Reading and the brain

Really, really interesting post from Maria Konnikova about the latest research on why some people have so much of an easier time learning to read than others.  And what we can do to help young elementary kids become good readers.  For starters, here’s the pretty awesome research design:

This fall, Hoeft and her colleagues at U.C.S.F. published the results of a three-year longitudinal study looking at the basic neuroscience of reading development. Between 2008 and 2009, Hoeft recruited a group of five- and six-year-old children. Some came from backgrounds predictive of reading difficulty. Others seemed to have no obvious risk factors. In addition to undergoing a brain scan, the children were tested for general cognitive ability, as well as a host of other factors, including how well they could follow instructions and how coherently they could express themselves. Each parent was also surveyed, and each child’s home life, carefully analyzed: How did the child spend her time at home? Was she read to frequently? How much time did she spend watching television? Three years later, each child’s brain was scanned again, and the children were tested on a number of reading and phonological tests.

So, what did they find?

When Hoeft took into account all of the explanatory factors that had been linked to reading difficulty in the past—genetic risk, environmental factors, pre-literate language ability, and over-all cognitive capacity—she found that only one thing consistently predicted how well a child would learn to read. That was the growth of white matter in one specific area of the brain, the left temporoparietal region. The amount of white matter that a child arrived with in kindergarten didn’t make a difference. But the change in volume between kindergarten and third grade did.

[Side note: Based on google image search, I’m not 100% sure where the temporoparietal region is, but I’m pretty sure my son Alex’s brain has a particularly heavy tumor load there]

Anyway, pretty amazing that all those other factors wash out and that’s what we’re left with.  So, what to make of it?

The group’s new findings go a step further. They don’t just show that white matter is important. They point to a crucial stage where the development of white matter is central to reading ability. And the white-matter development, Hoeft believes, is surely a function of both nature and nurture.

The next steps involve figuring out just what the nurture is, but this seems to be an important and promising line of research.

Republicans, taxes, and poverty

Really interesting Tom Edsall piece on Republicans challenging the party status quo on tax rates and how best to help Americans:

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a Tea Party favorite, is worried about economic unfairness. Here he is, arguing for what he calls a “conservative reform agenda”:

Today, the United States is beset by a crisis in inequality. It’s not a crisis of unequal wealth or income, exactly – it’s a crisis of unequal opportunity. We see it up and down American society. The underprivileged are trapped in poverty, sometimes for generations. The middle class is caught on a treadmill, running harder every year just to maintain the economic security and social cohesion that were once taken for granted.

Lee’s commentary reflects a break with conservative orthodoxy by one faction on the right, even as it remains consonant with a populist critique of elites:

At the top of our society, we find political and economic elite increasingly exempted and insulated by law from the rigors of competition and the consequences of their own mistakes.

Note that line about “the rigors of competition.” Lee and others of like mind are shifting the focus of populist anger from liberal elites to economic elites. They are challenging Democratic domination of issues like wage stagnation, the power of the 1 percent and the diminished opportunities a majority of Americans face.

The Republican appropriation of leftist populist rhetoric (and even policies) poses a significant threat to liberal prospects in 2016. They plan to bring the fight to the Democrats on their own turf.

But at the same time, the growth of dissension within Republican ranks on the question of what should be done about the economy and in whose name it should be done testifies to the strength of a contemporary reform conservative movement that has, somewhat oddly, become known as the “reformicon” movement.

Of course, Democrats don’t actually have to be worried.  Lee’s plan calls for restructuring taxes in ways that help the lower and middle classes far more than the rich:

Lee and Rubio are proposing a major revision to the tax code, which calls for a substantial share of its benefits to be directed to the working and middle classes. Their revision would raise the refundable child care credit to $3,500 from $1,000. In addition, it would establish just two tax rates: 15 percent on earnings up to $87,850 for an individual ($175,700 for married couples), and 35 percent on all income over that.

