Part 5—Thirty million words: The achievement gaps are very large within our student population.
In this morning’s New York Times, a former teacher offers a perfectly sensible thought about this state of affairs. These large gaps must be nipped in the bud, the writer essentially says.
The writer refers to Robert Balfanz’s struggles to keep ninth-graders in school, which he described in an essay in Sunday’s New York Times. (For our previous report, just click here.)
Balfanz works with high school and middle school students who are likely to drop out. But even by middle school, “it’s just too late,” this former teacher says:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (6/13/14): Yet again, an educator is suggesting effective ways to lower high school dropout rates. As a former high school teacher, I have read similar articles with similar suggestions for many years. However admirable these goals are, trying to help struggling middle-school children succeed is like putting in an alarm system after a robbery. It’s just too late.To some extent, we had a similar reaction to Balfanz’s piece. The achievement gaps are very large by the ninth grade, or even by the middle school years. Among struggling students, alienation and despair may be quite strong by that point.
All children should learn proper behavior, acquire good study habits, and be taught to read and do arithmetic very early on. If, starting in kindergarten, children are welcomed, coached, mentored and taught to love learning, then they will achieve these goals well before they reach middle school.
Presumably, Balfanz’s work is very important. But it does come very late.
The letter writer, who taught high school, had a familiar reaction to this whole state of affairs. In certain obvious ways, her reaction makes obvious sense.
She says our intervention with struggling kids should start “very early on,” right there in kindergarten! As she continued, she also offered a winning prescription for the elementary grades:
“We cannot wait until there are signs of distress; we must work with children when they are young and excited by learning. Our strongest, smartest and most charismatic teachers should be in the elementary school classrooms. The syllabus should be demanding, creative, encouraging and always fun.”
She pictures young American kids who are “excited by learning.” In the elementary grades, their course of study should be “demanding,” she says—demanding and “always fun.”
In the abstract, these ruminations make perfect sense. When we read the Balfanz piece, we too were struck by how hard it must be to intervene in ninth grade.
That said, the letter writer engages in a familiar type of regress. In this familiar game of tag, instructors blame the problems they confront on the teachers who came before them:
Puzzled by “these kids today,” college instructors will sometimes ask what is going on in our high schools. In turn, high school teachers explain what Miss Smith should have accomplished back in the second grade.
Alas! This former teacher wants our intervention to start in kindergarten. At the end of her letter, she describes this as “the beginning.” But kindergarten isn’t where our large achievement gaps get started. Large gaps are in place at age 3, we’re now told—even at 18 months.
What kind of gaps are in place at age 3? In 2006, Paul Tough described the relevant research in a lengthy piece in the New York Times magazine.
We’ll suggest you read his detailed account, but we’ll quote two shorter descriptions of the groundbreaking research in question. It was published in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, a pair of researchers at the University of Kansas.
In 2010, David Shenk discussed their remarkable work in The Atlantic. Alas! The pair had discovered a gap which was in place at age 3:
SHENK (3/9/10): In the mid-1980s, Kansas psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley realized that something was very wrong with Head Start, America's program for children of the working poor. It manages to keep some low-income kids out of poverty and ultimately away from crime. But for a program that intervenes at a very young age and is reasonably well run and generously funded—$7 billion annually—it doesn't do much to raise kids' academic success...By general agreement, this has come to be known as the “30 million word gap.”
The problem, Hart and Risley realized, wasn't so much with the mechanics of the program; it was the timing. Head Start wasn't getting hold of kids early enough. Somehow, poor kids were getting stuck in an intellectual rut long before they got to the program—before they turned three and four years old. Hart and Risley set out to learn why and how. They wanted to know what was tripping up kids' development at such an early age. Were they stuck with inferior genes, lousy environments, or something else?
They devised a novel (and exhaustive) methodology: for more than three years, they sampled the actual number of words spoken to young children from forty-two families at three different socioeconomic levels: (1) welfare homes, (2) working-class homes, and (3) professionals' homes. Then they tallied them up.
The differences were astounding. Children in professionals' homes were exposed to an average of more than fifteen hundred more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes. Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly 8 million words, which, by age four, amounted to a total gap of 32 million words. They also found a substantial gap in tone and in the complexity of words being used. As they crunched the numbers, they discovered a direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement. "We were astonished at the differences the data revealed," Hart and Risley wrote in their book Meaningful Differences.
In the first three years of life, there are gigantic differences in the way children are raised—in the ways they’re spoken to, in the number of words they learn. These interactions may even affect the ways these children’s brains develop.
