Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The educated class

When our children were little, their grandparents really liked talking "baby talk" to them. I'd watch as supposedly intelligent adults spent hours talking nonsense to unresponsive infants. both baby and adult seemed to enjoy it.

I hated it.

Why? Because my wife and I were convinced that it stunted brain development. Because of that, and because we had no desire to turn our own brains to mush by babbling like idiots, we always talked conversationally to our children from the day they were born. Sure, for the first year it was more of a monologue than a dialogue, but that was fine. We got used to speaking to them like they were adults.

We felt strongly enough about this that we eventually asked the grandparents to stop with the babbling. They thought we were killjoys, but they complied.

Vindication is oh-so-sweet. Not only were we right, but we were a living example of why there's an enduring achievement gap in this country.

This according to the New York Times, which hides its best stuff behind the Times Select wall. In an article in the Nov. 26 magazine, writer Paul Tough explores the challenges facing the No Child Left Behind act. After noting that black children are three times more likely to grow up in poverty than white children, he writes, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley decided to conduct an in-depth study of 42 families. What they found should surprise people only in its scope.

Vocabulary growth differed sharply by class.... By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children's I.Q.'s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

... By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child's home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child's vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 ''utterances'' -- anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy -- to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.

What's more, the kinds of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of ''discouragements'' a child heard -- prohibitions and words of disapproval -- compared with the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another -- all of which stimulated intellectual development.

In other words, talk to your kids like they're adults, and they will rise to the challenge. Talk to them like they're servants to be ordered around (or worse yet, don't talk to them much at all) and they will stagnate.

So why do blacks do worse than whites on standardized tests? Trick question, because it's the wrong question. There is a gap in education, but it's not racial. Instead, race has become a misleading proxy for class.

Tough identifies other class-related differences. Poor kids tend to be taught not to question authority, for example, while middle-class kids grow up engaging in back-and-forth conversation and negotiation with their parents -- which is a lot more work for the parent, but ends up producing kids with more self-confidence, who expect their concerns to be taken seriously.

The article goes on to discuss what that means for equalizing academic performance, and it's not pretty: intensive (and expensive) intervention in order to compensate for the shortcomings at home.

But interesting as that is, it's not the point of this post. I'm going to use the article as a springboard to make two related points:

It's time to look very hard at how race is viewed in our society, because education is not the only place where race is used as a proxy for other issues, with the result that actual causes (and thus actual solutions) are overlooked.

The most controversial way race is accounted for is in college admission and hiring, where schools or companies apply racial preferences as a way to increase minority representation. Laudable as that goal is, it isn't a long-term solution.

Because affirmative action is itself discrimination, it's only legitimate as a way to directly repair damage done by previous discrimination. It would have been unfair, upon repeal of Jim Crow laws, to simply say to blacks "okay, compete." Some degree of remediation was needed to level the playing field and make up for decades of discrimination. But such reverse discrimination must be narrowly tailored and carefully monitored, and ended as soon as the major effects of prior discrimination have been ameliorated. Which requires that objective standards be developed to decide when that has occurred, and that we are careful to separate the effects of racism from other, non-race-based effects for which affirmative action is not the solution.

I'm not saying affirmative-action should be ended; I'm saying it's way past time we had a conversation based around the question "when has the debt been paid, and how will we tell?" The Times article notes that black achievement soared between 1960 and the late 1980s, and then stalled. A reasonable explanation for that might be that by the late 1980s the major effects of racism had been accounted for, and after that the continued focus on race not only did increasingly little good but may have done active harm by diverting attention from underlying causes. It bears looking at.

While race may not be the barrier it once was, barriers do exist. The biggest barrier, I believe, is class. We have a good degree of social mobility in this country, but the mythical Horatio Alger model simply doesn't work as social policy. From their home environment to the school they attend to the expectations ingrained in them from the day they are born, children from poor families must contend with things that most middle-class children do not.

My wife was raised in a blue-collar household. When she inquired about going to college (an ambition that itself set her apart from many of her peers), her parents didn't encourage her. Their response was "why do you want to do that?" and "don't expect us to pay for it." She was left entirely on her own to find the money, time and initiative to enroll in community college, then transfer to a four-year university. She worked full-time during her entire college career.

My dad has a PhD and my mom has a master's. From early in my childhood I understood that I was expected to go to college. Schoolwork was a priority. Money wasn't a problem; if I hadn't landed an ROTC scholarship, my parents would have paid for everything. Because I didn't have to work, I had plenty of time to study (I didn't, as a rule; but I could have....).

If our roles were reversed, would I have made it to college? Would I have made it through college while working full time? It's impossible to say. But in many situations, the answer would be "no".

And that's the key point. Is it possible to rise above adversity and succeed without help? Of course. But social policy shouldn't be based on the extraordinary exceptions, however convenient that may be for the comfortable.

So the challenge before us is this: identify the true barriers to achievement, and develop policies to address them. I suspect that such an approach would see racial preferences wither and die, while other measures -- primarily, class -- step up to replace them. Extra help for poor students would both address the real cause of disparity and, as a pleasant side effect, increase minority representation and performance.