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center concluded that the Lee-Rubio proposal would cost the government $2.4 trillion in revenue over 10 years. Lee and Rubio have outraged many of their more traditional colleagues in the conservative movement by failing to endorse a major cut in the top rates of high-income taxpayers.

Not surprisingly, they have gotten slammed for rejecting the orthodoxy that the key to all good things is low marginal rates on the richest Americans.  Now, from my perspective their plan is a huge problem in that 2.4 trillion revenue cut (there’s no mention of what they might actually cut in spending to make up for this– waste, fraud and abuse, I’m sure).  That said, the basic design strikes me as pretty reasonable reform.  All you would have to do to keep it revenue neutral is lower the income level for those in the top bracket (or, raise the top rate a bit and just add more progressivity).  Of course, given that it strikes me as basically reasonable, you can be quite sure it is going nowhere in the Republican Party.

Edsall writes:

If the Republican Party continues in its current direction – a very big if for a party with an adamantly conservative primary electorate — it’s Democrats who should be scared…

The danger for Democrats is that they will lose ownership of the issues of stagnation, opportunity and fairness. But they also face what may be a deeper problem: What happens when their candidates are not the only ones who can harness the emotional power that stems from the anger many Americans feel as they helplessly watch the geyser of wealth shooting to the top?

The real issue going into 2016 is: Can Republicans really abandon so central a pillar of conservative ideology as lower tax rates for those at the top of income distribution?  [emphases mine]

Okay, so if I’m supposed to be a worried Democrat, color me not worried– at least about this.  The writings of some “reformicons” and a tax proposal going less than nowhere do not exactly strike me as a “current direction.”  Not to mention, I would say there’s absolutely no evidence Republicans stand ready to abandon what has been a central pillar of the economic thinking (despite all the empirical evidence on the matter).  I would love it if the Republican Party actually moved in this direction– rather than the policy nihilism that has characterized it in recent years.  That might be worse for the Democrats, but better for the country that deserves to political parties that take public policy seriously.

Photo of the day

Recent National Geographic photo of the day:

Picture of an Arabian horse running through open land in Egypt

Arabian Sight

Photograph by Glenn Jacobs, National Geographic Your Shot

“This Arabian mare was photographed in Dhashur, which is in the desert on the west bank of the Nile, not too far south of Cairo,” writes Glenn Jacobs, a member of our Your Shot photo community. “Because of the light, we waited until sunset to give this mare her temporary freedom. She was very much in tune with her handler, and he was able to guide her to the spot I had in mind for this shot. [It] was wide open, without any fence. The mare, though, always returned to her handler, which was a nice sight to behold.”

Profiles in cowardice

Scott Walker may be leading early polls and looking like a strong contender for the Republican nomination, but in many ways, this guy is just not ready for primetime.

Sure, I get why he doesn’t want to stake a position on evolution, for fear of scaring off Fundamentalist science-deniers who vote in Republican primaries (or scaring off Wall Street libertarians who don’t want a Mike Huckabee social conservative), but you can’t just admit that you are too scared to answer the question:

February 11, 2015 Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, speaking at Chatham House in London, was asked Wednesday by a British moderator if he believes in evolution. He chose not to answer…

“I’m going to punt on that one as well,” Walker said [emphasis mine] after being asked if he was comfortable with the idea of evolution, and if he believes in it. “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or the other.”

In a statement later Wednesday obtained by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker said “Both science and my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God” and that “I believe faith and science are compatible, and go hand in hand.”

Seriously?  You don’t actually admit that you are too cowardly to actually provide an answer– you just tapdance around it– exactly what he does in the later statement.  Sure, the latter is pure pablum designed to seem like he’s answering the question without offending anybody, but that’s what good politicians do.  They don’t say, “I punt.”  Scott Walker does seem to have a lot going for him on paper, but I suspect that the reality of a grueling campaign will do him in, just as it did Rick “now what was that government agency I wanted to close?” Perry.

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