It (almost) goes without saying that the choices of poorly educated children have a profound influence on the achievement gap. But do the choices of well-educated parents play any role in the achievement gap? Yes, they do.
In a recent podcast interview with Ruth Lopez Turley, Associate Professor of Sociology at Rice University, the Veritas Riff explored exactly that question. The seven minute interview is worthwhile and helpful. In addition, here are some important dynamics not covered in the interview.
- Prizing academic achievement above community flourishing is passed from parents to children. Children learn from the lived decisions of their parents what is most important to them.
- Parent networks really matter in diverse schools. My eldest daughter has attended two very racially and economically diverse schools. And I can say unequivocally that parent involvement (by educated, creative, entrepreneurial parents) created the tipping point in both schools toward a thriving learning environment for all.
- Cultural competence is learned by practice. Children (like mine) in diverse schools learn cultural competence by doing it on a daily basis. In addition to Caucasian, Latino and African American children, my daughter’s classmates from China, Mexico, Togo, Thailand, and Bolivia. Can it make some learning dynamics more challenging? Sure. Do the benefits outweigh the challenges? Without question.
- Schools are not the biggest factor in education. The choice of educated parents to invest in diverse skill has a profound impact on those schools. However, it must be noted that classroom education is only one dimension of education. The total learning environment of children matters immensely – the impact of home life and community cannot be overstated.
- Early home life matters most. Here’s the rub. If you have diverse schools – in which some children have had a language-rich, supportive home environment, whereas others have had a hostile or neglectful home environment, the achievement gap already exists the day they walk into preschool. All of the children will receive the benefits I’ve listed above, and those Dr. Turley highlights in her interview. But some will have greater capacity to receive – and therefore the gap will persist – as it has at my daughter’ schools. The inter-racial, inter-cultural intermingling must happen long before school begins.
In the education community, it is almost heretical to say that schools are not the center of education. Sean Reardon of Stanford University is, then, almost a heretic. In a New York Times op-ed titled No Rich Child Left Behind, Reardon states:
It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students.
In the four days since its publication, the article has garnered 1169 comments (as of this writing) – and that is just on the Times comment platform. Reardon is creating a stir. And well he should.
A child’s early experiences matter tremendously for the rest of a child’s life. Reardon’s argument is that the rich understand this well, and have hyper-invested in their children in the earliest years of life. Consequently, there is not just a gap between the poor and the rest; there is a gap between the rich, the middle class, and the poor.
Why do parents matter?
- Parents mold your brain.
Early experiences shape the physical structure of a child’s brain. Think of it as building the hardware that a child will have – and use – for the rest of her life. Parents who recognize this dynamic and engage in ‘concerted cultivation’ give their children a significant advantage over other children. The classic example of this is the Hart/Risley language study.
They counted the number of words children heard in different home environments and estimated that children of professionals would hear 500,000 affirmations by the age of 3, whereas their counterparts whose parents were on welfare would hear only 80,000 affirmations by the same age. The children of professionals would hear 80,000 discouragements; children in families on welfare would hear 200,000 discouragements. It hardly needs to be said that those experiences have lifelong implications.
- Parents shape your character.
Character formation is not distinct from brain development. Early experiences shape a child’s habits – of how to treat others, how to take care of the material world. These habitual actions and postures are character. This is not a sphere in which wealthier children necessarily have privilege. In this sphere, having parents who are wise, just, and loving matters far more than their income or education.
- Parents give you opportunities.
The very concrete opportunities that parents provide are formative. This is most obviously true with language. Young children who hear multiple languages in the home in the earliest years acquire those languages as mother tongues by virtue of the opportunities that their parents created. Is it any wonder that elites enroll their young children in Mandarin classes?
Reardon has written the best piece on education and parenting that I have seen appear in the Times. It is to be celebrated, discussed, and used to take action. However, there are two dynamics that need more attention than they received in Reardon’s op-ed, one of which I have already mentioned.
- The power of networks
It isn’t just that rich parents provide more and better opportunities for their children to learn. They also create a network of social elites through which their children will have social opportunities that far exceed their peers of like ability and different social strata. That’s why Upper East Side preschools can charge $40,000 per year.
- The force of character
Much more emphasis needs to be given to the the role that parents have in forming character. Character is both more malleable and more important than intelligence, and wealth is no necessary privilege (it can even be a significant liability) in forming virtue. The character of children of elites matters immensely because they will inherit power and influence. The question is whether they will use it well.
As an author, I’m always looking for endorsements from public leaders I trust. Scott Turansky is one of those people. I approached him because of the tremendous wisdom I’ve gleaned from books and media that he has written and produced, particularly Parenting is Heart Work and Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining and Bad Attitudes . . . in You and Your Kids. Scott and his co-author, Joanne Miller, did a fantastic podcast interview on “the break” where I tried to get their wisdom out to a wider audience.
Now I have the opportunity to get more of their resources to a wider audience – at a deep discount.
Scott and Joanne are launching a new book this week, and are offering some amazing deals:
- $400 in free resources to those who buy the book between April 29 and May 5.
