Part 5—Where does literacy come from: We have very large achievement gaps in this country.
As Amanda Ripley notes in her widely-praised but very bad book, our achievement gaps are much larger than those found in places like Korea and Finland. Where do our large gaps come from?
Do they come from poverty? Pshaw! Just look at Norway, Ripley says.
(For details, see yesterday’s post.)
Do our gaps come from funding shortfalls? “Spending on education d[oes] not make kids smarter,” Ripley weirdly says.
Does immigration contribute to our large gaps? In Finland, immigrant kids are scoring at the top of the world, Ripley plainly implies in her book. (This implied claim is baldly false.) Also, look at Australia! (Australia’s immigrant kids largely come from the Asian tigers. They outscore Australian kids.)
Do our gaps represent the legacy of our brutal racial history? Does that help explain why we tend to trail Finland?
“Five out of six American kids [are] not black!” Ripley says.
You could almost learn to dislike a person who serves her funders this way. Ripley ends up mouthing standard nostrums about the importance of expectations and rigor.
Unfortunately, it isn’t all about expectations. And what does rigor look like if you're teaching kids who are years behind, and confused?
In her book, Ripley barely seems to know, or care, that such children exist. Except for one silly story Straight Outta Rhee, she doesn't even attempt to tell us how to bring those children rigor.
That said, where do our large gaps come from? Let’s ask that question a different way:
Where does literacy come from?
Where does literacy come from? To answer that question, consider one 9-year-old’s chart.
The 9-year-old girl is named Mellie A; we don’t use last names here. Last Saturday, in its Free For All letters section, the Washington Post published a letter from her mother.
Mellie’s mother was urging the Post to publish more photographs of women. Her letter started like this:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (11/2/13): One morning over breakfast this past summer, Mellie, my 9-year-old daughter, looked at The Post, turned to me and said, “Mommy, why aren’t there any pictures of women on the front page of the newspaper?”Where does literacy come from? Right there, we have part of our answer.
“Good question,” I answered.
Mellie’s parents read the Washington Post! That doesn’t mean they’re better people than some other kid’s parents. It just means they’re somewhat more “literate.”
Mellie also scans the Post. On this occasion, she was puzzled by the absence of photos of women on the Post’s front page.
Alertly, she asked her mother about it. Where does literacy come from? Literacy comes from this:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (continuing directly): I took a deep breath and explained that only about 10 percent of the world’s countries currently have female leaders, and in our own country, fewer than 20 percent of our national lawmakers are women. In business, there is an even greater gender gap: Only 21 of the Fortune 500 companies (not even 5 percent) have female chief executives. So, I told Mellie, as long as the majority of the world’s political and business leaders are men, it makes some sense that the front page would feature photos of those people.In large part, that’s where literacy comes from.
But how often, Mellie wondered, were there absolutely no photos of girls or women on the front page?
To answer this question, Mellie and I decided to conduct a study. For the entire month of August, we pored over the front page of The Post, and Mellie filled in a chart.
When the Post published this latter, they included a winning photo of Mellie. (We can’t yet find a link.) She is poised above a very large chart. She has long, slender arms and a big head of hair, which is curly. She’s holding a rather large pencil.
She’s studying a very large collection of data. We hate to tell you, but in large part, this is where literacy comes from.
(We recall the way we struggled, in sixth grade, to create a large scale drawing of Fenway Park. We had to extend lots of lines to capture all those famous angles. We didn’t yet know the math.)
That photo shows where literacy comes from. Viewed from a slightly different angle, what it shows is also the source of our gaps.
At age 9, Mellie seems to be deeply involved in the world of observation. (That world barely exists in our big newspapers, except when the children write in.) In large part, that’s where literacy—and achievement gaps—come from.
When we looked at that picture, we thought of a 7-year-old who is part of our own extended family. Her literacy seems to be rolling along at this point. In large part, this is why:
Three Thanksgivings ago, when she was 4, we spotted her on her family’s living room couch. She was pretending that she could read the New York Times.
She had been raised among a passel of graduate students, most of them in public health. Everyone she knew and loved was constantly reading something.
Two Christmases ago, when she was 5, she was caught in a love affair with the alphabet. She sat at the counter in her American grandparents’ kitchen and sketched every letter for us, along with the picture of the object which accompanied that letter on the wall of her kindergarten.
Last Christmas, she was back in Maine with seven adults, including two parents, two grandparents and a great uncle. Also present: Her Uncle Brendan, in from Dublin, and the delicious person who would soon become her treasured Aunt Nikki.
(Why not subscribe to Uncle Brendan’s Dublin Review?)
Basically, that week was spent in rotation. The young scholar moved from one adult to the next; all of them read to her from books she got for Christmas. Thinking back, this thought occurred:
When children get read to this way, it isn’t just that they learn a lot of new words. It isn’t just that they learn the way written language sounds. (This allows them to produce standard written language themselves.)
They also learn that reading is something you do while snuggling with the people you love. People whose keisters you’ll proceed to kick in serial games of Mancala, the alleged oldest game on the earth.
