Every education wonk knows about the research indicating that having a great teacher for three consecutive years makes the difference between achieving academic success and falling further behind. Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution, Tom Kane of Harvard and others have become famous and prosperous for spreading that message far and wide. They did it so effectively that “Three Great Teachers” became the rallying cry of just about everyone from Arne Duncan on down. That’s all it takes, so (this means you, teachers) shape up and do a better job!
New research, however, indicates an even more surprising finding: Three consecutive years of quality nutrition, medical care, housing, clothing, and emotional support at home and in school does even more than having three great teachers. In a carefully-controlled study, an independent researcher has found that poor children who were given those advantages for three years turned out to be happier, healthier, more capable academically, better behaved and more likely to contribute to their community than children who were denied those basic needs.
The long-term study was a painful challenge, researcher Pierre DeRien told me in a phone interview. “We had to create a control group of perfectly matched children, and in at least two dozen cases that meant we had to deny identical twins the decent housing, nutrition, medical care and personal attention that their siblings were receiving.”
“Policing that was tough,” he said with what sounded like a rueful laugh. “We often had to intervene to make sure one twin didn’t share his meal or his warm clothing with his sibling, but research comes first. Frankly, some parents were angry that they had to choose between children, kind of a Sophie’s Choice, but I guess they realized that having one kid well off was better than none.”
Wasn’t that a little bit like a TV cameraman filming a drowning person instead of jumping in to save him, I asked Dr. DeRien? He was silent for a long minute, perhaps embarrassed, but then recovered. “Science comes first,” he said, “And our findings will end up saving thousands, perhaps millions of children, so sacrificing those few hundred in the control group was necessary…and right.”
I asked Dr. DeRien about the policy implications of his findings. Specifically, was he now calling for decent housing, medical care, nutrition, clothing for the estimated 25 million U.S. children now growing up in poverty? After all, child poverty in the US is easily the worst among developed nations and a national embarrassment. Perhaps he saw this as the spur America needs to take immediate action.
“Oh, no,” he replied. “All we did was study what happened over three years to 2300 children when we gave them what is the birthright of middle class and upper class children. I’m seeking funding so I can repeat the study for another three years, this time with at least 25,000 children in the study and another 25,000 in the control group.”
But we have 25 million children in poverty now, I said. They can’t wait three more years, can they?
“The whole point of research is to be sure,” he chided. “Policy has to be grounded in fact, not some do-gooder fantasy,” he said before hanging up.