01 April 2015

"By the time they start kindergarten, children from professional families hear 19 million more words than working-class kids."

The title of this post is an amazing quote from "Bootstraps Aren't Enough", a book review of "Our Kids" by Robert D. Putnam, which argues that "children’s access to the core institutions that foster their development—strong families, strong schools, strong communities—is increasingly separate and unequal".

Nineteen million more words, in the first 5+ years (about 2000 days or so). 19,000,000 / 2,000 = 9,500 more words ... per day.

This statistic seems hard to believe, but the larger point still holds, and there is abundant research to prove it: kids in homes with two parents who graduated high school and married before having kids are almost certain to be steeped in a much richer language environment for the crucial first few years of life, when so many patterns are set for the future, and so much brain development is occurring.

People who want to talk about inequality should look here. There's where it begins: the parenting and the overall quality of the upbringing of the kids.

There is lots of research that backs this up, by E.D. Hirsch Jr. and others. The early years, plus the first few years of school, up through 3rd or 4th grade, are what really makes the difference in education. This is because kids who know more can learn more, and learn it faster. The earlier you start the process, the bigger the advantages going forward, and they build upon each other. Rinse, repeat. It is not something you can "fix" in high school or college, because learning doesn't work that way, and cognitive science proves it, regardless of the latest educational lingo.

Being poor does not necessarily imply being uneducated. There have always been poor children in the world, but many of them have overcome those challenges to do great things in their lives. We make an error when we confuse the two, because they are only partially related, no matter what politicians and other professional liars say. Believing that the two are hopelessly intertwined says, essentially, that they're victims who need to be cared for, which is not just passive and whiny, it's the wrong attitude for the poor / uneducated person to take to deal with the problem at hand.

The best way to improve the lives of the poor is to educate them well and prepare them for a future with a job and a life of productivity and abundance, and the best way to do that is to teach them a wide array of knowledge and facts about the world around them, enriching their vocabulary and reading comprehension. And this process has to start in the early years, from K-3, because of the proven benefits of the Matthew effect. This paper by Robert Pondiscio, "Poverty Fighting Elementary Schools: Knowledge Acquisition is Job One", goes into some detail about all of that. More important, it shows that other approaches, such as teaching reading as a skill, do not work, and cannot work, because reading is not really a "skill" like driving a car or playing a guitar.

Today when we talk about the poor, we tend to subconsciously mean "poor and from a dysfunctional cultural or family situation". It's the "dysfunctional cultural or family situation" - the parents and other caregivers - that are the problem, not the "poor" part, although obviously there is some serious overlap in that Venn diagram. Stated another way, kids who are poor but have quality parenting tend not to run into the kinds of problems later in life that the dysfunctional family kids do. Both groups are poor - but the dysfunctional family kids are the ones who mostly end up in jail or dead by the time they're 21.

As good parenting can lead to good outcomes, and to well-adjusted, life-affirming, socially-adaptable offspring, so too can bad parenting lead to bad outcomes, and poorly adjusted, nihilistic, socially toxic offspring. This idea should not shock or surprise, and the fact that it does shock or surprise some people is cause for concern, because it's not just common sense, it is validated by thousands of years of human history across every culture that has ever existed. It's as true and honest as the sun rising in the East every morning.

With the occasional exception - obviously, some people are just born bad, but those are very rare - children are not born stupid or anti-social; but some of them are turned that way by the influences of the world they are born into. By the people in their families, and in their communities, and by the serial interactions they have with those people. This list would include a lot of people we are supposed to pretend are not toxic to their children and to society at large, even though we know that they are.

Think gang-banger fathers who sired children at 15 with girls who see no future for themselves and figure, "why not have a kid at 14, what the hell else am I going to do with my life?" Think immature, unmarried, poorly-educated, dysfunctional young "parents", which is really the wrong word for people who do almost nothing for their kids. Think grandma is 31, mom is 14, dad is nowhere to be found. Think neighborhoods where punks hang out on street corners, selling drugs when they should be in school, and where the liquor stores are extra busy on the day the government checks arrive.

Most kids born into that world, with their lives dominated by bad influences at every turn, are doomed, although a few will escape, against all odds.

And when these kids enter school, a product of a toxic home environment that does almost nothing to cultivate or enrich their existence, it is pure folly to expect teachers and classrooms to fix what is wrong in their lives and teach them things too. Kids who worry about getting shot walking to school might not be able to focus in class very well, compared to a suburban kid who gets driven to school by Mom in some giant SUV.

Education has to build on top of culture, and work within it; education simply cannot make up for a toxic culture that causes a kid to make bad decisions and view the world as a place filled with victims and oppressors rather than a place filled with opportunities.

We view the inequality problem as an education issue, but it is more of a cultural problem. We're just not honest enough with ourselves to even begin to have that conversation.