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Billionaires Want Poor Children’s Brains to Work Better

Photo by ImagineCup | CC BY 2.0

Why are many poor children not learning and succeeding in school? For billionaire Bill Gates, who funded the start-up of the failed Common Core Curriculum Standards, and has been bankrolling the failing charter schools movement, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, it’s time to look for another answer, this one at the neurological level. Poor children’s malfunctioning brains, particularly their brains’ “executive functioning”–that is, the brain’s working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control–must be the reason why their academic performance isn’t better.

Proposing to fund research on the issue, the billionaires reason that not only can executive malfunctioning cause substantial classroom learning problems and school failure, it also can adversely affect socio-economic status, physical health, drug problems, and criminal convictions in adulthood. Consequently, if teachers of poor students know how to improve executive function, their students will do well academically and reap future “real-world benefits.” For Gates, who is always looking for “the next big thing,” this can be it in education.

Most people looking at this reasoning would likely think, “If executive functioning is poorer in poor children, why not eliminate the apparent cause of the deficiency, i.e., poverty?” Not so for the billionaires. For them, the “adverse life situations” of poor students are the can’t-be-changed-givens. Neither can instructional conditions that cost more money provide an answer. For example, considerable research on small class size teaching has demonstrated its substantially positive academic benefits, especially for poor children, from grammar school through high school and college. Gates claims to know about this instructional reform, but money-minded as he is, he insists these findings amount to nothing more than a “belief” whose worst impact has been to drive “school budget increases for more than 50 years.”

Cash–rather, the lack of it–that’s the issue: “You can’t fund reforms without money and there is no more money,” he insists. Of course, nowhere in Gates’ rebuke of excessive school spending does he mention corporate tax dodging of state income taxes, which robs schools of billions of dollars. Microsoft, for example, in which Gates continues to play a prominent role as “founder and technology advisor” on the company’s Board of Directors would provide almost $29.6 billion in taxes that could fund schools were its billions stashed offshore repatriated.

In a detailed example of Microsoft’s calculated tax scheming and dodging that would provide material for a good classroom geography lesson, Seattle Times reporter, Matt Day, outlined one of the transcontinental routes taken by a dollar spent for a Microsoft product in Seattle. Immediately after the purchase, the dollar takes a short trip to Microsoft’s company headquarters in nearby Redmond, Washington, after which it moves to a Microsoft sales subsidiary in Nevada. Following a brief rest, the dollar breathlessly zigzags from one offshore tax haven to another, finally arriving in sunny Bermuda where it joins $108 billion of Microsoft’s other dollars. Zuckerberg’s Facebook has similarly kept its earnings away from U.S. school budgets.

By blaming poor children’s school learning failure on their brains, the billionaires are continuing a long pseudoscientific charade extending back to 19th century “craniology,” which used head shape-and-size to explain the intellectual inferiority of “lesser” groups, such as southern Europeans and blacks. When craniology finally was debunked in the early 20thcentury, psychologists devised the IQ test, which sustained the mental classification business. Purportedly a more scientific instrument, it was heavily used not only to continue craniology’s identification of intellectually inferior ethnic and racial groups, but also to “explain” the educational underachievement of black and poor-white students.

After decades of use, IQ tests were substantially debunked from the 1960s onward, but new, more neurologically complex, so-called brain-based explanations emerged for differing educational outcomes. These explanations conceived of the overall brain as normal, but contended that brain glitches impeded school learning and success. Thus entered “learning disabilities,” “dyslexia,”and “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)” as major neuropsychological concepts to (1) explain school failure, particularly for poor children, although the labels also extended to many middle-class students; and (2) serve as “scientific” justification for scripted, narrow, pedagogy in which teachers seemingly reigned in the classroom, but in fact, were themselves controlled by the prefabricated curricula.

In the forefront of this pedagogy was the No Child Left Behind legislation (NCLB), with its lock-step instruction, created under George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama. Supposedly “scientifically-based,” federal funds supported research on “brain-based” teaching that would be in tune with the mental make-up of poor children, thereby serving to substitute for policy that would address poverty’s influence on educational outcomes. My review of the initial evidence supposedly justifying the launching of this diversionary pedagogy revealed it had no empirical support. However, for the students this instruction targeted, a decade had to pass before national test results confirmed its failure.

The history of “scientific brain-based” pedagogy for poor children has invariably been a dodge from addressing obvious social-class influences. In its newest iteration– improve poor children’s  executive functioning–billionaires Gates and Zuckerberg will gladly put some cash into promoting a new neurological fix for poor children, thereby helping (and hoping) to divert the thinking of education policy-makers, teachers and parents. Never mind that over three years ago, a review of research on executive functioning and academic achievement failed to find “compelling evidence that a causal association between the two exists.” What’s critical for these billionaires and the class they represent is that the nation continues to concoct policy that does not deplete the wealth of the rich and helps explain away continued poverty. Just because research on improving executive functioning in poor children has not been found to be a solution for their educational underachievement, doesn’t mean it can’t be!

Now that’s slick executive functioning!

Gerald Coles is an educational psychologist who has written extensively on the psychology, policy and politics of education. He is the author of Miseducating for the Global Economy: How Corporate Power Damages Education and Subverts Students’ Futures (Monthly Review Press).

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