THE ROLE OF THE GAPS: At 18 months!

FRIDAY, JUNE 13, 2014

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.

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.
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.

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...

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.
By general agreement, this has come to be known as the “30 million word gap.”

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.

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.
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.


  1. I totally disagree with the claim that liberals "don't care" about these things. Their focus, instead, is on the belief that improving the lot of lower income parents through lower unemployment and higher incomes will cause many of these things to happen: more two-parent households, more hopeful households, less alcoholism and abuse, more positive interactions with children. Yet liberals have also been consistent in advocating funding for early childhood education. But it has also been hard to tap into a generosity vein for helping poor kids when so many of the non-poor are struggling so much themselves and right-wingers have had so much success in promoting Reagan's toxic formula that "government is the problem."

    How best to close the gap is to a great extent a technical matter that is outside the realm of political activity. Even programs for three-year-olds, it seems, are starting later than they should be, but we should also have as a starting premise that it's never "too late." Now that's truly "giving up" on kids.

    The idea, however, of enlisting the parents themselves in the battle, rather than relying entirely on top-down solutions that dismiss the capabilities of low income parents, seems like a sound one. If society is going to entrust the raising of children to even very low income birth parents who will take the effort to feed them, protect them and raise them, then it must also respect the parents' desire and ability to learn better ways of making them thrive as they grow up. Nothing will solve everything overnight, but if NAEP scores are to be believed, progress is being made.

  2. Do wealthy parents somehow know that they're supposed to talk to their babies, or do the nannies they hire know this? How would they know this? I don't believe that this is the difference. How does the total word count compare with the count of unique words - that is how important is the vocabulary and range of knowledge of the parent or other caregiver?

    1. I would theorize that most parents have a more than adequate vocabulary for one, two and even three year olds to assimilate. The value of the more sophisticated vocabulary would seem to kick in around age 4, and that is when some form of schooling can start to fill the sophistication gap.

    2. I'm happy to see research being done on the idea that talking to children might be crucial. If research confirms that hypothesis, that will be useful information. As of now, it's merely one more plausible, but unproven, idea.

      My daughters turned out to be very bright. But, nobody told my wife and me that we were supposed to talk to our children. I don't actually recall just how much talking we did, but we did read to them a lot.

    3. Some parents care more than others, and this is likely correlated with income since more caring parents would avoid producing children they cannot afford to raise and would not produce them knowing they would be raised by a single parent funded by government.

    4. Parents raise kids the way they were raised and according to cultural traditions. These are different at different income levels. But things like depression, fatigue, and lack of time also affect how much attention kids get. In large families the younger kids have smaller vocabularies, lower IQs, and worse school performance because they are raised largely by sibs not adults. All parents care and do the best they can but their efforts vary and that affects kids. If the government funded child care and kids directly we would have outcomes like Scandinavia even for single parents. But we'd rather moralize.

    5. The government does fund such a program, namely Head Start. Sadly, HS has not produced the academic gains that were predicted. Maybe the Scandinavian programs are run better than HS in some ways. But, we'd better find out why HS isn't working before we simply initiate HS-version 2.

    6. "Sadly, HS has not produced the academic gains that were predicted."

      This is not true.

    7. When I say government funded child care and kids, I am referring to programs that give parents the financial resources needed to be good parents, so they can spend time with their kids, so their kids have food and clothing, so that basic necessities are met and parents need not work multiple jobs or come home so dead tired they have little energy left for parenting. If kids come with a stipend and there is high quality, inexpensive child care available (as in most of Europe), parents will have time to be better parents.

      Head Start is a whole other issue. If anyone has given up on it, it is the conservatives trying to end it. This widespread cry that Head Start is ineffective is coming from them and, like the stats Somerby keeps repeating, is not true.

    8. Gee whiz, David in Cal disagrees with St. Ronald Reagan:

  3. People talk about a federal education program starting at age 3 as if that were some new idea. In fact, Head Start takes children as young as 3. Its goals were supposed to be the very thing we're talking about. Disapointingly, research has shown that Head Start came nowhere near to accomplishing its original goals. The program may do some good, but children who have been in Head Start show little or no permanent academic improvement.

    Why don't people talk about why Head Start hasn't accomplished its stated goals? Why aren't we (and many others) discussing how HS can be improved? Why aren't there dozens of alternative pilot programs within HS that can be compared to see which approaches would better serve the children?

    It seems as though people have given up on HS (as a means of substantial academic improvement), so that they need to consider another parallel program. I think we'd be better off fixing the program we already have.

  4. If only the slaves had been instructed to talk to their babies!

    1. If only liberal stage and screen stars had been taught they were supposed to care! Alas!

    2. I think the language deficit that exists among African-American kids is a new phenomenon, not the consequence of slavery.

