It’s the parents, stupid

Sitting in a waiting area at Penn Station, Robert Pondiscio heard the word “Crimea.”

I look up and see this woman reading a Magic Tree House book to her little boy. In about 90 seconds she mentions Florence Nightingale, Crimea, and Egypt. The word “wound” comes up and the child asks, “What’s a wound?” Mom explains it’s “an injury. Like a cut or a broken bone.”

. . . Educated, affluent parents build language and background knowledge without even knowing they’re doing it.

That kind of parenting is known as “concerted cultivation.” It’s very powerful. Can pre-k close that gap?

We’re on a family vacation with all four kids, spouses, friends and the two grandkids. Yesterday, the 4 1/2-year-old asked her mother for a snack, then said, “Mom, why are you hesitating?”

About Joanne


  1. And THAT is what makes the difference. Preschool and K4 can’t do that. Only parents (and close extended family, etc.) can do this kind of cultivation, which is spending time with your kid, talking with him, taking him appropriate places, reading to him, all that stuff. And while that is easiest to do in a stable family with married parents, it could certainly be done by many, many more parents if they were aware of such a thing.

    • More parents could, and should, do these kinds of things, but the extent to which they can impart general knowledge to their kids is a factor of their own general knowledge. Upper-middle class parents have lots of it and are easily able to expand it. For instance, the mentioned incident could be expanded to finding the Crimea on a map and connecting the Crimean War (which I assume is the topic) to what is currently happening there – but only if parents have some background. It’s much harder for parents who can’t read, or read English and it does require actually paying attention to kids, as opposed to parkng them in front of the TV while Mom chats on her phone. (I see a lot of upper-middle class kids at the playground with nannies who pay little attention – chat with other nannies or on phone – and I bet that will change things). Using grocery store trips as learning occasions used to be common, but I see it FAR less and it’s almost always done by homeschoolers. By 7 and 9, my older kids would each have their own lists and learn “stuff” while being very helpful.

  2. Oh, hey. Got a link to the Pondiscio piece?

  3. Once again there’s a cause and effect problem here. Does strong parental involvement as in the Crimea story CAUSE later success, or is there merely a correlation? Granted, if one never hears (or reads) the words “Crimea” or “wound”, one will never know those words. But how important is this very early education? Consider the rich upper class children such as Jane and Michael Banks, who (with the exception of Mary Poppins) were raised by nannies who largely ignored them. I think they were successful. And what about American children who are raised by parents who don’t speak English? Many of them do great.

    • a) Nannies weren’t supposed to ignore their charges; although they probably didn’t do much academic work, they were supposed to be quite strict about behavior, manners, and getting lots of exercise.
      b) Rich upper middle class children had such a huge advantage with their backgrounds that they didn’t really need to do that well in school. Social ability was more generally useful than intellectual ability anyway. And even the less successful were held up by their network. That’s not the case with the vast majority of children today.

  4. Parents can teach their children many things, and should spend time with their kids doing these things, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also learn other things in preschool. Parenting is about balance, kids need time to play, that is where they learn the essential things that they need to learn at that age. There was a study on play based preschools vs academic based preschools, and the result was that kids that went to the play based preschool did better at school and in particular maths than those kids that went to a teacher led academic preschool.
    Preschoolers don’t need to know about the Crimean war but they do need to properly develop their cognitive abilities.

  5. If it’s the parents, stupid then why bother with, where it’s possible, selecting good schools over bad? Why would poor parents line up to get their kid into Downtown College Prep for instance?

    While the two propositions aren’t exactly mutually exclusive some explanation ought to be offered why the one can co-exist with the other. If poor parents are too ignorant or too uncaring to perform the parental duties that wealthier parents perform as a matter of course they why do poor parents try so hard to get their kids into decent schools?

    • The uncaring parents aren’t likely to jump through hoops to get their kids into a charter or other non-zoned-school option but there are many poor parents who care but realize they don’t have the background they want their kids to acquire and who will work and sacrifice to give their kids opportunities. I remember several entry-level, staffers in my DH’s department making appointments to see the department head, in order to find out what kind of computer and software his kids had, what books they were reading, what enrichment activities they did etc. Those parents took their kids to the library regularly, made regular trips to local museums, the Capitol, concerts etc (all free in DC) and made serious sacrifices to get their kids computers (in thepre-internet days when they were both expensive and uncommon) and educational software. It’s probably not a coincidence that almost all of those who pursued this information were married. They continuously asked questions and pursued opportunities and wanted much better things for their kids than the horrible DC schools offered (despite spending boatloads of money).

