Saturday, December 6, 2008

Poverty hurts

Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult. We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.

In the predictable media storm that passes for rational discourse, one side will argue that it's about genes or laziness or lack of values, and has little to do with environment, and the other will counter that the children have been damaged by preventable practices imposed by a culture largely indifferent to the underclass.

A third contingent will nod their heads sagely, note that correlation does not mean causation, then fade away with smirks on their faces, a bit too pleased with their ability to avoid any discussion with substance. Dante has a special place for them.

Monday morning thousands of classrooms will be filled with children who lack something critical inside their craniums, just as they did last week, and just as they will next.

Jokes will be made in faculty lounges--"I knew they were brain damaged"--and the cynicism will make a tough job even tougher.

Still, this is big news.

Neuroscientists have found through EEG readings that children from lower economic classes have changes in their prefrontal cortex. Bad changes. This is the part of the brain that helps plan things, the control center that coordinates what you think with what you do; this is where the brain says "Whoa, cowboy, think twice before you throw a chair at the teacher." This is where you pick up on social cues.

In short, we now have organic findings for what teachers have known ever since there was a wrong side of the tracks. Kids from wealthier zip codes have, on average, a better toolbag than those from less glamorous neighborhoods.

(The logo looks like the wall of a bloody crime scene, a child's last clutches as she collapsed against a wall. Maybe my frontal lobe needs polishing, too.)

Does this mean anything at the individual student level? No.

Does this mean we are to expect less from any particular child? No.

Does this mean a school district in 90002 (Watts) may have more difficulty than 90210 (Beverly Hills) jumping over the NCLB hurdle? Emphatically yes.

Educating children did not get any easier knowing this. But educating a few adults in Washington just might, provided, of course, that their prefrontal lobes work.


Bonnie said...

I feel the truly brain damaged folks are those who believe it's possible or desirable for all students to be "proficient," as judged by a standardized test. Instead we should strive for all students to develop their strengths and the skills needed to lead happy productive lives.

And, if proficient means average, like it does in Massachusetts then (as I read recently), "one or two students will ace the test, most will fall somewhere in the high C, low B range, and a few will randomly fill in bubbles on the scantron." As a teacher, I'd rather make bread with them : )

Thanks for sharing the link to this research.

John Spencer said...

Hearing this news is difficult for me. I can easily see teachers using it as an excuse for low standards on one hand and as an easy way to blame "those kids" on the other hand. I can imagine some horrible misinterpretations for areas like discipline and classroom management.

However, you're right. It is huge and it does suggest we need a non-polemic, authentic dialogue as a result.

Clay Burell said...

BoingBoing cites a study showing computer gaming can help the deficient frontal lobes "catch up."

My god, is that really NCLB's official motto? If so, your rorschach of the thing was spot on. Talk about a Freudian fek-up.

doyle said...


You're welcome! I wish I could figure out a way to make bread. I've gotten as far as grinding a few wheat berries grown in class and mixing that with a larger batch of flour--some of them decided they'd rather not eat the bread after we discussed where the some of the CO2 molecules may have originated.

(Saying "mitochondria" doesn't work--describing the journey of a CO2 molecule from deep inside the body, explicitly describing how it got there and how it leaves, does.)


I've followed your words for a few months now, and enjoy your discussions. I know you've been fighting hard not to let cultural expectations define your students, and I think you've taken some flak for this.

It will be interesting to see what folks do with this information (if anything). We work with kids, not blocks of data, but we may need to modify our methods of judging what defines a school's success. Not sure how we do that.


Yep, that is indeed the logo--you can't make this stuff up.

Can I say "fek" on your blog?

Clay Burell said...

Michael, you remember that my spam-catcher caught one of your comments once? It was over a taboo word (and I'm sure a lovely one, though I prefer the bedroom words over the bathroom ones).

So "fek" is a great way, Irish-inspired, to trick the robot gods.

And wtf (another trick) are you asking permission for? You know you've never needed it in the past. Or did you forget you were my lawyer?

Clay Burell said...

And thanks for the correction. Of course I meant "logo," not "motto."

If you were a Wordpress self-hoster (do it soon, Michael. I'm the voice of experience on this one.), you could have an "edit comment" plugin that plays nice with your common taters.

Yes, I'm feeling silly, December and all: "Why didn't the King of Potatoes allow his daughter to marry Dan Rather? -- Because he's a common tater."

doyle said...

Dear Clay,

I read it as logo--I didn't realize you wrote "motto" until both you and Leslie pointed it out. This is scary, since I would have sworn in court it said "logo".

I had forgotten it was your spam detector.

And yes, I need Wordpress--I need to find a host, though, and am open to recommendations.

"Fek" sounds like my daughter's blog ("fookinell" or some such)--and she's the only one of us left who knows how to speak Irish.

Sean Nash said...

1. you're clay's attorney? wow. things you never knew... i bet that keeps you busy, eh?

2. since you claim Ireland in even the slightest way... then Sean Patrick here gives you explicit permission to type even "fookinell" on my blog. wow.

Sean Nash said...

Jokes will be made in faculty lounges--"I knew they were brain damaged"--and the cynicism will make a tough job even tougher.

this one just makes me sigh. sigh in agreement and frustration. you really do have to avoid that. that is a life sucker and i know you know that well.

sorry to be so forgetful tonight and litter the place up with double-posts. ;-)