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Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2000 / 21 Shevat, 5761

David Murray, Ph.D

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Brain food for kids? -- IN a well-meaning but scientifically misguided essay, Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen builds what she calls an "undeniable" case for universal voluntary preschool in the United States ("Building Blocks for Every Kid: The science says it all: preschool programs are neither a luxury nor a fad, but a real necessity" Feb. 12, 2001). While there may be good public policy reasons for building preschool programs, the scientific evidence remains a shaky foundation.

Quindlen states, "What kids learn between infancy and the time they begin kindergarten is, most scientists believe, the bedrock for all the rest of their intellectual development." This reflects the popular conception of a critical developmental period upon which all subsequent intellectual growth depends. While the notion gained considerable currency in 1997 during the much-publicized White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning, it also met considerable scientific resistance. In particular, neuroscientist John Bruer of the McDonnell Foundation critically assessed the notion in his book, "The Myth of the First Three Years." Bruer notes that much speculation about synaptic development in infants derived from projections of misunderstood results from experiments on sensorily-deprived rats. Further, the common refrain that "it's all over at age three" turns out to be based solely on research with rhesus monkeys, which have a different developmental cycle than do human children. (At three years of age, the monkeys are sexually mature.)

Quindlen further cites positive outcomes from Early Head Start (a program for 2 year olds) showing that after a year kids had "improved language skills." Unfortunately, evaluations of Head Start programs show that after a brief advance, gains are not preserved in later years. She also cites the Abecedarian Project for its finding that a longitudinal tracking into adulthood of enrolled babies showed gains in school retention and employment rates when compared to matched peers. Again, however, the findings are not robust, primarily demonstrating that the average IQ of enrolled infants (estimated at 95 points) did not subsequently decline in adulthood as (apparently) did the IQ's of a control group. Much hinges on the reliability of assessing an infant's true IQ.

Finally, the argument examines the presumed conditions under which we could provide the "stimulus to get [infants'] tiny synapses moving."

Addressing those who might think "an unstructured life that was good enough for grandparents should be good enough for grandchildren," Quindlen argues that back then, "jobs required brawn instead of brains." Further, earlier children were presumably "free to educate themselves in fields, on farms, in the neighborhood..." To this there might be a one-word rebuttal: Mozart. More generally, neuroscientists such as Bruer find no evidence that any normal environment (that is, short of being locked in a closet) lacks the stimulation necessary for normal learning.

As an example of what can be provided in the way of "structured" environments, the essay cites the French national ecole maternelle, a program for 2 to 6 year olds that "virtually every family uses." Of course, the best historical example of "structured" child rearing (and adult, for that matter) comes from the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. According to The Oxford Classical Dictionary, in the Spartan public upbringing, "children were trained in austerity, obedience, and mock battles by older youths within companies, and subdivided into 'herds' of age-mates with their own internal leadership. Because they were separated from their families, the youth training inculcated conformity and the priority of collective interests, but also promoted the emergence of future elites."

In contrast, most of us have learned to value the Athenian style of development, though the Spartan description does rather resemble the French result. Perhaps policy prescriptions for children's development could themselves benefit from a little less brawn (Old French, braon, a slice of beef).

David Murray, Ph.D is director of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. You may comment by clicking here.

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