And our kids? Big vocabularies. Further, one thing we discovered is that to them a concept is a concept. "Tree" is a concept, but so is "black hole." As long as both are explainable, one isn't drastically more intimidating or difficult to grasp than the other. Children teach themselves to talk; they're wired to assemble seemingly unrelated pieces into a coherent whole with minimal clues. If you don't tell them it's complicated (and thus encourage them to give up), more often than not they'll surprise you with their depth of understanding.

Every child deserves that chance.

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Anonymous vkaryl said...

Masterful summation, Sean. I've always been uncomfortable with the "race = " statements. I tend to think that most people do not want to believe that a "class" structure is very solidly entrenched here, even though it's self-evident. "Race" is an easy "blow-it-off"....

I babytalk cats, dogs, and horses - never children. My daughter had the vocabulary of a "college senior" in 6th grade.... and her daughters not only are "there" as well, but they are "there" in four languages due to living in Europe and attending the "international schools" which are available to US military personnel.

The problem at base is changing a whole facet of this country's viewpoint - that race is a denominator of any sort, that race is an indicator of ability. The depth of the problem seems insurmountable - but the first step is changing attitudes....

12/05/2006 10:18 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Thanks, vkaryl. And agreed.

I want to be clear that I'm not claiming racism doesn't exist. I'm simply suggesting that on a macro level it's not the barrier to achievement it once was, and is no longer a useful predictor of opportunity or success.

12/05/2006 10:52 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

And if you want an extreme example of the effects of nurture, check out another NYT magazine piece on Michael Oher.

The child of a dead father and a crack-addicted mother, he reached the 10th grade not only unable to read, but not knowing how to learn. His GPA was 0.6. An evangelical Christian academy took him in. By his senior year he made the honor roll, and now plays football for Ole Miss. He's a shoo-in to play in the NFL.

It's a great story by any measure. And maybe it'll make you question whether the line between nature and nurture is so hard and bright as you claim.

12/06/2006 9:10 AM  
Anonymous vkaryl said...

Oh yes! The Michael Oher story is one very important link in showing that the nature vs nurture debate isn't so very important any more. (I was already aware of Michael - the ONLY tv I "listen to" is sports....)

I think there's some evidence for believing one "side" of the debate or the other in the past, but with the speed of dissemination of information these days, it's less logical than it was when I was reading anthro in college.

The bottom line is much as it has always been: those who wish to learn, who have that deep NEED to learn, that curiosity, will find a way - and it should be up to all of us in this country to promulgate a culture of learning in which neither race nor "class" is a barrier.

[I too wish it understood that I'm fully aware racism is still a problem - it's hardly a "non-starter" yet, and I wouldn't want anyone to think I was pooh-poohing that it still exists.]

12/06/2006 12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hart and Risley's work relates to how much you talk to your children, not necessarily how you talk to your children. There has been much research on "babbling" or "motherese" as its called in the literature -- and many child psychologists believe such talk provides benefits. It may encourage young children to pay more attention to language and its reciprocal nature. Further, the acoustic properties of motherese with its higher pitch and exaggerated intonation may help babies and very young children to understand basic grammar, contributing to cognitive development. Not all psychologists believe in its benefits, but there are many, many who do.

12/06/2006 3:32 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

According to the NYT article, anyway, they do a bit of both. The amount of talk is the most important, but the complexity of what is said matters, too.

You appear to be much better read than me on the subject, though, so I'll accept the rest of your comment. But is it significant that the word "may" appears a lot, indicating that proof is hard to come by?

12/06/2006 3:57 PM  
Anonymous Greg said...

A good article, but you seem to confuse a couple of issues. Baby talk is both natural and beneficial developmentally - for babies. Older children whose dialogue with their parents doesn't go beyond that are being short changed, but I don't see that this is a new discovery. It's hardly news that a key indicator of a child's future skills is whether their parents read to them, whether they're exposed to books, etc.

I particularly appreciate the focus on social and economic issues rather than race. There are a lot of perfectly capable kids who never really get a chance, and it has nothing to do with the color of their skin. Unfortunately it does become self perpetuating since the schools, however hard they try, are limited compared to what happens in the kids' homes. And it's harder even for engaged parents to help when their own skills are sub par.

12/07/2006 12:44 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Greg: There's a lot of debate, and almost no certainty, as to the benefits of baby talk.

I agree that it's not directly related to the main points of the article, and I further muddied the issue by not clarifying that the situation lasted beyond babies -- our grandparents were still baby-talking our kids when they were well past one year old and starting to talk.

It's interesting how the "baby talk" intro has generated more controversy than the "it's not race" portion!

12/07/2006 1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sean: "May" appears a lot in any credible discussion of the "science" of behavior :)

Perhaps I misinterpreted your grandparents' use of "baby talk" -- "motherese" refers mostly to the quality of the speech, and does not place limits on the complexity of what is said.

To add to what I said earlier, an understanding of basic grammar is a keystone of language acquisition, making sense of nonsense:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

--Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky

12/07/2006 2:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the American System has it compeletly wrong. (not the article) My father had a PH.D., but raised us to respect authority, not to questions it. Almost like servants! By listening to adults we learned and understood that only the educated could produce change.

Children living in poverty areas have the best games, video systems, and TV, but there is no emphasis on education. They lack all respect and calmness to acquire a decent education.

4/02/2008 3:21 PM  

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