The educated class
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:
RACE IS OFTEN IRRELEVANT
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.
BARRIERS ARE REAL
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.
affirmative action, education, race, politics, midtopia