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Early Learning on the Brain: Policymakers, Take Note

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The day after NBC's Education Nation summit, former NYC school chancellor Harold Levy weighed in on our national conversation about education, on display, for millions, at the broadcaster's annual extravaganza. "Irrelevant and quaint," he declared, lambasting a panel of ten of the nation's governors for missing the boat on the newest wave of scientific research on brain development and early learning. "The power of brain research... to revolutionize teaching and learning simply hadn't gotten through to the governors."

Disheartening, to say the least.

Gregory W.Capelli, co-CEO and Chair of the Apollo Group (whose subsidiary, the University of Phoenix, was a Summit sponsor), introduced the governors. "Our children have returned to the classroom, and they're ready to learn," he said. I'm not sure where this former research analyst for Credit Suisse got his data, or frankly what he's doing mucking around in higher ed, but the last time I checked, only a handful of states were even doing readiness assessments. Moreover, estimates of children unprepared to enter the school house door range from a third to as high as 60 percent, the case in Ohio, for example.

None of the governors, alas, mentioned readiness. They talked of squeezing more value out of the education dollar, increasing accountability, setting the bar higher for standardized tests, charter schools and choice, reducing the ranks of college freshmen in need of remediation (didn't they read the College Board study, spearheaded by former West Virginia Governor Gasper Caperton, recommending universal preschool?) and the need for America to reinvent education (Arne Duncan was in the audience). And with the exception of Oklahoma's Mary Fallin, who recently announced her state's intention to apply for $60 million in federal funding through Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC), no one, not a one, mentioned early childhood education.

Perhaps policymakers are suffering from A.D.D. or amnesia. Too much information overload. Too many leaks at too many points on the education spectrum. But brain research and early childhood, I'll remind them, emerged on the communal radar screen back in the late 90s, providing graphic and vivid representation, to all who would listen, of the dazzling pace and critical nature of development in children's earliest years.

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Still, the high-octane summit riff on the power of brain research by the University of Washington's Patricia Kuhl, brought it all back into 21st century consciousness. "If the U.S. is serious about the commitment to making transformative change in our K-12 educational system," she said, "we will have to take seriously the images you see today." Indeed. Courtesy of magnetoencephalography (MEG, for short, or the latest magnetic resonance technology) the images couldn't be more concrete evidence of brain-building. The rapid proliferation of synapses. How they're strengthened and pruned through stimulating interaction, including talking, singing, and reading. "Biomarkers for future development," Kuhl described the activity captured by MEG. "Children who show lots of activity in response to words and sentences early on develop words faster until the age of three, and their reading readiness is better at the age of five."

As state lawmakers across the country -- from Georgia to New Mexico struggle with competing priorities, continuing to slash investment in early learning, it's time to do a little memory recovery, and take a crash course in neuroscience. The synapses of our youngest citizens are firing right now.