In a more recent piece, The Economist refers to substantial developmental gaps which have been measured at only 18 months. In the passage which follows, we hear the suggestion that children's early interactions affect the way their brains grow:
THE ECONOMIST (2/22/14): The effects can be seen directly in the brain. Kimberly Noble of Columbia University told the meeting how linguistic disparities are reflected in the structure of the parts of the brain involved in processing language. Although she cannot yet prove that hearing speech causes the brain to grow, it would fit with existing theories of how experience shapes the brain. Babies are born with about 100 billion neurons, and connections between these form at an exponentially rising rate in the first years of life. It is the pattern of these connections which determines how well the brain works, and what it learns. By the time a child is three there will be about 1,000 trillion connections in his brain, and that child’s experiences continuously determine which are strengthened and which pruned. This process, gradual and more-or-less irreversible, shapes the trajectory of the child’s life.We’re not entirely sure what that means. Back in 2006, Tough seemed to allude to similar ruminations:
TOUGH (11/26/06): Martha Farah, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has built on Brooks-Gunn's work, using the tools of neuroscience to calculate exactly which skills poorer children lack and which parental behaviors affect the development of those skills. She has found, for instance, that the ''parental nurturance'' that middle-class parents, on average, are more likely to provide stimulates the brain's medial temporal lobe, which in turn aids the development of memory skills.Do children’s brains develop differently in response to their early interactions? We don’t know, but that “30 million word gap” exists by the age of 3.
At this tender age, large gaps of various kinds already exist. By the start of kindergarten, many kids are already behind. In this sense, today’s letter writer may be “way too late” with her prescriptions, much as she says of Balfanz!
To what extent can these early gaps be addressed? That’s an interesting question.
As we mentioned yesterday, “Providence Talks” is an early intervention program. It has been designed to confront the “30 million word gap.”
According to Nexis, “Providence Talks” has never been mentioned on MSNBC. According to Nexis, it has been mentioned on American news programs only twice, in each case on NPR.
Last year, Tina Rosenberg described the forthcoming program in a New York Times Sunday Review piece. In the process, she made an interesting remark about the 30 million word gap:
“If you haven’t heard of Hart and Risley’s work, you are not alone—and you may be wondering why. These findings should have created a policy whirlwind...”
Why aren’t Hart and Risley famous? If we were asked to solve this puzzle, we would offer this explanation:
Truth to tell, no one cares about our achievement gaps!
Within the mainstream press, our education discourse mainly serves as a way to repeat elite talking-points about our allegedly failing schools. Gloomily, our achievement gaps get mentioned. Our students’ large score gains do not.
Meanwhile, the liberal world pays little attention to the interests of low-income kids. We quit on poor kids long ago. We don’t discuss these topics.
To the extent that an education discourse exists, it mainly exists to drive preferred talking-points. In the end, that’s how we came to see The Atlantic’s recent lengthy report, “Segregation Now...”
All next week: Week 4 in “our month of the gaps:” The uses of Tuscaloosa!
The New York Times gets it right: On March 26, the New York Times did a full report about Providence Talks. Motoko Rich started like this:
RICH (3/26/14): Amid a political push for government-funded preschool for 4-year-olds, a growing number of experts fear that such programs actually start too late for the children most at risk. That is why Deisy Ixcuna-González, the 16-month-old daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, is wearing a tiny recorder that captures every word she hears and utters inside her family's cramped apartment one day a week.Many parents simply don’t know that they’re supposed to talk to their babies. In a somewhat similar way, liberal stars of stage and screen don’t know they’re supposed to care.
Recent research shows that brain development is buoyed by continuous interaction with parents and caregivers from birth, and that even before age 2, the children of the wealthy know more words than do those of the poor. So the recorder acts as a tool for instructing Deisy's parents on how to turn even a visit to the kitchen into a language lesson. It is part of an ambitious campaign, known as Providence Talks, that is aimed at the city's poorest residents and intended to reduce the knowledge gap long before school starts. It is among a number of such efforts being undertaken throughout the country.
''When she grabs your hand and brings you to the refrigerator and points to the cabinet, that is an opportunity for you to say, 'Deisy, are you hungry? You want cereal? Let's go look for the cereal,' '' Stephanie Taveras, a Providence Talks home visitor who also works with Early Head Start, told Deisy's mother in Spanish. ''You do the responding for her now until she has the vocabulary, and she will be hearing you.''
Educators say that many parents, especially among the poor and immigrants, do not know that talking, as well as reading, singing and playing with their young children, is important. ''I've had young moms say, 'I didn't know I was supposed to talk to my baby until they could say words and talk to me,' '' said Susan Landry, director of the Children's Learning Institute at the University of Texas in Houston, which has developed a home visiting program similar to the one here in Providence.