    • The usual suspects like to put the blame for all that ails public education on those uncaring parents but when it comes to putting a number to their number the usual suspects get a little shy. They’re there, those uncaring parents, and they’re the explanation for ever so many of the complaints people have about the public education system but you never seem to get any estimates of the numbers of those uncaring parents.

      I’m going to place that percentage in the “vanishingly small” category on the basis of the number of poor parents who seem not at all put off by the prospect of having to leap the illusory impediments put in their way by charter school operators to the enrollment of their children.

      Resignation and ignorance are better explanations for the claimed differences between poor and rich parents, in my opinion.

      If your parents/parent/guardian didn’t read to you you might be excused for not divining the value of that experience for your own children and if you were failed by the public education system, and have no alternatives, you might be forgiven for resigning yourself to failing your children through no fault of your own by having to send them to the same system, if not the same schools, that failed you.

      • “The usual suspects like to put the blame for all that ails public education on those uncaring parents”

        What the hell are you reading? Far and away the people who get blamed are teachers.

    • “why do poor parents try so hard to get their kids into decent schools?”

      The vast majority don’t. Perhaps 10% do. Which is itself one of the reasons for the 10% to try.

      • Self-pity much?

        If you’re pulling a paycheck to do a job don’t expect much in the way of sympathy, or credibility, when you claim the job can’t be done because of the poor quality of the materials you have to work with. A poor workman blames his tools and, it would seem, pretty much anything else that’ll serve.

        As for your knowledge of “the vast majority”, feel free to address the fact that poor parents will go to considerable expense and inconvenience to enroll their kids in schools better then the district can be bothered to offer them.

        • J.D. Salinger says:

          Where do you teach and for how long have you been teaching?

          • Let me get back to you when I have some reason to believe your presumptuousness deserves anything but brusque dismissal.

            Or you could be a trifle less coy and just announce that only teachers are allowed to have opinions of teachers. That would speed things along to their inevitable conclusion.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            This is allen’s way of saying he has never been a teacher. As you can see, his manners are a little lacking. But i n his defense, he finds it very hard when people disagree with him and he knows he is right.

          • And this is Roger’s way of saying that he also has no worthwhile response to make to the question at hand so chooses, like J.D., to try to make the matter personal and hopefully avoid confronting a taboo.

            Being an inveterate optimist though I’ll give you an opportunity to explain why teachers are above demonstrating they’re worthy of their hire.

  6. No, not ‘educated, affluent parents’….the distinguisher is ‘parents’…the parents that are parenting. It doesnt matter if the are affluent, or formally educated. It matters that they are giving their children access and the children are taking advantage of the access.

    • I posted about poor parents working to give their kids advantages under the “together and unequal” post on this site. Schools can and should let parents know what’s available and encourage them to use the resources, but you’re right; it’s parents working to raise their kids.

  7. (Joanne): “That kind of parenting is known as “concerted cultivation.” It’s very powerful. Can pre-k close that gap? ”

    Probably not. More likely they will widen it. Institutions cannot love. Taxes that support institutions drive more parents into the workforce earlier. Add moral hazard, and marginally concerned parents will abandon their children to indifferent institutions.

    In the 100 years since the invention of vaccines against epidemic diseases in chickens allowed factory farming of chickens, humans have (inadvertently) impelled the evolution of breeds that will not brood their own eggs. Like modern maize, they cannot reproduce in the wild.

    • Given that wide variations in both cognitive ability and family environment exist, it is unlikely that The Gap can be closed. However, Englemann’s Direct Instruction had better results than any other in Project Follow Through and is still being used successfully in some schools. Since it’s in direct opposition to all of the ed world’s most cherished theories and beliefs, it’s ignored (at best). The article Pre-K Can Work, which summarizes the approach, is currently on the homepage at

      • I should add that I agree that nothing pre-K does will have long-term benefits if the k-8 school does not use the same, successful curricula and methods.

  8. That is the whole idea of E.D.Hirsch Jr’s Core Knowledge.