June 03, 2004

Cultural explanation for achievement gap?

A press release from Penn State recently came to my attention. It seeks to explain, in part, why black children are performing less well on achievement tests in schools than white children.

Parenthetically, I think that the achievement gap is an issue that should concern us all. We as a society need to encourage all of our children to reach their highest potential because we all benefit.

The explanation tendered by Penn State is certainly controversial. It suggests that the answer is to be found in black v. white family dynamics: "recent research points to differences between African-American and White family interaction when children are very young."

According to the study, the problem is that there is a major difference in how often black parents speak to their children and how often they vary their vocabulary. I don't know where or how these figures were obtained, and you'll notice that all of a sudden the press release stops breaking the figures out in terms of race and uses socio-economic class instead, but: "[b]y the age of three, professional parents had spoken an estimated 35 million words to their children, working- and middle-class had spoken about 20 million words, and lower-class parents had only spoken about 10 million words."

The release picks back up on the racial difference later on: "'By 18 to 20 months, the vocabulary growth trajectories of the children of professional parents had already accelerated beyond those of other children,' Farkas adds. According to his research, there seems to be both a social class, and controlling for class, a Black-White difference in children's oral vocabulary growth from infancy to adolescence. Preschool vocabulary knowledge is a strong predictor of reading performance in early elementary school, and early elementary reading performance is a strong predictor of later school performance generally."

The study found that "greater verbal interaction between parents and young children improves students' performance on standardized tests". In other words, if you talk to your children a lot, and use a varied vocabulary, you are likely to have children who do better in school than their peers who did not have the benefit of the same interaction.

The study offers no explanation for how or why black family dynamics are different from white family dynamics. I know very little about family sociology. But, I wonder, did the authors control for whether the families they studied were single parent families? I understand, anecdotally from the NY Times over the years, that there are more single parent households among black families than white families. If this is wrong, feel free to correct me. If so, that would automatically halve the number of adults around to speak to the children. Further, a single mother (or father) is going to have less energy to spend with a child to begin with. Also, the more children you have the less time you can spend with any single child. Did the study look at multiple children families? Would that make a difference?

I spoke to my daughter, my first born, a lot. With both of my children, I use adult vocabulary and try to vary my vocabulary as possible. I do this partly because I love the English language and delight in its rich vocabulary, partly because I abhor baby talk in adults, and partly because I like nothing more than delivering a good monologue! My wife loves to tell the story of how she came out of the shower one morning to find me and the then under three month old daughter on the bed discussing evolution with me saying to my daughter: "vestigial, can you say vestigial?" Before she could speak, I treated her to the monologues on some of the following subjects: the rise of the merchant class in mediaeval Europe; social stratification in feudal Japan; and, the differences between English and French Renaissance landscape architecture. That last one, delivered while my little one was in the baby bjorn and we were standing in front of a florist's window looking at topiary garnered more than a few quizzical looks from passers-by. According to this press release, I have been doing exactly the right thing. My wife does the same thing, only she does it in Norwegian.

So, where am I going with all this? I'm going here: all the money in the world spent improving schools and paying teachers more and wiring schools up to the internet won't significantly overcome a lack of sustained, intelligent parental attention. You can pass all of the No Child Left Behind laws you want, but if you don't fix the problem at home, you may not be able to help the child catch up. We need these children to catch up, if for no other reason than the selfish reason that they will be paying our social security and pensions. But it sounds like first, we need to fix the family. How do you do that? I have no idea. Do you?

By the way, feel free to comment on this. I'm very curious about your reaction to this press release and this post.

Posted by Random Penseur at June 3, 2004 09:43 AM
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