Jasper and Senate President Chuck Morse, both Republicans, can pursue further court action.
“Thinking that this ruling may be appealed, it could be a while before we know if this (reimbursement) will actually happen or not for Grantham,” Superintendent Jacqueline Guillette said in an email on Wednesday. “In the meantime, we will be working with our attorney to review the judge’s ruling and to explore all options that the (School Board) will have should Grantham receive this money.”
Like the children raised in poverty in Connecticut, New Hampshire’s poor children will need to wait a little bit longer to see if something can be worked out…. Sadly, children raised in poverty in over 40 other states will also be waiting….
Retired English professor TJRay wrote an op ed piece for the Oxford (MS) Eagle decrying the recent action of the legislature and State Board in Mississippi, actions that follow the ALEC inspired “reform” playbook to a “T”. Mr. Ray’s essay describes how the legislature passed a bill that makes it possible for public schools to be closed and replaced with charter schools if they are graded lower than a “B”. And now, only weeks later, the State Board– appointed by the same political party that is in the legislature– is ready to enact a new rating system that limits the number of schools that can receive an “A” rating and mandates a minimum number of schools that must receive an “F” rating.
As Mr. Ray notes:
The object (of the bill that passed) was not to improve the public schools in question; it was to feather the nests of the corporations and groups that set up charter schools. An interesting inquiry might pose the question: How many names on those corporate charters match names on generous campaign donors? Well, obviously they’re getting their payback for putting the folks back where they can wreak havoc in the state.
And Mr. Ray also questions the rationale for the “reform” movement in Mississippi offered by the State’s Commissioner of Higher Education:
The Commissioner of Higher Education said that the foundation of education that students will need to succeed in universities is not being provided. One response might simply be that every young person doesn’t need to succeed at a university, may not even be suited to academics at all.
The oligarchs manufactured need to prepare all students for college leads to artificially high standards which leads to artificially difficult tests which leads to high failure rates in public schools which leads to the need to close those schools and replace them with privatized schools run by the oligarchs. And to make sure this machinery is well-oiled the oligarchs help elect politicians who support this “system” that keeps them enriched and a large number of children on a path to “failure”…. or at least on a path to work for lower wages.
New York magazine’s Intelligencer blog today featured an article on the decline in spending on public education, a phenomenon writer Eric Levitz characterized as a “disinvestment from our nation’s future”. The diminishment of public education spending described in the article is appalling:
In May 2008, U.S. school departments employed 8.4 million teachers, administrators, and other staff. Today, they employ just 8.2 million, despite the fact that those schools now serve 1 million more students, according to Department of Education estimates. And while those teachers are being asked to serve more students, they’re making less money: According to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, weekly wages for public-school teachers have declined 5 percent over the past five years… Between 2008 and 2014 (the last year for which we have full data), state public-education funding declined 6.6 percent. While the stimulus money was still flowing, Uncle Sam was able to ameliorate this austerity somewhat, but still left schools spending 2.4 percent less per student over that period, when adjusting for inflation. And when the stimulus wore off, state and local governments failed to pick up the slack: In 2012, total school funding fell for the first time since 1977. As FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman notes, this cutback wasn’t concentrated on administrative salaries or extravagant construction — instructional spending has fallen at roughly the same rate as overall budgets.
The New York article covered some of the same ground as the NYTimes editorial I blogged about yesterday, emphasizing the impact (and preposterousness) of State-level Reagonomics. Noting that the graying of America will drive up retirement and health care costs and that the reduction in pay for teachers is making the profession less attractive, Eric Levitz concludes with this mind-boggling choice:
In the long run, it will take either a drastic increase in federal investment — and/or the proliferation of low-cost robots — for American schools to truly leave no child behind.
Given the choice between “pro-union Government run schools” and a robot that can teach children at home or in, say, a church basement, what do you think taxpayers will vote for?