      My father was a widower and my siblings and I were tended to by a black couple. Singing, story telling, mimicry (amazingly brilliant impersonations), dancing, and just general "showing out" filled every moment of the day.

      I went home with them many a time at night and the same thing happened at their home between the adults and kids of their large extended family that came in and out.

      I don't know why there is now more talking going on in white households than black ones, but I think it's a modern dynamic stemming from new stressors.

    3. Yes, Cecelia. The tender and enriching childhood experience you had with "a black couple" is exactly the same tender and enriching childhood experience ALL black children must have had as well.

      After all, seen one, seen 'em all.

    4. "Some of my best nannies were black."

    5. That things have changed is my point, dope.

    6. There is a black middle class and a black educated class. There is also a black underclass, just as there is a white underclass with kids who don't hear lots of words. Compare apples to apples please.

    7. Yes, indeed things have changed.

      Once upon a time in a magical kingdom known as Cecelia Land, the vast majority of black children came from two-parent families, just like the couple she describes, spoke to their children often from infancy and there was no "achievement gap."

      My, how thinks are different when we return to the real world.

    8. There's always been a marriage gap and an achievement gap, but I don't think there was a word gap, as unmarried mothers lived with their parents (and generally grandparents too).

    9. I repeat the comment from another anonymous at 6/15, 11:52 a..m.

      "How does someone get to be an adult and have such a limited understanding of what other people's lives are like?"

  5. For reasons we'll be explaining, it's time that these very large gaps were explained and explored.

  6. ''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.

    I've heard young moms say they didn't know where babies came from.

  7. How he bagan

    "Part 1—Some of the gaps disappear: In last week’s Economic Scene column, the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter avoided some of the gaps.

    We refer to the “achievement gaps” which help define the state of America’s public schools."

    Where we've gotten to:

    "Part 5—Thirty million words: The achievement gaps are very large within our student population."

    Damn those underachieving 18 month old students!

    Alas. Standards will just not fit the needs of all of them!

  8. Perhaps the problem with our trolls is that they heard too many words when young?

    1. Yeah, evidently they relentlessly heard 200,000 word diatribes on the political advantages in harassing people who don't agree with them.

    2. Are you referring to endless blogger screeds about cable TV hosts who are clowns and stuff millions of dollars into their pants?

  9. As long as we're throwing out unproven hypotheses, here are a few more possibilities to consider blaming for the gap:

    1. Welfare rules drove fathers out of the house. That reduced the number of parents available to talk to children by 50%.

    2. TV may distract mothers from talking to their children.

    3. The effect of so many government programs is to make parents less and less responsible for their children's upbringing. Maybe parents reacted by being less invested in their children. (If this is a big factor, then a new governmental early education program might be counter-productive.)

    1. You are confusing cause and effect again.

    2. How does someone get to be an adult and have such a limited understanding of what other people's lives are like?

    3. Quaker in a BasementJune 16, 2014 at 5:11 PM

      Are there no workhouses?

  10. I imagine that I consume a significant diet of media (news, analysis, commentary) -- but I have not heard about the study Somerby brings to our attention today.

    Or perhaps it would be more fair to say Somerby today brings to our attention the fact that the study has not yet been brought to our attention!

    It's a fair point, Mr. Somerby.

    1. Unless you also consume a significant diet of professional, peer-reviewed journals, I would wager that there is quite a mass of very important studies you haven't heard about.

      Of course, it is the fault of the mass media that these studies aren't read, digested, and presented in a form we can easily read in 10 minutes while sitting on the john in the morning.

      And on the rare occasions when they try, we can chide them for their lack of professional expertise.

  11. I am amazed to learn that an exhaustive study which included all of six families on public welfare in Kansas City made the astounding and earth shattering discovery that poor people talk to their children less than wealthier people do and with bigger vocabularies. And as a result, poor children know fewer words.

    It is truly amazing this astonishing discovery does not get more coverage two decades later.

    It is all the media's fault.

    If only they were doing their jobs we might understand, as we clearly don't, that the impact of being poor starts early in life and is long lasting.

    I am particularly proud of those who have extrapolated these findings to black children and black parents, which the study authors did not.
    Because TDH readers care about black children.

    And this guy calls Rachel Maddow a clown?

    1. So, your point is that if only Bob would just shut up and let the media continue as usual that the problems that exist with education (the gaps) would be more quickly solved? I fail to see how this could be true.

    2. I said nothing about problems with education. If you have paid close attention, Bob hasn't said much about those problems either, since the gaps are brought to school by the children of the poor.

  12. Quaker in a BasementJune 16, 2014 at 4:42 PM

    An extra 1,500 words per hour? Where does a kid have to go to get a little peace and quiet?