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Time to address child poverty and high dropout rates in Maine

Publication Date: 2010-09-24

This is from The Times Recordin Maine, Sept. 24, 2010.

What a good idea: Offering suggestions for further reading.

I have often wondered why, as a society, we find it so difficult to address crucial problems like child poverty, child neglect, high dropout rates and student underachievement. Instead, we grind and rattle our way down the road until the wheels fall off the cart. We are now at the breakdown point with regard to our at-risk kids, and the costs of doing business as usual are bankrupting us.

Consider the following:

  • On average, 21 students in Maine drop out of school each day, with the class of 2009 estimated to have lost 3,800 kids.

  • The societal cost for each high-school dropout is approximately $292,000, due to reduced wages and taxes, welfare and high health-care costs, and, as is all to often the case, the costs of incarceration.

  • Dropouts are 3 1/2 times more likely to wind up in jail than non-dropouts.

  • It costs approximately $47,000 per year to incarcerate someone â€" more than the cost of sending that person to Harvard ($43,000).

    The price of locking someone up, of course, doesn̢۪t begin to take into account the excruciatingly high emotional price crime takes on victims, families and society.

    On average, the United States has five times the incarceration rate of other industrialized nations. Many states, including Maine, have called for drastic reforms, especially in early childhood education because such high dropout and incarceration rates have become unsustainable.

    Statistically, the vast majority of dropouts come from poverty and will return to it. Thus, poverty creates more poverty, which creates an increasing burden on schools and society.

    Because I work in the public schools, I can see student disengagement and the dropout problem up close. Most of these at-risk kids show signs of being in trouble way before they drop out. In fact, educational psychologists have known for decades that the children most at risk, children born into poverty, begin kindergarten way behind their peers.

    For instance, a typical impoverished child will hear on average about 3 million fewer spoken words in the home prior to age 4 than his or her middle-class counterparts. By first grade, he will know or recognize only half as many words as his peers. We know that a student's oral vocabulary is largely predictive of later reading competency.

    Moreover, a child's proficiency at reading is one of the most reliable indicators of how that child will do in school overall.

    Vocabulary is just one of many aspects of neurocognitive development and academic readiness impacted by poverty. Unfortunately, studies show that students who start school with low skill levels are unlikely to catch up with their peers later on. Imagine the sense of ongoing frustration, discouragement and even shame felt by those trapped at the bottom of the academic heap. Whether these kids come from poverty or not, those at the bottom academically are the ones most likely to disengage from school altogether. Many will develop behavioral and psychological problems along the way, including criminality, and drug and alcohol abuse.

    Although addressing these problems will be challenging, there are some reasons to be hopeful. We are currently gaining a clearer understanding of the mechanisms by which poverty, or the problems commonly associated with it, can lead to such poor cognitive outcomes. Recent research has identified at least four major pathways by which poverty impacts the neurodevelopment of children. Scientists, making use of recent breakthroughs in neuroimaging technologies, can now pinpoint many of these pathways and their physical effects on the brain.

    Apparently, this cognitive damage occurs in several areas of the brain, but is largely found in specific areas associated with planning, attention, impulse control, and working memory â€"--all areas crucial to such tasks as reading and writing. (Incidentally, these are many of the same areas that make up the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, another increasingly prevalent and costly problem facing schools and society.)

    One of the major pathways through which this damage occurs in developing brains seems to be through stress. Psychologists have demonstrated a robust correlation between poverty and elevated stress in the household. The infant brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of this stress, which impacts memory along with other neurocognitive functions.

    Another pathway appears to be a lack of stimulation and enrichment in the home and environment. We know intuitively that kids need to be read to, involved in open-ended conversations, taken to museums and libraries, etc. The difference now is that we can see the areas of the brain that are impacted by the lack of a stimulating environment.

    A third way that damage occurs is through a lack of secure infant-parent attachment and prolonged infant-parent separation. Unattached or neglected children tend to be more anxious and less likely to develop the kinds of open-ended exploratory behaviors of secure children. These pathways of learning simply tend to shut down.

    Again, cognitive psychologists have known this for a long time.

    What's new is that we can now pinpoint this lack of neural development in brain scans.

    Lastly, and perhaps most frighteningly, there is growing evidence of the lasting damage done by neurotoxins in the environment, such as lead, alcohol and cigarette smoke. Neural development is both highly choreographed and crucially timed. Neurons must migrate and extend themselves to make literally billions of crucial connections in the developing brain. Fetal and childhood exposure to neurotoxins can have consequences that are dire and far reaching.

    Neurotoxins disproportionately affect poor children. For instance, lead paint exposure tends to occur in older, sub-standard housing. Similarly, cigarette smoke, which affects both fetuses and children exposed to it in the home, is much more prevalent in lower income households.

    It is interesting that at the very same time "No Child Left Behind" has become the law of the land we are gaining a powerful new understanding of the underlying neurological mechanisms that tie poverty to poor cognitive outcomes, poor school performance and ultimately to our unsustainable dropout and incarceration rates. Through the lens of neuroscience we now see a much clearer picture of why children are indeed "left behind."

    I believe this new knowledge demands of us a new kind of response. I know that as a teacher I have begun to see my students with learning and behavioral problems in a new light and, I hope, with renewed determination and compassion as well.

    As a society I hope we can begin to look honestly at the needs of our at-risk children. We have now begun to understand their stories in the light of poverty and neurological vulnerability; we should take this knowledge and address these problems at their roots. We need to know that from a fiscal standpoint -- if not a moral one -- we can no longer afford to ignore the problems of our disadvantaged and cognitively at-risk children.

    Jon Riggleman is a teacher at Brunswick High School. For a list of bibliographical sources and suggestions for further reading, please contact him at jriggleman@brunswick.k12.me.us

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