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The Power of the Word

Exclusive commentary by Greg Lewis /
July 15, 2003

A June 11 Gannett News Service story by Fredreka Schouten contained this lead: "Pre-schoolers in the federal Head Start program still lag behind average students in reading and math skills when they enter kindergarten, according to a report released by the Bush administration." The conditions at the root of this situation are even grimmer than Ms. Schouten's article suggests.

A recently published study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley ("The Early Catastrophe," American Educator, Spring 2003), answers many questions about why early learning programs for socio-economically disadvantaged children have largely proven ineffective. At the same time, it raises unexpected and apparently intractable issues concerning the newly articulated reasons for the failures. The study's most striking discovery concerns the enormous gap in language use among young children of different socio-economic backgrounds.

It has long been observed that disadvantaged children in programs such as Head Start show dramatic increases in language ability during the time they participate in the programs. However, once the direct and intensive teaching available to them in such preschool programs is no longer part of their daily lives, their vocabulary growth and language skills development trajectories level off. They quickly lose whatever gains they may have made relative to non-disadvantaged children. The consequences of this dropoff follow them throughout their educational careers: By the time they reach high school, most disadvantaged students do not have the necessary vocabulary and language skills to understand advanced textbooks. Hart's and Risley's study convincingly shows why.

The study, which lasted 2 1/2 years, involved monthly one-hour sessions in which 42 families of varying social and economic backgrounds were observed. The parents of thirteen of the families were professionals of high socio-economic status; twenty-three were middle- and lower-income working-class families; and six were welfare families. Seventeen of the children observed were African-American, and 23 were girls. While the top three socio-economic segments were proportionally racially diverse, all six of the welfare families were African-American.

Information about the frequency of verbal interactions among parents and their children and the quantity of words to which the children were exposed in those interactions paints a dramatic picture. Based on extrapolations from the data collected, the authors conclude that, during normal daily life, the average welfare child under the age of three experiences approximately 616 words per hour, less than half of what the average working-class child experiences (1,251 words per hour), and not even one-third of what the average child in a family where at least one parent is a professional experiences (2,153 words per hour).

There are other quantifiable differences. The size of the vocabulary (number of different words used as opposed to total number of words used) is higher in professional-class families by a three-to-two ratio over working-class families and by more than two-to-one over welfare families. And the average professional-class child in the study received 32 positive verbal reinforcements as opposed to five negative verbal reinforcements per hour, a ratio of more than five positive to one negative. Working-class children received an average of twelve affirmatives to seven negatives (almost two to one positive) per hour, while welfare children received an average of five affirmatives to 11 negatives (two to one negative) per hour.

The implications of the differences the data reveal are profound. Among other things, the average welfare child will have experienced 30 million fewer total words than the average child of a professional family by the time he or she is three years old. In addition, professional-class children will experience more than 160,000 encouragements in an average year, while welfare children will hear only 26,000 encouragements in the same time. The welfare child will also hear more than twice as many (57,000) discouraging verbal messages as the child of professional parents (26,000).

The study's authors point to the sheer magnitude of the intervention needed to correct this discrepancy. Indeed, the question becomes, "Is it even possible to mount an intervention which will enable welfare children to overcome the staggering inequities in language use and self esteem-enhancing communications they have experienced during the first three years of their lives?" Further: "If it is possible — questions of magnitude aside — what form could those interventions possibly take?"

In many ways, the answers we as a society propose for these questions will be determined politically. Debating them will involve suspending our squeamishness when confronted with discomfiting issues. Among the questions which arise in this regard are these: Will we, as a society, be able to discuss dispassionately the possible cultural and genetic differences that underlie these statistical bombshells? Or will we resort to threats and name-calling in the pursuit of political correctness and thus obfuscate what are most certainly among the critical issues that need to be aired?

One has only to revisit the furor surrounding the publication of Richard J. Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's book, The Bell Curve, to appreciate these questions. The authors were denounced as racist, and threats were made on their and their families' lives by opponents who refused even to countenance the possibility that genetics might play an important role in determining intelligence, or that intelligence might play an important role in success. It is in no small part because of the inflexible attitudes and positions implicit in such attacks that the failures of many well-intentioned programs such as Head Start have been buried or ignored, while the problems they would address — as witness Hart's and Risley's study — remain unsolved.

Despite the documented failure of the early learning programs that grew out of Great Society legislation of the 1960s, this is no time for us to throw up our hands and walk away. We have convincing evidence of both the nature and the magnitude of the problem, and we must bring to bear on potential solutions all of the knowledge and expertise we have amassed during the past 40 years. We must open the debate to all who will rise above political agendas to bring to the table honest proposals for addressing the issues. Whether the problem is primarily cultural, or whether its roots are more significantly genetic, the solutions we propose will involve nothing less than profound social interventions. To eliminate these two possibilities from the debate is to condemn millions of Americans to unfulfilled lives as well as to ignore the challenge and the mandate implicit in Hart's and Risley's study.

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