Rob Santos has no doubt that poverty hurts a child’s ability to learn.
But some hard data to back that up and find solutions would be helpful.
The absence of a national long-form census, the inability and unwillingness of education and health and child-welfare systems to collect and share information, all of that hurts the uphill battle to ensure that children born into poverty get an equal education, Santos told the Canadian Teachers Federation today.
"You’re really seeing a huge class divide," said Santos, executive director of science and policy for the provincial government’s Healthy Child Manitoba, and a community health sciences professor at the University of Manitoba.
Santos told the CTF’s annual meeting that research has shown that parts of a young child’s brain are diminished by the effects of poverty.
There are studies showing wide gaps in vocabulary between rich and poor, such as Stanford University’s having just released a study finding that the gap starts as young as 18 months, he said.
Studies of Romanian orphans kept in appalling conditions under the former totalitarian regime showed diminished brain capacity, but the children began bouncing back after they were adopted, Santos said.
Academics call the effects toxic stress, he said: one of four babies born in Manitoba is under toxic stress, he said, but three of four babies born on First Nations are under toxic stress.
"Equity from the beginning is open to question," he said.
Santos praised the NDP government for having made early childhood education a priority. Intervening with kids to improve literacy works, he said, but, "there’s only so much excellent schools can do" without the earliest possible intervention with kids who need help the most.
"Do we keep waiting as it magnifies over time, or do we intervene as early as possible?" asked Santos.
Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Paul Olson told Santos that teachers unfairly take the blame for students’ learning outcomes, such as their scores on international tests that don’t take poverty into account.
Olson said Canada needs a national database "to push back against the nonsense being loaded on our members’ heads."
CTF president Dianne Wolsochuk told delegates teachers feel pressure not to address social justice issues in their classrooms, be it poverty, gay rights, indigenous issues or women’s rights.
"Teachers have told us they do not feel system support for dealing with social justice issues," Woloschuk said. "Teachers are asking for space in our schools to bring the needs of all people into the discussion.
"Every voice is crucial to strengthening our democracy," she said.
Olson is a candidate to succeed Woloschuk in 2015, in a vote of delegates to be taken Friday.