- Five Fantastic giveaway items, including an iPad mini.
I’ve written a review on Amazon that details why I recommend the book. I bought the print copy of the book on the first day of their launch, even though I already received an advance copy of the eBook.
Why? I wanted all the other resources that they’re giving away with print purchases. And I love being able to flip through physical books to share with others.
You might be saying to yourself, “Wait a minute. This is The Christian Parenting Handbook, and I’m not a Christian.” That’s a valid concern. But let me encourage you to push past it. You can get the first 5 chapters for free to see what you think. I often commend Scott’s work to people who aren’t Christians. I think his heart-based approach is authentic, compelling, and winsome. More than that, I’ve practiced what he teaches and have reaped the benefits of looking past behavior to the heart, of focusing on character rather than compliance. (If you disagree, let me know why! I’d love to hear it.)
This book is organized into fifty short chapters. You can easily read one chapter in a short time, and have a piece of wisdom on which to take action with your kids. That’s the kind of help I need, so I encourage you to check it out too. Buy it. Get the $400 bonus of resources. And sign up for the giveaway.
James Heckman, Nobel Laureate in Economics
James Heckman’s opinion piece on the President’s early childhood plan appeared in the New York Times Room for Debate, and deserves hearty endorsement. Specifically:
- “The economic strength of any nation depends on the skills of its people.”
- “[E]very dollar invested in quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children produces a 7 percent to 10 percent return, per child, per year.”
- “The plan starts from birth, expands home visitation and Early Head Start, improves access and quality in child care and provides greater access to higher-quality preschool.”
However, there is “room for debate.” What Heckman does not specify in this short piece (presumably for the sake of brevity) is that #1 is not quite accurate. It should read:
“The economic strength of any nation depends on the character of its people.”
Heckman’s own research has shown that character (which he sometimes calls non-cognitive skills, or soft skills) matters more than intelligence for education, health and social contribution. Moreover, character is more malleable than intelligence. That is where our time, energy, passion, and (yes) money need to be directed. Indeed, it is a measure of our character whether we care for disadvantaged children by nurturing character in them.
How do you see young children’s character affect their learning, and their communities?
A friend recently asked me what I thought of this talk called Changing Education Paradigms by Ken Robinson:
What do I think? I think that Robinson does an excellent job of diagnosis. Specifically:
- The educational system alienates many kids.
- A degree is not a guarantee of future employment.
- The educational system was designed in and for a different age: the industrial age.
- The educational system asumes an enlightenment view of human persons and learning.
- The factory model of education diminishes (and often harms) individuals.
- Sadly, children often lose the capacity for creativity as they continue in school.
- Great learning happens in groups.
- The habits of institutions shape children.
Here are some questions the talk leaves unanswered:
- What are some positive visions of alternatives to the current model?
(Robinson is notably silent on homeschooling, which can answer many of his critiques well.)
- What role does discipline play in enduring things that aren’t immediately exciting to us in forming character?
- Is the answer to over-stimulation neither anesthetization nor further stimulation, but the practice of solitude?
What other questions do you have? What possible answers do you see that Robinson overlooks?
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the former chairman and CEO of Proctor & Gamble, John E. Pepper Jr. and James Zimmerman, the former chairman and CEO of Macy’s threw their weight squarely behind early childhood education, and President Obama’s push for universal pre-kindergarten.
They write, “Our greatest deficit in this country — the one that most threatens our future as a nation — is our education deficit, not our fiscal one.” They’re right, but in more ways than they articulate in the Op-Ed.
- Parenting. Parents are children’s first, and most powerful teachers. The education deficit doesn’t start in pre-school. It starts at home. Excellent pre-school is a very, very good thing. But if it is not paired with wise early parenting before age 3, it is remediation, not preparation.
- Formation. Education is not just the acquisition of skills that make one useful in the workforce. Education is the cultivation of desire, and the directing of love. Education in the home and in preschools and schools that fails to recognize this may point children at futile ends, like test scores, rather than worthy ends like the love of truth, goodness and beauty.
I’ll cast a vote for universal pre-kindergarten. And I say that it is worthy of tax funding above many other programs. However, I’ll also cast my vote for initiatives like the Baby College in Harlem, or the Baby Scholars in Grand Rapids, or Parents as Teachers in virtually every state. Together, early parent support and preschool can shift us from a national deficit to a national surplus of eager, talented, courageous, wise children.
In October of 2012, the Economist published my letter to the editor on Parenting, Preschool and Poverty. When they reviewed Paul Tough’s excellent book, How Children Succeed, I thought they missed the mark and sent another letter to the editor. They didn’t publish it (or at least haven’t yet), so I publish it here for those who are interested.
I was delighted to see you review How Children Succeed (“Stay Focused,” January 19). However, I was appalled at your distorted conclusion that “at a time when ever more American children are living in poverty, better schools remain the most powerful anti-poverty tool available.” This is complete misreading of Paul Tough’s remarkable book.
