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E D U C A T I O N   &   R E S E A R C H

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Timeout for Child Policy

The nation has not made the most of scientific knowledge about children’s development between birth and age 5 — a period that sets the stage for their intellectual and emotional growth. As a result, many kids and their families are losing out, says a new report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.

For example, scientific evidence shows that even very young children are capable of experiencing deep anguish and grief in response to trauma, loss, and personal rejection, the report says. But many early childhood education and child-care programs have failed to put such findings to use. And a severe shortage of early childhood professionals with the training to deal with mental-health issues only exacerbates the situation.

Society also clings to unfounded myths. For instance, brain development does not switch off at age 3 or 5. It begins before birth, continues throughout life, and is influenced by both nature and nurture, science shows.

By and large, what currently exists for America’s children is a mixed bag of policies and practices — some based on solid knowledge and some based on little evidence that they actually promote children’s well-being, said the committee that wrote the report. Given 40 years of scientific research, coupled with dramatic social and economic changes in recent decades, the nation should re-examine policies that affect young children and bolster its investments in their development. Furthermore, children’s social and emotional needs should receive investments and attention similar to those devoted to kids’ academic advancement.

Early relationships are especially critical to a child’s development. Federal policy-makers should recognize the importance of strong early bonds by expanding coverage of the Family and Medical Leave Act to all working parents, the committee said. Policy-makers also should extend the amount of time that welfare recipients with infant children are excused from meeting work requirements, and explore ways to financially support low-income parents who take family leave, since even a temporary loss of earnings can be a hardship.

Additionally, society should value those who care for children when their parents are not available, the report says. Major sources of funding for child care and early education should set aside money to support initiatives aimed at increasing the skills, pay, and benefits of child-care professionals, who make roughly $12,000 a year. Child-development professionals with mental-health training should receive more incentives to work in child care, as well.

To confront the existing hodgepodge of programs, policies, and practices, the next president should establish a task force of officials on all levels to review the entire portfolio of public investments in child care and early childhood education. The final product should be a 10-year plan that focuses on ways to improve the quality of care in a range of settings, and addresses the needs of children with developmental impairments or disabilities, and of those with chronic health conditions, the report says.

The committee’s comprehensive study also examined poverty’s detrimental effects on early development, the benefits of well-designed intervention programs for disadvantaged youngsters, and the need to re-evaluate the nation’s tax, wage, and income-support policies to address disproportionately high and persistent rates of poverty among young children. — Vanee Vines

From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development.Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (2000, 425 pp.; ISBN 0-309-06988-2; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $39.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Jack Shonkoff, dean, Florence Heller Graduate School, and Samuel F. and Rose B. Gingold Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. The study was sponsored by the National Research Council, Institute of Medicine, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education, Commonwealth Fund, Irving B. Harris Foundation, Heinz Endowments, and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.


Partnerships for Schools

Numerous education-reform plans have raised the bar not only for K-12 students of science, mathematics, and technology, but also for their teachers. Yet efforts to train both current and prospective teachers in these subjects remain disjointed and inadequate, says a new report from the National Research Council.

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The timing of this mismatch couldn’t be worse. Increasing numbers of school districts are having trouble recruiting and retaining qualified teachers of science, math, and technology. Many states have begun to impose new penalties on students who fail to meet tougher standards in core subjects. And international comparisons of students’ performance in science and mathematics have shown that the achievement gap between U.S. students and their peers in several other industrialized countries can be traced, in part, to differences in how they are being taught.

Before such problems can be tackled effectively, stronger ties must be forged between K-12 and postsecondary educators, said the committee that wrote the report. Partnerships are needed to create a more integrated system to train future elementary and secondary school teachers, and to provide challenging professional-development opportunities over the course of a teacher’s career. Moreover, partnerships that team up school districts with community colleges and four-year colleges or universities could foster a greater sense of professionalism among K-12 teachers.

