Almanac

Viewpoint - July 16, 2014

Guest opinion: Reflections on the Zuckerberg grant: The possibilities and limitations of a gift

by Martin Lamarque

I got very excited when I heard of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan's pledge of $120 million to help improve education in struggling communities of the Bay Area, among them, East Palo Alto, and Belle Haven — until I read the details of the plan, briefly explained by the couple in the editorial pages of the Mercury News.

The basic premise of the pledge is the belief that if we help close the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots, we will finally put impoverished children on their way to higher test scores.

I am still hoping that, given the fact that Priscilla is a pediatrician, she will convince her husband that they should invest their well-meant gift in combating what Harvard's Center on the Developing Child identifies as the main source of failure for many of the nation's children: living with toxic stress. See the report at tinyurl.com/toxic16. (My hope is partly based on the fact that Harvard is Dr. Chan's alma mater — and almost Mr. Zuckerberg's too — and that they will take an interest in the subject.)

Toxic stress is something that many kids on the east side of the highway endure in varied forms from the time they arrive in the world. Particularly in this area of the country, where the economic divide is so stark.

As with other social investments we have seen going nowhere, the solution to major problems and disparities are again being identified as the need to "close the digital divide." We forget that even though there have never before been so many different electronic devices at the disposal of virtually everyone, poor children's academic performance continues to rank at the bottom. For all children, but especially those who grow up in poverty, there is a direct correlation between the time spent on electronic media and academic underperformance (in addition to its negative effects on social and physical development).

No matter how many studies have shown that it is less screen time — not more — that children need to develop well and learn, the push continues to be for the promotion of more screen devices, often starting with schools' push to acquire more computers.

Just look around. Do we really need to promote more detachment among human beings by encouraging more reliance on electronic devices?

What overworked teachers need to help children learn is not more computers in their classrooms, but other human beings assisting them in person, encouraging connection to other humans, not machines. Here is where funding could really make a positive difference. Funds used to develop a curriculum with more noncompetitive play and physical activities would achieve much more, and in more areas, than giving schools more money to spend on getting wired.

In this community, a fraction of the $120 million would take us a lot farther if it were invested in promoting the social and emotional development that children need to really thrive. That could include in no small part raising parents' understanding of the importance of reducing toxic stress in their families — i.e., through the elimination of physical and emotional abuse, neglect and disconnection within the family.

Once empowered by knowledge, parents often realize that, in spite of the obscene economic inequalities around them, they hold a bigger piece of the puzzle in their children's lives than they ever knew they did. At the same time that we get more parents on this path, we need to invest in strengthening and supporting families through practical support.

We need to intervene when a difficult situation threatens to become a crisis, and later a chronic crisis that dooms the future of a child. Training school staff to better understand the factors affecting a child's performance — and a mechanism to intervene in ways that don't stigmitize parents, but instead offer them the support they need to improve their parenting — would be money well invested.

Belle Haven resident Martin Lamarque is an Almanac blogger. You can read more of his commentary by going to AlmanacNews.com and clicking on "Blogs" in the menu bar.

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