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WHERE DO WORDS COME FROM! Long before they set foot in school, low-income kids face a struggle: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2006

LIVES OF THE SAINTS: In this morning’s Post, David Ignatius praises Chuck Hagel—but he leaves some names out:
IGNATIUS (11/29/06): What would make a Hagel candidacy [for president] interesting is that he can claim to have been right about Iraq and other key issues earlier than almost any national politician, Republican or Democratic. Though a Vietnam veteran and a hawk on many national security issues, he had prescient misgivings about the Iraq war—and, more important, the political courage to express these doubts clearly, at a time when many politicians were running for cover.

Hagel warned about the dangers of invading Iraq in a Feb. 20, 2003 speech in Kansas...
Man alive—that Hagel is great! For the record, we too admire Hagel’s work on Iraq. But then, we can think of at least three major “national politicians”—Democratic—who were “right about Iraq” well before 2/20/03. Al Gore, Jim Webb and Barack Obama all expressed their “prescient misgivings” in the fall of 2002—and Gore was called every name in the book for committing so vile a transgression.

Yep! Hagel was right—but these three Dems were righter. But their names don’t appear in this morning’s column, and Ignatius has been especially stingy in the case of Vile Gore. Last spring, after all, Gore’s acclaimed movie called attention to the fact that its star wasn’t simply right on Iraq; he’d also been right on global warming, all along. The column virtually wrote itself. But Ignatius forgot to write it.

This morning, though, he didn’t forget to pander to a secular saint, John McCain. But uh-oh! If Hagel was right about Iraq, then John McCain was just plain flat-out wrong! But when the pundit reviewed the saint, he observed some familiar rituals:
IGNATIUS: It strains credulity to imagine that a GOP controlled by Bush and Karl Rove could learn to love Hagel, but, as the Nebraskan says, this is a time of "transformational politics." A more practical problem is that if Hagel does decide to seek the nomination, he will be competing for the same niche as the GOP front-runner, Sen. John McCain, who has been on his "straight-talk express" longer than has Hagel. And although McCain's centrist halo has been tarnished by his efforts to woo the far right, he remains a far more polished speaker and campaigner than Hagel. But on Iraq, Hagel has a clearer stance than does McCain, whose call for a big increase in troops is out of step with both the recommendations of U.S. military commanders and the public mood.
As Leading Pundits tend to do, Ignatius recited McCaint’s “straight talk” slogan for him. And note the wonderfully mumble-mouthed way he avoided saying that, when it comes to Iraq, McCain was just flat wrong. “Hagel has a clearer stance” on the war, the polite fellow helpfully said.

Does this sort of thing in any way explain that new Quinnipiac survey? It’s called the “National Thermometer” poll and, though the question involved is hard to explain, it purports to judge how “warmly”or “favorably” voters “feel” toward various public figures. In the recent survey, only eleven of the pols were well-known to the public. Here are their current warmth/favorable ratings (on a 100 point scale), along with the percentage of Americans who said they didn’t know enough about the pol to offer a rating:
1) Rudolph Giuliani, 64.2 rating (9 percent declined to rate him)
2) John McCain, 57.7 (12)
3) Condi Rice, 56.1 (7)
4) Bill Clinton, 55.8 (1)
5) Joseph Lieberman, 52.7 (16)
6) John Edwards, 49.9 (20)
7) Hillary Clinton, 49 (1)
8) Al Gore, 44.9 (3)
9) George W. Bush, 43.8 (1)
10) Newt Gingrich, 42 (15)
11) John Kerry, 39.6 (5)
The Top 3 are Big Republican Pols toward whom folk like Ignatius have long fawned and pandered. As all good pundits know to say, Giuliani is “America’s Mayor”—and McCain rides that “Straight Talk Express.”

And then, there’s Gore, one point above Bush! Let’s see: In the past nine months, it has turned out that Gore was right about Iraq from the start, and right about global warming all along. Why in the world is McCain ranked higher? Could it be because the way obedient pundits have played this well-defined game? Don’t mention Gore! But recite McCain’s slogan! And find a wonderfully mumble-mouthed way to avoid saying that McCain was just wrong!

In a nutshell, you’re observing the history of the past fifteen years. Tomorrow, we’ll visit a house-broken lad who still doesn’t want to discuss it.

OMISSIONS, DOWN THROUGH THE YEARS: For the record, we’ve omitted Howard Dean from our list. We’ve never been able to find any record of Dean being right on Iraq in the fall of 2002, and we’ve found at least one public record which suggests he was semi-ducking the issue at this juncture. As far as we know, Wesley Clark is also a less clear-cut case. But so what? In September 2003, Ignatius wrote a column praising Clark for his “prescience” regarding Iraq. He also mentioned Gore in the piece—sardonicallly saying that he was “articulate.” Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Hard Pundit Law! You’re not allowed to say Gore was right—or that McCain was just wrong.

Obedient pundits seem to agree—they must keep such vile facts from the public.

Special report: Let’s talk Tough!