According to Tough’s research on parent-child attachment, the most profound and durable interventions happen long before children enter school. He found that if a mother was emotionally responsive to her child in the first year of life, “the effect of all those environmental stressors, from overcrowding to poverty to family turmoil, was almost entirely eliminated” (p32).
Another study he cites found that secure attachment at age one better predicted high school graduation than IQ or achievement test scores (p36). Furthermore, he documents the growing evidence that specific parental behaviors in early childhood have predictable, observable, long-lasting effects on DNA expression. Tough’s key finding is the success of child-parent attachment therapy in troubled families. Among a group of 137 families with a history of maltreatment – of which only one infant demonstrated secure attachment at baseline – after one year 61% of the treatment group had formed secure attachment, compared with only 2% of those receiving standard community services (p39). That is news worthy of publication, review, and public action.
The “decades of failed attempts to improve the lives of poor students” you cite is the fruit of the faulty assumption that “better schools remain the most powerful anti-poverty tool available.” If that was Tough’s thesis (and it is not) it would not be worthy of review. Paul’s shift of focus from school to early family life, and from test skills to character is worthy of review, and indeed is worthy of a leader article in your newspaper.
Five years ago, my eldest daughter took a barrage of tests to qualify for the Gifted and Talented programs of the New York City public schools. Now, according to the New York Times educators have come to a remarkable realization: Young children are remarkable learners. When taught and coached, they do far better than without teaching and coaching.
Children Learn Constantly
If educational bureaucrats are hoping to find a measure of children that isn’t affected by their previous nurture, they’ll be looking for a long time. Of course some children have extraordinary innate abilities. I have met several of these children, and am in awe of what it would take to effectively challenge and engage these kids throughout their lives. However, even these children – and perhaps especially these children – are formed by their early environment. In an engaging and challenging environment (which some might call test prep), their young minds easily and eagerly learn what is far harder for us to learn later in life.
The Real Issue
The Gifted and Talented program in NYC is only partially about academic rigor. In many ways it is about social sorting. Gifted and Talented is a great proxy for early parental involvement. For even if a child has strong innate abilities, but an ambivalent or toxic home life, she isn’t likely to (1) have parents who sign her up to be evaluated (2) have the maturity and composure to complete the exams well, and (3) have the skills that other parents have intentionally cultivated in their children.
It really works this way. I was a NYC teacher. My daughter attended NYC public schools. The easiest way to see it is in who shows up. If you have two classrooms side by side, one gifted, and one general ed, the line of parents outside the door of the gifted classroom is probably twice or three times as long. They took the initiative to get them in, and they show perseverance in support.
The Real Question
If the Department of Education cracks this code, the real question is: How do you help all parents to foster a vibrant early learning environment? If you get that, then G&T testing will be a non-issue.
Is meritocracy a bad thing? Michael Young, the British sociologist and author of The Rise of the Meritocracy viewed it as dystopia. Picking upon this, The Economist ran a leader article titled Repairing the Rungs on the Ladder: How to Prevent Virtuous Meritocracy Entrenching Itself at the Top on diminishing social mobility in the United States.
Meritocracy and class
Simply stated, in a meritocracy those with superlative talent achieve advantage. And since ability is transmitted from one generation to another not merely genetically but continuously and organically in the life of the family, the privilege of the the intelligent, creative and connected compounds. Highly educated, intelligent parents are also notorious for seeking learning opportunities for their children. And so the advantages of meritocracy accrue to the children of intellectual elites.
This genetic and cultural transmission occurs at the other end of the spectrum too. If your parents were of below average intelligence, never married, and your mother completed only secondary education, it sets you exceedingly low on the merit scale because you inherit not only your parents genetics, but their culture. Consequently, it is exceedingly difficult for this group to achieve social mobility. The parental investment, social stability, and language rich environment that constitute advantage are lacking. Hence, the Economist laments the increasing social immobility of children born into these families.
What was strikingly absent from the Economist article was the centrality of virtue. The fact that advantage, wealth and power accrue to the intellectual elite magnifies the primacy of virtue. For if those elites employ their wealth, influence and intellectual powers to serve the good of the disadvantaged, then there can hardly be a better social scenario for all involved. This is wealth redistribution in the very best sense: capital put to work for those who need it most by those who can steward it well and truly seek the good of those they serve.
Meritocracy is good for human society if and only if virtue is more cherished than skill. Then it is truly virtuous meritocracy.
Last night in the State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted the critical importance of early childhood for the well-being of children, their families, communities and the nation.
“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.”
It isn’t when a child begins learning, but how and what he or she learns. Learning begins before birth regardless of the choices parents make. What a mother eats and drinks (and smokes) while pregnant affects a child’s learning capacities. From their first moment out of the womb, all children are immersed into a learning environment. The emotional attachment that children form (or fail to form) to their parents in the first year of life has a lifelong effect on learning. The tone and number of words that they hear in the first three years of life furnish them with the tools with which to explore the world.
In short, the President’s call to make preschool available to all children is laudable. Preschool really can be a wonderful learning environment for children. But the really great gains are made in interventions with families (not just children) even earlier in life. After all, without intervention to support parents, preschool is not prevention; it is remediation.