THE BLOG
09/16/2015 12:50 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2016

Learning Gaps In Schools Can't Be Ended By Schools

p_ponomareva via Getty Images

Learning gaps for children continue to grow in a number of cities and states, and most of the efforts by schools and communities to make those gaps disappear have either had minimum impact or have failed.

The gaps are extreme in some settings.

Minnesota, for example, has had the highest average SAT scores in the country for all students for ten consecutive years -- and Minnesota also has the lowest graduation rates in the country for both Hispanic and Native American students. The African American graduation rates are very close to the lowest in the country. The learning gaps in Minnesota are painful and huge.

New York City is facing similar problems. Forbes reported that some New York City schools are doing so badly that not a single Black or Hispanic student passed their standardized tests in 2013. That was true for ninety New York Schools. The mayor of New York is making closing those learning gaps a priority for that city.

The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul have both expressed similar intentions.

On the opposite coast from New York City, there are significant learning gaps in all the major cities.

The Oakland Unified School District task force on male student achievement reported that 80 percent of the white male students in their schools passed the high school reading performance test -- but only 42 percent of the African American male students passed that same test.

The significant difference in the testing outcomes for those Oakland students was not based on any differences in the education approaches used by the Oakland schools for either set of students. The schools, themselves, clearly did not cause those differences to happen.

All of the tested students had the same teachers, the same books, the same classrooms, the same audio-visual support tools, and the same teaching techniques. Sheer logistical realities in that setting make it clear and obvious that the differences in test scores between those students were not caused by the schools themselves. There were no functional educational differences in the Oakland Schools for the students who ended up with such different test score outcomes.

There were, however, some very different educational differences at other points in their lives for those students. The different educational experiences that happened for those students in those other settings caused those differences in educational outcomes that showed up in school testing.

The differences in the educational experience for those children actually happened in the first years of life before the children were anywhere close to their school. Those differences happened in the very first educational experiences for each child.

The truth is, education does not begin at school. It certainly does not begin at kindergarten. It actually begins at birth...and even the first days and weeks of life are important components of the educational process. We now understand the science of brain development at a higher level than ever before. We know all should know and understand that brain development begins before birth and the first life experiences for each child have major biological impacts on each child's brain.

Biology sculpts and choreographs the entire process.

The biological science is exactly the same for children from every race and every ethnic group. The process is the same for people from every race, ethnicity and income level. That process has a huge impact on each individual child.

Brains develop biologically in the first months and first years of life for each child. That's when major brain stimulation occurs. Brain stimulation changes brains. Brains that are exercised in those key time frames end up as stronger brains.

The biological logistical reality is that stimulated brains grow stronger in those months and years because of that stimulation. Neuron connections build and are strengthened by that brain building process. Many neurons that aren't exercised and used in those key time frames by a child are actually purged from the brains.

That process happens for every single child and it happens in those same time frames for each child. The children who are stimulated in those time frames end up with better learning skills. The children who are not stimulated in those first years of life do not do as well on building learning skills.

Direct adult interactions with children in those key months and years create the needed connections that build brains. The children who do not have significant direct and on going interactions with adults in those very first years end up knowing fewer words. They end up with vocabularies of only a few hundred words by age three and they have a much harder time learning to read than the children who have vocabularies of thousands of words by age three.

Having adults talking directly to children is extremely important at that point. Children need adults to talk directly to them and to talk a lot. All languages work. Every language strengthens brains. All languages work to make brains stronger when they are directed at the child by an adult who is focused directly on the child.

The key for each child is to hear large numbers of words spoken to them in any language. Reading to children is also a very powerful tool for helping brains develop. Reading favorite books on a regular basis builds vocabularies, creates a sense of emotional security, and builds brains.

But even without reading, however, talking directly and often to each child builds vocabulary and strengthens brains.

Interacting with children is also a key part of the process. Adult interactions and adults playing with children clearly strengthens brains and those loving interactions create needed buffers in children's brains against toxic stress syndrome...a condition that can damage the brains of children if the children feel isolated, stressed, or even threatened in those vulnerable first years of life.

That reality is the basic reality for every child. Those same basic interactions with adults build brain capacity and learning capabilities in children from every race, ethnicity and income level.

The children from all groups who are doing well in the Oakland schools clearly benefited from someone having those kinds of educational interactions -- with someone talking, reading, and interacting directly with them in those key years. The children in the Oakland schools with lower test scores in their high school years did not have the benefits of those interactions in those first key months and years of their lives.

We need to make sure that we provide that level of support to every child. We need our overall education support processes to do better. We need every child to benefit from having their brain exercised in those key years. We can still help children after those years, and we should work hard to support children who need our help after those key years, but it is much more difficult after those first high opportunity time frames.

We need to begin by teaching the science of early brain development to every parent and every family. We have not done that teaching well as a society or as communities.

Teaching that key science to parents and families has not been a priority or even a standard practice for our educators, our caregivers, or our community leaders. We have not helped parents with that information at the time when it is most useful to each family and parent.

All families love their children. All families want their children to do well. All families and all communities want their children to succeed and prosper So we need to teach that information about the benefits of exercising brains in those key years to every parent and every family and we need to build support for those years into every culture.

Too many people believe that the learning skills for each child are pre determined and set for life at birth...that we are each born with our lifetime abilities in those areas. That is entirely wrong. We can actually have a huge impact on those ability levels for each child in those key years...but most people do not know that to be true.

We now need all parents and all families to know that information. Parents will very much appreciate learning about those opportunities. Parents will use that information and will use it well to help their children.

When the First Five Commission for Children and Families communicated that information directly to parents last year, research done by the University of Chicago showed that 74 percent of parents who heard those communications changed behaviors to add those interactions to their parenting approach.

We need to communicate those facts to all concerned parties. We clearly need communities to support that teaching effort for both parents and children.

Oakland is rising to that challenge. Oakland now has some very committed and well informed people who are working to make a difference for the people of Oakland. The children's hospital there is anchoring some of those efforts.

Faith leaders in Oakland are also taking on a key leadership role on behalf of their children. Oakland and the East Bay area now has two hundred churches who are directly addressing that issue...teaching that message and the basic opportunity of early year brain development to their congregations.

That approach will reach thousands of mothers and fathers in those churches and it will change the lives of many children. The leaning gaps that are so painful in the Oakland Schools today will narrow in the future because of what those churches are doing.

Those are the kinds of efforts we need in every community in America that currently has a learning gap in their schools. We need to help the schools, not just blame the schools. We need a public health campaign in every setting to get that information about those brain exercises to every set of families in America. We need to close the learning gaps in all those schools by actually preventing future gaps in those communities.

Our old approaches have failed. We have massive learning gaps in too many communities, and the local efforts that have tried to use the schools to close those gaps have very consistently had weak, frustrating, and highly inadequate results. Some progress has been made, but it has been very hard progress to achieve.

Schools need our help. Teachers want to teach. Schools need us as a society and as families to help every child to be learning ready, so schools can do their job of teaching rather than doing remedial work for students who are not as ready to learn as they might be when they enter schools.

Trying to end the learning gaps we see in all of those communities by fixing them in school settings doesn't reflect biological reality. Education begins at home and education begins at birth. That's how our brains develop and function.

To save our children and to keep future learning gaps from happening, we need to understand that reality. The biology and the time frames are the same for every child.

Now that we know that science and now we understand that entire process to be what it is, we need to act accordingly and we need to collectively and individually do the ethical and logistical right things to save every child.