Why were there riots in Milwaukee -- and what should we be doing now to give the people of that community a better future?
One extremely important answer to those questions might surprise a number of people. There were many news articles written about the riots. Many of those articles described the problems in Milwaukee with some depth.
There was, however, a very important piece of information missing from just about all of those media stories about the events.
The articles all tend to mention the horrible economic status of the African American community of Milwaukee. Those pieces also tend to mention the fact that unemployment levels for the black residents of that community are the highest in the nation.
Media stories and the Wikipedia piece written about the riots also mention the fact that the incarceration rates for African Americans in Milwaukee are extremely high, and point out that the likelihood of going to jail affects more than half of the adult male African Americans in that community.
The patterns of discrimination in both arrests and convictions are clear, and the strains between the police force and the community in Milwaukee are equally clear.
The Wikipedia piece and some of the news stories also talk about the horrible drop out rates for African American students from Milwaukee schools.
All of those painful facts are included in the media coverage, but those articles about the Milwaukee riots do not mention one extremely important piece of information about that community.
The key and extremely important point that is not usually mentioned in the news stories about that community and its situation is the proven and recently repeatedly measured fact that only a painfully small percentage of the African American students in the Milwaukee schools can read.
The most recent state of Wisconsin Badger Exam results for the Milwaukee schools that were done just a couple of years ago showed that fewer than 25 percent of the African American students could read in the eighth grade and fewer than five percent of those students met the basic levels for math proficiency.
Mother Jones magazine did a piece last month about the horrible and difficult situation in Milwaukee. The Mother Jones article did mention the reading problems and they used the more current Common Core studies of student ability levels. Those numbers were even worse for the reading ability scores for Milwaukee students.
The Mother Jones article had a graphic pointing out that just 15 percent of the students in the Milwaukee schools were proficient in reading and that only 17 percent of the total body of students in that setting were proficient in math.
Regardless of the testing approach that was used, it is painfully clear there are major learning deficits happening for far too many of the students in Milwaukee schools today, and both the existence and the size of those deficits has just been confirmed by all of the most recent sets of reading scores for those schools.
Why did that happen? Why do those learning deficits in Milwaukee exist, and why can so few children in those schools read? Are those low scores in Milwaukee schools the result of incompetent, inadequate, ineffective, and significantly dysfunctional schools?
The logistical and functional truth is that schools do not cause those problems. The schools have good people who are working hard to solve those problems, and they are failing. Good intentions are not enough. We need more than good intentions and best efforts. We need understanding. We need to actually understand exactly why those efforts to close those learning gaps in those schools are not succeeding if we want that situation and that outcome to change.
We all need to clearly understand that problem in order to fix it. When we do understand the problem, we can all come to understand that we should not and cannot blame the schools for those learning problems and those learning gaps. Those very low reading scores, and the even lower math scores, reported for all those students are not functionally caused by the schools. Those reading-level problems for children who took those tests were caused by experiences that happened for each child before the child arrived at any level of formal schooling.
Education does not begin at kindergarten. That is a commonly held belief, and that belief is entirely and dangerously wrong. Education actually begins at birth. Education and the development of learning ability in each child starts in the first days, weeks, and months of life after each child is born, and the learning trajectories for children from every group are well established long before either kindergarten or any pre-kindergarten education system encounters with the children.
That information about when education actually starts for each child is now proven scientific fact. It is not ideology or supposition, or any kind of either political or cultural belief or standard community rhetoric. That information about when education really starts is a basic, science based, biological fact of life about the universal processes that happen for every child from every group relative to the basic and direct neuron connectivity processes that happen in each child's brain in those very same time frames for each group and each child.
Some of the very best academic research organizations in the world have been doing excellent work on those issues. We now have wonderful scientific proof of how that process works, and we have extensive knowledge about what impact that developmental process has on each child. Because of that robust and growing body of important research, we are now much smarter about the impact that the basic developmental process has on every child. Beginning, literally, at birth.
We now know -- from extremely powerful and constantly expanding research done by several great medical centers and academic research centers into the learning process for every child -- that the first three years of life are the years when neurons connect and build structure in each child's brain.
That time frame --and those neuron connection-linked brain building processes -- are the same for children from every group. The process is basic, almost painfully simple, very direct, and entirely persona l -- individually functioning in the brain of each child. That reality about those processes is shared, and universal across children from every group in every setting.
It is entirely experiential. Experience is the key point to understand. That brain building process is not racial or ethnic or economic -- it is experiential. The data about the learning gaps we see for our schools can mislead us on that point because we tend to measure children by those groups for those reports, but the actual process is individual, and it is completely and directly experiential for each child.
Basic "cause and effect" rules the process. We now understand both the cause and the effect -- and that is extremely useful and extremely valuable information for us to know.
