Education Policymakers Embrace Brain Findings
Synapses, PET scans, brain plasticity--terms like these are likely to be heard at a gathering of neuroscientists, not a conference for educators.
But, along with blurry images of babies' brains--like those shown to school leaders and state officials at a recent midweek workshop here--they are generating more excitement in many states than a round of good test results.
"This graph shows that in the first few years, there's a huge increase in the amount of glucose being used," Diane Chugani said as she pointed to one of the slides used in her presentation. Looking at glucose is a way to view activity in the brain, explained Ms. Chugani, an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and radiology at Wayne State University in Detroit. She is also on the staff of the Children's Hospital of Michigan, where she and her husband, Dr. Harry T. Chugani, use positron emission tomography--or PET scans--to study brain activity.
With state and national leaders giving renewed attention to the needs of young children, forums like these, organized by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, are in great demand, and they appear to be making an impact on state policy.
But while some observers say the forums' focus on research is generating needed discussion on early-childhood matters, others in the scientific community are wondering if educators are moving too fast.
Since last summer, the ECS has held 16 such workshops, convening them in hotel ballrooms, conference centers, state capitols, and governors' mansions to talk about the intricate development of babies' brains and the implications that neuroscience has for state policies on child care and early education.
Participants at the workshops have included governors, school administrators, legislators, child-care providers, and human-services officials.
While the New Jersey meeting was designed for a small audience--about 50 people--attendance at most of the sessions has reached a few hundred.
"It's astonishing how much of an impact they've had, primarily because we are dealing with the people who can make a difference," said Frank Newman, the president of the ECS.
Several more meetings are scheduled this year. And those who have already attended the presentations are giving them high marks and using them to build support for new early-childhood initiatives.
In his fiscal 1999 budget, for example, West Virginia's Republican governor, Cecil Underwood, requested more than $2 million to expand parent education services, develop and expand standards for preschool programs, and add more "starting points" centers in the state, which provide a range of health and educational programs for families with young children. Legislators responded by passing a budget that includes $1.2 million for the three initiatives.
And in Rhode Island, a broad proposal called Starting RIght would increase child-care subsidies, expand preschool programs, extend health insurance to child-care providers, and increase related training opportunities.
The conference she attended "was an affirmation of things that we've known all along, but we didn't know why," Kathy Smith, an executive assistant to Democratic Gov. Frank L. O'Bannon of Indiana, said in an interview. "In a legislative world, it's important to have scientific underpinnings of things we do in education."
Videotapes of the conference have even been distributed throughout Indiana for use in professional-development programs for teachers.
In Georgia, after attending one of the ECS sessions last October, Democratic Gov. Zell Miller announced that he wanted to spend $105,000 to distribute free classical-music cassettes or compact discs to all parents of newborns. But reaction from some members of the legislature was so negative that the governor backed off from his plan to spend state money for that purpose. Donations from private organizations will now be used.
In Florida, a similar proposal, called "Beethoven's Babies," has been introduced. State Sen. William H. Turner and Rep. Lesley J. Miller, both Democrats, want state-financed child-care and early-education programs to include classical music in their daily activities.
Mozart or Metallica?
Politicians are often accused of ignoring research when they implement educational policy. But when it comes to brain science, some members of the scientific community are questioning whether educators and policymakers are getting carried away.
"I think things are being said that don't have much scientific basis," said Steve Petersen, an associate professor of neurology at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. "Neuroscience doesn't tell you anything about whether you should play Mozart or Metallica for your baby at six months."
Mr. Petersen was invited to participate in the first ECS conference on neuroscience, which studies the functions and abnormalities of the nervous system. That meeting was held in Denver during the summer of 1996. Mr. Peterson said he had no idea that similar workshops would be held all over the country.
Mr. Petersen is not the only one who says it's premature to be talking about brain research and education in the same breath.
John T. Bruer said some of the statements being described as new brain research are actually "folk myths that have been around for 30 years." The president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, a St. Louis philanthropy that supports research in cognitive science, Mr. Bruer has been critical of the work the ECS and others, such as actor and director Rob Reiner, are doing to disseminate information about the brain to the public.
Mr. Bruer argues that most of what is known about development and learning in young children is drawn from cognitive psychology--the study of the mind or mental functions--instead of neuroscience, and that the bridge between the two fields is still decades away.
"We just don't know much about how synapses relate to behavior," he added, referring to the neural connections in the brain that rapidly increase during the early years of life.
Researchers Charles A. Nelson, from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and Floyd E. Bloom, from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., took this position when they wrote that "knowledge of the neurobiological forces that shape, and are shaped by, behavioral development remains primative." Their article appeared in the October 1997 edition of the journal Child Development.
The arguments that educators and child advocates make about the benefits of high-quality child care, preschool programs, and certain parenting practices aren't really wrong; they're just exaggerated, Mr. Bruer says.
He's concerned that lawmakers might try to reduce spending on education for older children, or take it away from other populations, in the fight to create and expand services for babies and young children. He added that the sense of urgency about the first three years of life can also create needless stress for parents.
'A Wake-Up Call'
Mr. Newman of the ECS agrees there is a risk that research about something as complex as the brain will be oversimplified.
But he believes it would be foolish to not share with educators what is already known--that the brain is still developing after birth and that infants and young children are influenced by their environments.
"Some of this stuff is just painfully evident," he said.
He added that he considers it arrogant for an expert from the field of cognitive science to say that findings in neuroscience and their education implications should only be interpreted by someone from the cognitive science field.
Michael Levine, a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said that if the current attention to the brain leads to public debate and discussion about services for young children, that's healthy.
A 1994 Carnegie report, "Starting Points," stimulated much of the current interest among policymakers in the early years. And it was that report that Mr. Reiner says heavily influenced him and made him get involved in "I Am Your Child," a public-awareness campaign about early-childhood development.
"Whatever science explains it, the first years are a critical period," Mr. Levine said. "It's a wake-up call. That's what we were trying to do."
But he added that leaders should be cautious about shaping programs around research that is still emerging. Much of the scientific work on brains has been done on animals, he noted, and PET scans are usually performed on children with illnesses, such as epilepsy.
While some people are using brain research to justify more spending on improving child-care and early-education programs, others say the findings so far merely underscore a need for more research.
The U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Early Childhood Development, which is part of the office of educational research and improvement, will hold a small, one-day meeting this month to explore where scientists and educators should go from here.
"I think we all agree that while a lot of this stuff that is coming out is exciting, we don't know what the next steps are," said Don Bailey, the director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He is involved in organizing the session.
Some educators say they recognize that they are treading on unfamiliar ground.
"We need to be careful," said Barbara Burgess, the early-childhood coordinator for the Rhode Island Department of Education. "We don't want to take the information and make recommendations that are so narrow. We don't want to design curriculum around it."