The federal No Child Left Behind law, George W. Bush’s signature legislation, mandates that the achievement gap among public school students vanish by 2014; when all students will magically reach “proficiency” on standardized tests. As school starts this fall in Topeka, across Kansas, and across the nation; the bar of “adequate yearly progress” rises once again.
A lesser-known Bush initiative was his 2004 promise to send manned missions to Mars. “The desire to explore and understand is part of our character,” Bush said. “Human beings are headed into the cosmos.” Bush spoke of permanent moon-based colonies by 2020, followed by trips to Mars and beyond.
While Bush’s ambitions appear admirable, his cocky confidence betrays his underlying ignorance of both education and rocket science. Neither goal stands much chance of succeeding; and the reasons why present some interesting analogies.
There are scores of challenges associated with interplanetary travel; including cosmic radiation, equipment failures, collisions, and psychological problems. Let’s focus on one problem in particular: rapid loss of muscle mass and bone density experienced by astronauts as a result of long-term zero gravity conditions.
We all expend considerable effort – continuously – to fight against gravity. The bones and muscles of our backs, hips, and legs support our body weight for our entire lives. Even when we sit or lie down, our bodies still bear the force of attraction between our own mass and the mass of Earth. Aside from the occasional short-lived free-fall, there is no escape – unless, of course, we leave the planet.
Fighting gravity is a lot of work, to be sure. But it turns out that our constant battle against gravity is absolutely essential to our health. Our bodies build and maintain bone and muscle in response to gravity. Without this constant stimulation, we quickly lose bone density and muscle mass.
In zero gravity, bone density deteriorates at rates up to six times greater than the rate in women with severe osteoporosis. Similar losses occur with muscle mass. Astronaut David Wolf spent four and a half months on Mir; roughly half the time it would take to travel to Mars. In four months he lost 40% of his muscle mass.
With such dramatic losses of bone and muscle strength, astronauts arriving on Mars might very well break a leg once they stepped onto the Martian landscape. If Mars’ 0.3 G weren’t enough to injure astronauts, the forces required to leave again certainly could.
Earth’s gravity provides constant stimulation that is absolutely essential for growth and maintenance of healthy bone and muscle. Likewise, an environment filled with intellectual stimulation is essential for healthy brain development. Like any other organ, the brain will atrophy without healthy stimulation.
Children raised in poverty receive less cognitive stimulation than children from more affluent families. Impoverished children have fewer toys, fewer books, and often forgo the visits to zoos, museums, and such that are enjoyed by their more affluent peers
One study found the average total 1-on-1 picture book reading time from birth to Kindergarten age to be 25 hours for impoverished children; while their more affluent peers experienced 1,700 hours. This type of cognitive stimulation is a powerful and reliable predictor of language ability. Language ability, in turn, predicts success in school.
But reading to children isn’t just about learning words or content. Reading to children, taking them to a zoo, or any host of other activities enjoyed by affluent kids, establishes a nurturing social and emotional environment. This type of social/emotional nurturing is a powerful and reliable predictor of memory ability. Memory ability, in turn, predicts success in school.
Children in poverty are like astronauts in zero-gravity. Both suffer the adverse effects of their vacuous worlds. But unlike the impoverished child, the astronaut’s anemic experience is temporary. The child’s experience often begins before birth lasts for life.
Politicians and pundits are quick to dismiss poverty as irrelevant to student’s success or failure. The problem, they say, is bad teaching. Professional educators who say otherwise are accused of “making excuses” or “supporting the status quo.” These catchy one-liners help garner votes for politicians and donations for whichever education reform foundations are in vogue this month; but they do nothing to help struggling students.
With sufficient resources, drive, and determination; humans may one day walk on Mars. But we won’t get there by denying the facts of physics and biology. Likewise, with sufficient resources, commitment, and social reforms; we may one day close the achievement gap. But we won’t do it by denying the facts of poverty and biology.
Money matters. Reality matters. Whether it’s closing the achievement gap or flying to Mars, giant leaps don’t come cheap. And they don’t come because of magical thinking. That much should be obvious to anyone.
It’s not rocket science.