As everyone but the “reformers” know, this is largely where literacy comes from. Children whose parents are more “literate” are bathed in such practices from their first days on earth.
Children whose parents are less “literate” are not raised within this culture. By age 3, large differences (gaps!) have opened up between these groups of kids.
Everyone knows these things but Ripley, who was perhaps simply serving her funders as she rolled her eyes, a bit cruelly we’d say, at the blindingly obvious sources of our rather large gaps.
Trust us: Ripley was raised the same way Mellie is being raised. We were pretty much raised that way too.
Consider Mrs. Davis, who lived down the street and was what we’d call a Yankee educational striver. At one point, she opened an in-house library for us kids on Marshall Road. This supplemented the town library, some 0.85 miles away.
Then too, there was the time she told us about the wonderful new TV station!
History says this must have occurred in the spring of 1955. (We were seven.) One day, Mrs. Davis described the wonderful new TV station which would be starting in Boston.
It was going to be an educational station, she said, a thrill in her voice. We children were going to learn all sorts of things as we watched its wonderful programs!
Mrs. Davis filled us with ardor. We hurried home to tell our sainted mother.
“Tuh!” our sainted mother replied, not attempting to hide her scorn. “You won’t like that!”
(Most likely, that was the wrong thing to say. In fairness, though, we’ll have to admit that Mother was basically right on her facts.)
Whatever! Amanda Ripley was raised the same way Mellie is being raised. The same general way we were raised. The same way our young family member is being raised.
Such children are bathed in the practices of literacy from their first days forward. They even react to the songs they’re sung when they’re still in the womb!
Other kids aren’t raised that way. By the age of 3, the gaps have appeared. Everyone knows these facts by now, except the spear-chuckers who roam the world repeating the scripts of the funders.
Ripley was a fellow at a foundation which is heavily funded by Bill Gates. As far as we know, Gates is completely sincere in the things he thinks about education.
That said, many of his ideas are clueless. So too with the other billionaires who have created the often clueless ideas which comprise “education reform.”
We’re sorry, but it actually isn’t all about expectations! Ripley’s funders have possibly sung that song to her. But when she rolls your eyes at poverty and at the effects of our brutal racial history, she is being extremely clueless. We’d say that her work’s a bit cruel.
As a general matter, very bad people are roaming the earth, telling us extremely dumb stories. But the money is coming from the funders. So are those dumb, clueless scripts.
By the way: what did Mellie’s study reveal? We’d rather hear it from Mellie herself. But here’s what her mother wrote:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (continuing directly): Our results showed that during August, The Post’s front page featured 78 photos of males, 19 photos of females and 21 photos of males and females together. For eight days, not a single female was pictured in any of the photos on the front page. And above the fold each day of that month, only three photos depicted just females.There’s a hint of Mrs. Davis there! For what it’s worth, five of the seven kids within Mrs. Davis’ orbit on Marshall Road ended up going to Harvard, Wellesley or MIT. If memory serves, Name Withheld went to MIT at a time when few girls did.
Mrs. Davis ruled! Her son became the only two-time editor of the Harvard Advocate. Some famous names appear on that list. For better or worse, her son’s name appears twice.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that those kids were better people than other kids; as many as six of them weren’t. It means they got the advantages of literacy in a culture which values, or at least rewards, those skills, inclinations and practices.
Other American kids aren’t raised in those same ways. People like Ripley, a funder’s delight, don’t seem to know that, or care.
Tomorrow: TIMSS 2011! More on the size of those gaps
The gaps are present by age 3: No, Amanda! It isn’t all about expectations, despite what the funders want you to say. It’s largely about the passage shown below from that new study from the Casey Foundation.
Everyone knows these things by now. These basic facts have been repeated in studied about ten million times:
THE FIRST EIGHT YEARS: The normal challenges of raising children are far more daunting for families struggling with poverty. Low-income parents often spend more time away from their children because they are juggling multiple jobs, spending significant periods in transit, searching for secure housing or navigating complex public-assistance bureaucracies. There are measurable differences between how children in lower-income families and their middle-class peers develop and learn. By the time a child in a very low-income family reaches age 4, she will have heard only two words for every seven that a child in a higher-income family has heard. By the time children in families with very low incomes enter kindergarten, they are 12 to 14 months behind in language and pre-reading skills, compared with children in higher-income families, where reading books and engaging in regular conversations with adults help build much larger vocabularies.As everybody knows by now, there’s much, much more to this story. But that highlighted passage is the place we’d start.
Poverty presents other challenges for very young children...
Exciting as the trip may be, you can’t fly off to Finland to study this problem while lounging in a nice hotel. This situation was never created in Finland. For that reason, the Finns haven’t solved it.
In our experience, the kids described in that highlighted passage are among the world’s best kids. But in their earliest years, they don’t gain the advantage of immersion in the culture of literacy. This isn’t a moral or an intelligence issue. It’s a matter of habits and practices.
Everyone knows these things by now. Everyone except the funders and their rather cruel tribunes, who roll their eyes, from page 4 on, about the things everyone knows.