Summary: Emerging research on “fetal origins of disease” poses a challenge to school reform and public policy.
In this era of rapid changes in social consciousness, a man with African American heritage is president, and gay and lesbian folk are taking their place in the pantheon of full citizenry.
These shifts in the culture have happened at a frenzied pace from the standpoint of broad history, but in the same time frame changes sought in our schools have produced only grudging and narrow progress.
It is true that the current point of arrival is the culmination of epochal struggles on the part of African Americans and gays, while by contrast the struggle in schools began relatively recently, perhaps in the Sputnik era, or during the rise of computers and globalization.
The turbulent progress for African Americans and gays should remind us that reform of schools will sometimes feel as though there are as many steps backward as forward.
The educational debate, beset with the sluggish pace of change, has evolved to consider the importance of early childhood education for three and four year olds, during which ages the germination of cognitive structures and early learning can dictate the course of later progress in the incorporation of the complex skills required to compete in a global marketplace.
But even should the debate culminate in a good quality system of early childhood education and support for parenting, emerging science collectively called the “fetal origins of disease” may well anticipate our test scores will continue to lag unless the clock of intervention is turned back still further, into the period of the mother’s pregnancy, and the gestation of child in utero. Just when the importance of early childhood preparation gains some mainstream traction, the curtain is turned back still further to reveal this camouflaged scenery.
In a recent “Atlantic” article, science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff introduces this branch of fetal medicine via his own worries how the high stress job and sleep deprivation of his wife will impact the future of their unborn child. His is a serious inquiry, with some humorous self-deprecation, but along the way he stumbles upon unmistakable implications for the same low income students that school reform so strenuously tries to reach.
In overview, the research recognizes that poor nutrition, stress and sleep deprivation of the mother while carrying her baby can all negatively affect the child and the adult the child becomes. Such liabilities in the pregnant woman’s life can result in higher rates of mental illness, heart disease, and pre term birth in her offspring; preterm birth presages a heightened rate of ill health and chronic disease, which in turn hamper school progress.
Poor nutrition, along with lack of exercise and higher rates of smoking has long been known to disproportionately affect residents of lower income communities, and to have consequences for the fetus.
The virulent impact of stress seems to have always lurked in the back ground, in common sense traditional attitudes about the protection of women during pregnancy, but have not been so well studied for the effect of the mother’s stress on unborn children.
To some extent science is catching up. Today’s research about the fetal origins of disease identifies the mother’s own altered immune response to stress as the culprit, by modifying the intrauterine environment in which the child develops. In addition, researchers have shown that it is also the mother’s altered immune response in critical periods to disease or sleep deprivation that has implications for the child’s development. Not so much, for example, is it the disease itself acting directly on the child.
The web goes more deeply. Life in poverty is often a scene of unremitting stress. Violence in the streets, fear for a child’s gang involvement, money problems, and a sense of powerlessness to do anything about it. Rage. The accumulated insecurities wear at a young expectant mother, and in turn her altered immune system leaves her offspring themselves compromised in ways the science seems only beginning to understand. The generational cycle of poverty may be deepened as a consequence.
Further, Velasquez-Manoff in the “Atlantic” article quotes Paula Braverman of the University of California at San Francisco: “there’s something toxic about being a woman of color in the US.” “Black women in general are one and a half times as likely as whites to have a child prematurely,” he reports. A chronic load of institutional racism intensifies the stresses of poverty for women both black or Latina and poor.
Obvious questions arise. Do these sequences in the womb also hinder brain development and cognitive capacity, or impact resilience? We know that poor health can impact educational development, but how do we differentiate any effect of poverty on embryonic development from delays due to inadequate post-natal and early childhood environment, let alone the adverse effect of substandard schools? Increasingly, researchers are on the case, but still too little is known.
The social democracies of Europe and Canada, as well as a handful of states in the US, have policies which allow full or partial pregnancy and birth leave, paid or unpaid, and others which mandate job reassignment, presumably to temporarily less stressful tasks. Data from both European and US programs suggest that such measures improve birth outcomes, both fewer preterm births and improved birth weights. To the extent continuing research deepens these conclusions, to the same extent the argument is made to broaden the policies for the well-being of the children whose school struggles trace in part to the stresses of their mothers while pregnant, particularly mothers in poverty.
School reform, this time in utero.
Of course continue the work on instruction and support of struggling learners. Of course continue the expansion of early childhood education. Be prepared that even these ventures will never be enough by themselves. Be prepared for investment in measures that reduce the stresses on low income mothers to be, particularly women of color, in order to buffer them from the forces that disrupt the bringing of new life into the world.
It is telling that many of the countries that outperform the US on international tests of academic progress already are well invested in these strategies.
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