Saturday, March 03, 2007

It Takes More than a School to Raise a Child

I don't think I am becoming any more conservative so that must mean that David Brooks is becoming more liberal. Twice in 24 hours I have found myself agreeing with him. Last night on PBS' Newshour he and Mark Shields were commenting on Defense Secretary Robert Gates' firing yesterday of the Secretary of the Army. Brooks and Shields agreed that for the first time in six years someone in the Bush Administration stepped forward into the public and admitted that something was wrong - in this case outpatient treatment of veterans of the war - and then immediately fired the people who screwed up. What a concept.

Today in his New York Times commentary Brooks talks about why it is our schools can't teach children:

All the presidential candidates this year will talk about education. The conventional ones will talk about improving the schools. The creative ones will talk about improving the lives of students.

The conventional ones, though they don’t know it, are prisoners of the dead husk of behaviorism. They will speak of education as if children were blank slates waiting to have ideas inputted into their brains with some efficient delivery mechanism.

The creative ones will finally absorb the truth found in decades of research: the relationships children have outside school shape their performance inside the school.

The conventional candidates will give the same old education reform speeches, trumpeting this or that bureaucratic reshuffle. The creative ones will give speeches like the one David Cameron, who is reviving the British Tory party, gave last month. They will talk, as Cameron did, about the mushy things, like love and attachment, and will say, as Cameron did, “Family relationships matter more than anything else.”

They will understand that schools filled with students who can’t control their impulses, who can’t focus their attention and who can’t regulate their emotions will not succeed, no matter how many reforms are made by governors, superintendents or presidents.

These candidates will emphasize that education is a cumulative process that begins at the dawn of life and builds early in life as children learn how to learn. These candidates will point out that powerful social trends — the doubling of single-parent families over the past generation, the rise of divorce rates — mean that government has to rethink its role. They’ll note that if we want to have successful human capital policies, we have to get over the definition of education as something that takes place in schools between the hours of 8 and 3, between the months of September and June, and between the ages of 5 and 18.

As Bob Marvin of the University of Virginia points out, there is a mountain of evidence demonstrating that early childhood attachments shape lifelong learning competence.

Children do have inborn temperaments and intelligence. Nevertheless, students make the most of their natural dispositions when they have a secure emotional base from which to explore, and even the brightest children stumble when there is chaos inside.

Research over the past few decades impressively shows that children who emerge from attentive, attuned parental relationships do better in school and beyond. They tend to choose friends wisely. They handle frustration better. They’re more resilient in the face of setbacks. They grow up to become more productive workers.

On the other hand, as Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania has found, students who do not feel emotionally safe tend not to develop good memories (which is consistent with cortisol experiments in animals). Students from less stimulating environments have worse language skills.

The question, of course, is, What can government do about any of this? The answer is that there are programs that do work to help young and stressed mothers establish healthier attachments. These programs usually involve having nurses or mature women make a series of home visits to give young mothers the sort of cajoling and practical wisdom that in other times would have been delivered by grandmothers or elders...

To Brooks' credit he doesn't preach to us about the "breakdown" of the family and blame it on liberals or gays or anyone else. He simply takes note of the fact that there is a legitimate role for government to play here outside of the schools to provide support that children living in difficult family situations need.

The flip side is that you can't simply look at test scores and say "our schools are failing our children."

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