PART 2—WHERE DO WORDS COME FROM: That’s right—we thought Paul Tough played the game a bit soft in parts of his New York Times magazine piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/28/06). He was a bit too kind in the way he described the thinking which drove No Child Left Behind. He avoided tough talk about educational “experts” who insist on gimmicking feel-good data which understate the challenge of low-income schooling. And we thought he dramatized things a tad in explaining his report’s most important section. Why are low-income kids way “behind” their middle-class peers, even by the age of 3? Why don’t low-income kids know more words? Tough suggested the answer was startling:

TOUGH (11/26/06): [T]he answer [Hart and Risley] arrived at was startling. 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.
Low-income children hear (far) fewer words in the home! Maybe this answer was startling in 1995, when Hart and Risley—a pair of Jayhawk child psychologists—“published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition.” But it didn’t strike us as startling now—and we vote for skipping the drama when addressing so crucial a topic.

But make no mistake—Paul Tough’s detailed report in the Times is 100 percent worth reading. Why do low-income/minority kids do so poorly in school? Why do they lag behind middle-class peers? For forty years, know-nothing journalists—and educational experts—have loved their simplistic, feel-good answers, angrily blaming teachers and schools for undesirable outcomes. (Official Answer from the 1960s: They do poorly because their teachers are racists. As we ourselves learned, this “answer” wasn’t especially true. But it sure felt good to say it.) But Tough describes a more complex story—a story which begins at birth. Do you want to understand the problems faced by low-income kids? If so, you’d do well to read the truly tough-minded part of Tough’s report.

Why do low-income kids do so poorly in school? Tough supplies a bit of history. “There had, in fact, been evidence for a long time that poor children fell behind rich and middle-class children early, and stayed behind,” he writes. “But researchers had been unable to isolate the reasons for the divergence.” After listing a string of possible answers, Tough turns to Hart and Risley’s 1995 research. People who care about low-income schooling need to consider this matter well. For that reason, we quote at some length:
TOUGH: Researchers began peering deep into American homes, studying up close the interactions between parents and children. The first scholars to emerge with a specific culprit in hand were Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, who in 1995 published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition. Ten years earlier, they recruited 42 families with newborn children in Kansas City, and for the following three years they visited each family once a month, recording absolutely everything that occurred between the child and the parent or parents. The researchers then transcribed each encounter and analyzed each child's language development and each parent's communication style. They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. 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.
Ouch! By age 3—long before formal schooling began—this vocabulary gap was large, as was the gap in those IQ scores. And, as we have noted above, Hart and Risley concluded 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.” Of course, we could easily imagine remedial efforts which would erase a vocabulary gap. But the difference in early upbringing goes beyond that, Tough says. Hart and Risley found that professional parents spoke to their children much more often. “What's more, the kinds of words and statements that children heard varied by class,” Tough writes. Again, we quote at some length:
TOUGH: 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. Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child's life. Hearing fewer words, and a lot of prohibitions and discouragements, had a negative effect on I.Q.; hearing lots of words, and more affirmations and complex sentences, had a positive effect on I.Q. The professional parents were giving their children an advantage with every word they spoke, and the advantage just kept building up.
Advantage, the children of professional parents! “In the years since Hart and Risley published their findings, social scientists have examined other elements of the parent-child relationship,” Tough writes, and “their conclusions all point to big class differences in children's intellectual growth.” One more large chunk of Tough talk:
TOUGH: Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a professor at Teachers College, has overseen hundreds of interviews of parents and collected thousands of hours of videotape of parents and children, and she and her research team have graded each one on a variety of scales. Their conclusion: Children from more well-off homes tend to experience parental attitudes that are more sensitive, more encouraging, less intrusive and less detached—all of which, they found, serves to increase I.Q. and school-readiness. They analyzed the data to see if there was something else going on in middle-class homes that could account for the advantage but found that while wealth does matter, child-rearing style matters more.

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.
Arrgh! “Taken together, the conclusions of these researchers can be a little unsettling,” Tough writes. Their work “suggests that the disadvantages that poverty imposes on children aren't primarily about material goods.” Rather, “the real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey. However you measure child-rearing, middle-class parents tend to do it differently than poor parents—and the path they follow in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages.”

This Tough-talk is important, because it undercuts the simple-minded “analyses” that tend to litter our public discussion of low-income/minority schooling. Low-income kids are “behind” at age 3—and their disadvantages mount from there. We’d suggest that you remember these chunks of Tough talk the next time you read simplistic accounts of why such kids are “behind” in school. As we’ve long noted, these kids are far “behind” their middle-class on the day they enter kindergarten. We doubt that schools will ever begin to defeat the “achievement gap” until the implications of this fact are fully comprehended.

“What would it take to overcome these disadvantages?” Tough later asks. Tomorrow, we’ll offer a couple of thoughts—and we’ll start to look at the way the Washington Post “analyzes” questions like that.

A PASSAGE WE’VE OFTEN QUOTED: Here’s a passage we’ve often quoted from a Center for American Progress report. Almost surely, this passage understates the predicament faced by low-income kids on the day they enter kindergarten:
CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
Why are (some, not all) low-income students three levels behind by the time of fourth grade? More tomorrow. In most cases, though, they entered school behind—and things went downhill from there.