No Excuses for Drain Bamage


I was going to write a lot more when I did this post, but I got sidetracked by something I read here in the Bracey Report 2009. I was arrested while reading the account of a child who died for want of dental care, but it was the following paragraphs that left me both breathless, and nodding my head in recognition:

We can imagine the misery of this boy and certainly should consider how much he was able to pay attention in class during  the months of his ordeal. And when his 10-year-old brother with a swollen jaw complained of a tooth ache, it again took months to find an oral surgeon, who found he had six abscessed teeth. There is no press report on how he was doing in school during these months. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, untreated cavities are nearly three times as prevalent among poor children as among middle-class children.

Children with a mouthful of aching teeth can’t concentrate; children who can’t see will have reading difficulties; children who  can’t hear what the teacher is saying will likely look like they aren’t paying attention.

Much of that section of Bracey’s report is about  the effects of poverty on the brain, and its relationship to the achievement gap. This is  based on a study that started making the rounds about a year ago, and some other work as well, showing that poverty has a physical effect on the brain. This brought up the question among those of us teaching in these communities about how deterministic this was. Often when educators bring up arguments like Bracey’s we get asked, well how is that different from the argument that Charles Murray makes? First, he argues pure genetics and is extremely deterministic in his conclusions about how low poor folks and minorities will perform. In I Worry: If Poor People are Stupid, Why Bother? sought to answer this by saying, hey we need to stop blaming the victim, and also asked that we not paint the findings too widely, and make them a self-fulfilling prophecy. What I started to think about was my own experience raising a non-neurotypical child, and how different parents approach this challenge, so I’ll offer it up in the hope it offers some insight.

My son was diagnosed with autism quite late. He was 8 years old at the time of his diagnosis. At that time, I began attending parent advocacy meetings (I strongly recommend FEAT Families for Early Autism Treatment, or similar groups to anyone family that has a spectrum diagnosis), and we began attending parenting classes to learn what to do to help Leroy. I was told at the advocacy meeting that I should get a comfortable car because I would be spending a lot of time driving Leroy to various therapy appointments, and that typically in ASD (autism spectrum disorder) families, mom stays home and takes the child to therapy/home-schools the child/does home therapy, while dad works a heck of a lot to pay for it all. I offer this not just to share the inherent sexism of this arrangement (which we do not replicate in our family), but as a setting for what happened next.

Parenting class was interesting because it involved both parents, mom and dad. It was based on ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) and had us coming up with a behavior we wanted to eliminate in our child, and plan to do that. One father, who had not been as involved as his wife in their son’s treatment, said flat out, “why should I expect him to be able to do this like a normal kid, when his brain isn’t normal?” In other words, why should I bother if he has brain damage. The wiring of the autistic brain is different than neuro-typicals, but the dad didn’t realize that this was not destiny and could be affected by “working” on his child’s behavior. The rest of us spent a good amount of time explaining about neuro-plasticity and how you could affect not just behavior but brain wiring by doing the therapy.

Here are some  of the lessons from I’ve taken from my reading and experiences:

  1. Poverty and biology are not destiny, autism shows that early intervention makes a difference, studies of early childhood education can make a difference. The bad news, this takes a lot of effort, and a lot of money. Harlem Children’s Zone targets pregnant moms, and families with kids in strollers, and spends up to $4,000 above what the state provides for each student of school age.
  2. We’re all individuals, even poor kids, just like there are different degrees of autism. My son was not diagnosed until he was older because he has a milder form of it. My brother had a classic and severe form that showed signs very early. Some kids in poverty will not have brain effects. Some have more functional families and support systems. Some have more “resilience”. Some get lucky and don’t have as many “stressors”. The studies of brain effects from poverty are about the population as a whole, and really can’t speak to the condition of each individual child.
  3. While you need to focus on the individual child, ignoring the context in which they live is really brain dead. Wishing childhood poverty away, will not make it so. Pretending that these kids all start out with the same opportunity is foolish. Expecting schools to erase the income gap without providing significant resources is just cruel, but what do we expect from a society that lets a 12 year old die from an untreated tooth abscess?
  4. Just because we can’t erase the achievement gap doesn’t mean teachers get to “phone in” the job. We can still help our students do better, and that does not require us to be miracle workers.
by posted under politics/policy | 3 Comments »    
3 Comments to

“No Excuses for Drain Bamage”

  1. November 19th, 2009 at 10:15 pm      Reply CircleReader Says:

    Thanks for the personal reality-check on what the Bracey report says! We are discovering so much about how we human beings are rooted in our physical bodies & cells that we’re tempted to forget that we’re also rooted in our experiences & relationships.

    A story in the December, 2009, Atlantic describes some of the ongoing investigation into the question of just how genes interact with environment, and what, in turn, that means for how we look at life prospects for our children & ourselves. It’s well worth a careful read:

  2. November 23rd, 2009 at 1:25 pm      Reply Betsy Says:

    I believe that it is a common mistake to dismiss the effects of poverty by claiming that poverty is not necessarily in itself a hindrance to learning. The effects of poverty can have dire consequences for learners. Thank you for your thoughts on the issue.


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