There are numerous ways that school districts could work with colleges or universities, the committee said. An integrated academic-advising network could be created to encourage more high school and college students to consider careers in science or math education. University-based scientists and mathematicians, who often rely on computer technology to enhance classroom teaching and learning, could use partnerships as an opportunity to help K-12 teachers master the same tools. Likewise, K-12 instructors could work with their counterparts in higher education to improve teacher-preparation programs. School districts and colleges also could pool funds to make the most of training dollars.

Each member of a partnership should have a specific role, too. For example, the report recommends that colleges and universities take the lead in providing experienced K-12 teachers of science, mathematics, and technology with coordinated professional-development opportunities. School districts should assume primary responsibility for organizing field experiences for all considering teaching careers, and creating high-quality internship programs for teachers new to the field. And these alliances should receive input from representatives of academic societies, scientists from private industry, and scholars from all relevant disciplines.

Ultimately, schoolchildren would benefit from these arrangements because few factors are as important to their education as a teacher who knows and can teach a subject well. — V.V.

Educating Teachers of Science, Mathematics, and Technology: New Practices for the New Millennium. Committee on Science and Mathematics Teacher Preparation, Center for Education (2000, approx. 224 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07033-3; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $29.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was co-chaired by Herbert Brunkhorst, chair, department of science, mathematics, and technology education, California State University, San Bernardino, and Jim Lewis, chair, department of mathematics and statistics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.


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New Toxicology Tools

Scientists are still trying to figure out why so many pregnancies result in a less-than-healthy baby, but they do know that toxic chemicals — both natural and manufactured — are to blame for about 3 percent of all developmental defects, while 25 percent may be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Approximately 120,000 of the 4 million infants born each year in the United States are stricken with major birth defects, such as neural tube and heart deformities. Many more suffer from disorders that often go undetected for several years, like delayed growth or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

So far, only a fraction of manufactured and naturally occurring chemicals have been evaluated for their potential to cause birth defects. But new discoveries in developmental biology and genetics are making it possible to study many more.

For example, scientists recently discovered how cells communicate to activate proteins that turn particular genes on and off. These so-called “signaling pathways” regulate development in the embryo and fetus. Strikingly similar pathways are found in a wide variety of animals, including humans, and have changed very little over time. So studying the effects of chemicals on signaling pathways in animal models should provide clues to how they affect human development as well.

The mapping of the human genome also will assist scientists studying developmental toxicology by helping them to identify genetic variations, known as polymorphisms, among individuals. Researchers investigating specific polymorphisms in people who are found to have been exposed to certain chemicals in the womb and exhibit similar defects, for example, stand to gain a better understanding of how genes and chemicals interact to trigger such defects.

A new Research Council report says now is the time for scientists to take advantage of these advances when analyzing chemicals for their potential to cause birth defects. It says even some of the simplest and cheapest animal models, such as the roundworm and fruit fly, could be used more effectively to study which developmental pathways are affected by specific chemicals. Depending on what these initial studies find, more extensive research could then be conducted on animals whose biological makeup more closely resembles that of humans.

These tools will allow toxicologists to analyze thousands of chemicals and generate vast amounts of data. In anticipation of this, the committee that wrote the report urged the creation of new databases to organize this information in a way that is useful for risk assessment.

Toxicologists carrying out these studies should be careful not to focus solely on how chemicals may cause prenatal complications, however, since all stages of human development, from conception through puberty, are susceptible to disruption by toxic agents, the report emphasizes. Defects that aren’t always noticed immediately, such as growth retardation and behavioral effects, should be included in these studies as well. — Bill Kearney

Scientific Frontiers in Developmental Toxicology and Risk Assessment. Committee on Developmental Toxicology, Toxicology and Risk Assessment Program, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Commission on Life Sciences (2000, approx. 313 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07086-4; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $59.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

Elaine Faustman, professor, department of environmental health, and director, Institute for Risk Analysis and Risk Communication, University of Washington, Seattle, chaired the committee. The study was funded by the American Industrial Health Council, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for Toxicological Research, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.


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