We now know that exercising infant, baby, and child brains in those key months and years strengthens brains. When children get their brain exercised in those first years from adults talking, reading, and interacting directly with the child, then the children build stronger brains.
Physical exercise builds strong muscles. Brain exercise builds strong brains. The process is basically the same.
That brain exercise process has its most dramatic effect and has its highest value impact for each child in the very first years of life. We did not know that information about many of those key processes or those extremely important time frames well until relatively recently. We know it now. The knowledge we now have means we need to respond to that knowledge by using it in ways to help children.
The first years are key. The very first years are extremely important to each child. By age four, the brain is actually pruning itself, and the best learning strength improvement time and neuron connection time for each child is gone.
We need every family of every child born in America today to know that process, that time frame, and that basic science. The science is powerful and our knowledge and wisdom about those processes and time frames is growing daily. That growing body of knowledge is a blessing. The great tragedy is , however, that we have not shared that information and that knowledge with the parents of this country.
We have, in fact, done a horrible job of teaching that information to all new parents from every group. Only a relatively few people in Milwaukee today are teaching that information to the parents and families of the children being born now in that community.
There are some early learning efforts in that city, and the Milwaukee Succeeds program is doing some work very much pointed in the right direction, but the City of Milwaukee is not focused in any organized or significant way on educating every family about those issues and those opportunities. The vast majority of children born today into the community of Milwaukee do not have parents and families who understand that basic information about giving each child the very best set of abilities to deal with their own life in those first weeks, months, and years of life.
Milwaukee is far from alone in not teaching that information to parents. Not teaching those facts to all parents in every city in our country is a massive public health failure we should not accept -- because the consequences of parents not knowing that information in those key months and years can be so painful and severe for each child. There are actually significant learning gaps between children in multiple cities -- and people have had almost no success in closing those gaps in any school setting -- because the problem that creates those gaps is not a problem that can be fixed after children get to school.
Multiple studies have shown that the children who have fallen far behind in that process by age three tend to never fully catch up. Progress for our children in a number of important ways is still possible, and it is very good for our children after age three, but the golden learning time when billions of neuron connections happen in each child's brain starts at birth, and it only extends most effectively to help children in the first months and years of life.
The functional truth is -- you can't close learning gaps for children at 15 years. You have to close them at 15 months.
When we don't close those gaps at 15 months, children suffer. In Milwaukee, only 15 percent of the African American children are reading proficient today. Fifteen percent is an extremely low number -- and it does not need to be the future reality for Milwaukee.
If all of the children in that community are somehow each given the right interactions with an adult in those first years of life, the number of reading proficient children in those schools could exceed 80 percent. That is not an impossible goal to set for the future. There are communities in this country where those percentages are attained now for populations of children. It can be done. We know how to do it.
The direct interactions that add value for each child are not complex, and the initial and most useful activities that help each child don't even involve equipment or supplies. Just talking to the child works really well to strengthen the basic neuron connections in a child's brain.
Talking, the scientists have now taught us, is almost magical in its ability to strengthen baby and infant brains.
Talking directly to a child creates billions of physical and biological neuron connections for each child -- and talking is free and can take place almost anywhere.
Parents do not know how much value they can give their child by talking extensively and directly in loving ways to their children in those months and years. Parents love their children, and parents very much want their children to thrive -- and we have failed miserably in teaching parents how to help that thriving happen.
We need all parents to know that talking directly to each child in those time frames has huge power to strengthen brains. The biology is wonderful. Literally millions of neurons connect each time talking happens with a child. Talking interactions that continue over time for a child with an adult can actually build and support billions of extremely useful neuron connections in each child's brain.
At the other end of the continuum, we now know that not talking to a child and having the child receive no talking interactions in those time frames too often creates various levels of stress -- and the new research tells us that isolation for a child in those time frames can actually damage brains. Toxic stress syndrome can happen for isolated or stressed children.
This science is well known. The opportunities that exist for us to help children have never been more clear. The Harvard Center for The Developing Child has done great work on those issues and is expanding that work. The University of Washington in Seattle, UCLA, Columbia University, and several other focused and solid programs have also all done great work to show and understand those processes and time frames, and their impact on children.
Great researchers know that information -- but we haven't taught that extremely important information in any effective way to mayors, legislators, governors, care givers, and school leaders and families who all should be factoring that knowledge into their efforts to help their children, and to lead, protect, and support their families and communities.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is beginning to do some important work in those areas, but the sad truth is that most care givers for children are not keeping up with what Columbia and Harvard researchers are now telling us about children and biological development processes for the brains in those key years. We need our obstetricians, pediatricians, family doctors, midwives, and nurses in all fields that care for children to understand those processes, and we need all of those care givers to be using that science and those processes to improve the life trajectories for their patients.
