The brain, poverty, and education

In 2006 I attended an Americans for the Arts evening at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. William Safire delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy. He talked of a three-year study begun by The Dana Foundation to examine whether early arts training by young children can cause changes in the brain that enhance other aspects of cognition. The goal was to find correlation between the two. Safire was chairman of The Dana Foundation at the time. (Results showed plenty of causation but no correlation. Check out the subsequent report about the Learning, Arts, and the Brain (Neuroeducation) Summit).

Anyway, that was when I first heard of The Dana Foundation and their work in neuroeducation. I signed up for their publication, "Brain in the News" - a digest of published studies, articles, commentary, etc. about the brain. (My interest in brain research stems from a college project on the topic involving a halved cauliflower, labeled "Left" and "Right", as a visual aid.)

This summer, "Brain in the News" published a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Researchers reported a direct correlation between poverty and the brain development of children: poverty hampers the growth of gray matter, impairing their academic performance. Poor children tend to have as much as 10% less gray matter in several areas of the brain associated with academic skills (study published in JAMA Pediatrics).

Now, poverty is no longer "just a social problem".

One of the most challenging and troubling aspects in education and public policy is poverty. President Lyndon Johnson declared "war on poverty" more than 50 years ago and introduced a set of social programs to combat it, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965.

Poverty among children younger than 18 began dropping even before the war on poverty:

  • 27.3% in 1959
  • 23% in 1964
  • 14% by 1969
Since then, however, the childhood poverty rate has risen, fallen, and, since the 2007-08 financial crisis, risen again.

Today, a majority of children in US public schools live in poverty. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is a response. Within the law is a "community eligibility provision" which allows districts and schools with high poverty rates (40% or higher) to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. Breakfast in the classroom, along with summer learning, early learning, and expanded learning time are strategies known to have a positive impact on children in poverty and their learning.

While it's an improvement for students to receive these meals, and in spite of the fact that there is no real change in poverty status, the student low-income data (i.e., free and reduced lunch) used in the foundation budget calculation, in the allocation formulas for other state and federal grant programs, and in our school and district accountability system must transition to other income data sources to determine what it means to be poor in Massachusetts.
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