We also need every day care to understand those opportunities and to have books and toys that facilitate the needed interactions with each child. We need all parents who use day cares to understand these issues so they can insist their day cares have the right interactions with their child.
We need our federal WIC nutrition coaching programs and our Medicaid supported home nursing programs to very intentionally and effectively expand what they do to add that level of education about brain science to the knowledge base for the families they serve.
Milwaukee faces major problems at multiple levels. Milwaukee has undeniable problems with police and community interactions that need to be addressed in very intentional ways. There are major issues in hiring and access to jobs for minority Americans in Milwaukee that can't be denied.
Those very real and very immediate problems clearly can't be resolved easily or quickly.
But what we can do both easily and quickly is teach that information about the hugely positive impact of direct interactions with children in those first months and years to the parents and the families of every child in that community. We need every credible leader in that community to understand that opportunity, and we need the leaders from every group to be both teaching the opportunity, and supporting the behaviors and the interactions in those first weeks, months, and years that help children in such important ways.
The mayor, the head of the school system, the community faith leaders, and the key care givers in that city should all be teaching that information today to every new mother, new father, to every family, and to every day care setting in Milwaukee.
We should not accept the future we will see for Milwaukee if we don't do that work. We need to begin to change the future for the children in that community starting right now.
Because we now understand those processes, we have a clear, ethical, and moral obligation to share them with every relevant family, and we have an absolutely clear ethical accountability to do that teaching to each family starting now.
The new sciences teach us this process happens one child at a time. That means we can save children one at a time by teaching this information to parents and families now. That is true for every city in the country where there are learning gaps in schools today.
Every child whose family learns those opportunities has a chance for a better life. Let's save every child by having every family know the basic things that can be done to strengthen each child's ability to learn.
Poverty makes this very hard for many people. Poverty puts huge pressure on parenting opportunities. When parents have no money, and when transportation difficulties and scheduling and logistical problems are abound -- and when housing is over crowded and too expensive -- then it can be extremely difficult for many parents to use that information in ways that are most beneficial to each child.
We cannot ignore those grim and difficult realities for many families, and we clearly should not pretend they don't exist. But that set of difficulties for parents and families is no excuse for not making that basic information known to every new parent.
It is extremely disrespectful, at least a little insulting, clearly dysfunctional, and directly counter productive at a broad and practical level (and even a bit unintentionally elitist) to not share that information about those processes and those opportunities with every parent. People love their children. People in extreme difficulty who know that information about those problems and opportunities can make better informed decisions.
Ignorance should not be our strategy for any parents. Knowledge is power -- even in extreme difficulty. We need everyone to understand what the opportunities are -- because that knowledge will change lives in ways that are extremely relevant to each child whose life is changed.
The information that is needed to change lives is known. The information needs to be shared. The attached Mayo Clinic Grand Rounds talk on saving kids can help tee up that teaching process for people who want to see it at a child centered level. Read that Clinical Grand Rounds piece and share it with other people who will benefit from knowing that information.
The little two-page flyer piece for new parents linked to this piece can also be downloaded and printed. The two-page piece tells in brief, clear, explicit, and functionally sufficient and direct language what parents and families can do to help each child. Share that parent-education piece with anyone in your life who is a new parent, and you might change the life of a child because the parents of the child now understand that information.
Milwaukee had riots. The riots were triggered by extremely negative economic and health related realities for its citizens. Major problems exist. We need to understand that some of those negative situations are created by the fact that only 15 percent of the children in the Milwaukee school system can read proficiently.
Some of the links between not reading and economic challenges are obvious. It can be extremely difficult for anyone to get a job when you can't read well enough to fill in the job application.
We need to recognize those problems and work in our various settings to create jobs for people who can't read. When the only economic infrastructure in a community that consistently welcomes nonreaders is the criminal gangs in that setting, then the gangs win. Gangs are winning today in too many cities and neighborhoods. We need functional alternatives to gangs so people who can't read can still make a living.
Those sets of issues each need to be dealt with in their own context. But the context we all should and can address today is the extremely important and highly immediate context about the life trajectories of children being born in Milwaukee today.
We need to change life trajectories for those children starting now.
The single-highest top-priority and the number-one opportunity existing right now in terms of its actual impact on peoples' lives, is to get this information out to families, care givers, and educators to do the things we need to do to change the world for children being born today.
Let's not lose any more kids. Milwaukee is in enough pain now. Let's give at least the very youngest kids a better chance for tomorrow.
Knowledge is power. Knowledge and functional enlightenment about important things that need to be done also creates ethical accountability about the need to do them.
Milwaukee is a great place to start.