Gentrification stops at schoolhouse door

Gentrification “usually stops at the schoolhouse door,” writes Nikole Hannah-Jones on Grist. When middle-class people move into low-income neighborhoods, few send their children to struggling local schools.

Some gentrifiers have no children. Those who do usually send them to private schools or use public schools “choice” programs “to attend wealthier, whiter schools outside of the neighborhood.”

Protesters charge gentrification has led to school closures in Chicago.

Protesters charge gentrification has led to school closures in Chicago. Photo: John Booz for Catalyst

Schools in gentrifying Chicago neighborhoods did not improve, concludes a 2013 study by Micere Keels, a University of Chicago professor. Urban educators hope upper-income families will “come into these neighborhoods and invest in the neighborhood schools and revitalize both the neighborhoods and schools,” she said. Instead, advantaged families opted out, often choosing public schools with admissions criteria.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, local schools may lose enrollment and funding, which leads to layoffs and program cuts. That happened in three gentrified Chicago neighborhoods, according to a 2005 report by Catalyst Chicago.

“Districts funnel inordinate resources into Cadillac programs, such as magnets and other choice schools, in order to entice middle-class parents,” writes Hannah-Jones. “But school districts have finite resources, so to provide elite opportunities at some schools, other schools — those that have the greatest need — get less.”

‘Word gap’ is about quality, not just quantity

By age 3, the children of poorly educated, low-income mothers have heard 30 million fewer words than the children of educated, middle-class mothers, a study showed nearly 20 years ago. The “word gap” is about the quality of parent-child conversation, not just the number of words, reports the New York Times.

For 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, according to a new study.

“It’s not just about shoving words in,” said lead author Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple. “It’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone. That is the stuff from which language is made.”

Talking more is the first step, said Ann Fernald, a Stanford psychologist. “When you learn to talk more, you tend to speak in more diverse ways and elaborate more, and that helps the child’s cognitive development.”

Fernald advises Providence Talks, a Rhode Island program that outfits babies and toddlers with devices that record the number of words they hear each day. Counselors evaluate the children’s exposure to language and teach parents communications skills.

When urban Catholic schools close …

When urban Catholic schools close, their communities become more dangerous, argues a new book, Lost Classrooms, Lost Community. Crime rates go up. “Neighborhood health” deteriorates.

The vital role of urban Catholic schools is clear, writes Fordham’s Andy Smarick

There is an extensive and convincing academic literature on the positive influence of urban Catholic schools on disadvantaged kids. They significantly improve reading scoreshigh school graduation rateshigher-education matriculation and graduation, and more.

We also know that they can promote civic virtues, that the U.S. Supreme Court found voucher programs constitutional, that they can be held accountable, that district reform has not led to the improvements needed, and that chartering hasn’t created enough high-quality seats yet.

When a Catholic school closes, a charter school may take over the building and fill the educational void, the authors write. But new charters do not yet “generate the same positive community benefits.”

Communities matter, concludes Smarick. “Social capital is invaluable,” and it “depends on longstanding relationships.” Just as urban renewal — clearing the slums “to make room for shiny, new public housing high-rises” — destroyed communities, clearing away old urban Catholic schools hurts at-risk neighborhoods, he writes. Reformers should “be mindful of social capital, longevity, and the value of preservation.”

Poor kids need homework

Too much homework may be a problem for the children of educated, affluent parents, writes Robert Pondiscio in The Atlantic. These kids start out ahead — enrichment starts in pregnancy — and attend excellent schools. Poor Students Need Homework, writes Pondiscio.

“For the low-income kids of color that I have worked with, thoughtful, well-crafted homework, especially in reading, remains an essential gap-closing tool,” he writes. And it’s not as if homework is competing for time with violin, ballet, karate or Mandarin lessons.

The proper debate about homework – now and always – should not be “how much” but “what kind” and “what for?”  Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills and knowledge teachers want students to perfect or keep in long-term memory.

Independent reading is also important. here are many more rare and unique words even in relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates. Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, important keys to mature reading comprehension.

Karl Taro Greenfield’s attack on excess homework — My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me — is very, very popular on Atlantic‘s site.

Greenfeld’s children, who attend a school for “gifted and talented” students, are “already big winners in the Cognitive Dream House Sweepstakes,” writes Pondiscio. They would do fine with 30 to 60 minutes of homework per night. But what’s right for his kids may be wrong for other people’s children.

A Chicago elementary school in a middle-class neighborhood has eliminated homework for children in kindergarten through second grade, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. Children are supposed to “read for fun” at home.

A restart for Head Start?

While Head Start has made some progress, the federally funded program “continues to lack clear, comprehensive goals for program performance,” writes Sara Mead in Renewing Head Start’s Promise: Invest in What Works for Disadvantaged Preschoolers.

In addition, Head Start overemphasizes compliance, requires programs to do too many different things and pays too little attention to curriculum, Mead writes.

While Mead believes Head Start can improve, her report is a devastating critique, writes Checker Finn on Gadfly.

Finn also takes on the idea that funding preschool education in poor countries should be a top United Nations priority. It “costs little and has lifelong benefits by getting children started on learning,” argues Matt Ridley in Smart Aid for the World’s Poor.

“Preschool is not like a polio shot or smallpox vaccination,” writes Finn. “It does not inoculate anybody against anything.”

. . . the right kind of preschool program can give a needed leg up to kids who aren’t getting such preparation at home.

But—and it’s a huge but—it’s only preparation for further education. The further education has to be waiting, and it has to be good education that takes advantage of what was accomplished in preschool.

In the U.S., which has universal elementary education and compulsory school attendance, “whatever boost was provided by preschool fades to the vanishing point during the early grades because the schools themselves fail to sustain it.”

In the Third World . . .

Coaching parents to close the word gap

Digital word counters and coaching for parents on toddler talk could help close the “word gap,” hope researchers in Providence, Rhode Island.

Fifty-five toddlers in welfare families, including 2.5-year-old Nylasia Jordan, are part of the pilot, reports John Tulenko for PBS.

Social worker Courtney Soules shows Nylasia’s father that she’s heard 5,000 words on the day she was recorded.  An average child will hear about 16,000 words a day.

There was almost no conversation from 10 am to 4 pm — and lots of TV time. The graphs are helpful, says Freddie Jordan. “Everybody wants their kids to learn more, talk more, full words.”

Soules is encouraging the father to talk more.

Modeling conversation, so, asking her questions, and giving her choices.

And have her point. And as she’s pointing at, say…

And also labeling, whether you’re taking a walk and that you’re pointing out birds and trees, and animals to when you are sitting in the house and that you’re reading a book together.

So far, the pilot has raised the daily word count by 300 to 500 words, not enough to make a difference.

Head Start study: Quality doesn’t matter

Head Start’s benefits fade quickly and disappear by third grade. Advocates say that’s because the quality of Head Start programs varies significantly.

“How much does program quality really impact children’s learning and development in Head Start classrooms? asks Kristen Loschert on EdCentral.

Not much, concludes a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Using data from the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) and follow-up reports, researchers analyzed how differences in program quality influence children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. They found “little evidence that quality matters to impacts of Head Start,” according to the report.

“I was disappointed,” admits co-researcher Stephen Bell. “We’re not really very far ahead in making Head Start better or understanding which variants of Head Start are worth emphasizing now.”

Exposing children to academic activities was considered a mark of a high-quality program. However,  “3-year-olds who received less exposure to academic activities . . . demonstrated better behavior outcomes” through kindergarten.

If even “quality” Head Start programs don’t produce lasting benefits, then why are we spending billions of dollars? Maybe something else — parenting support for single moms? — would make a difference.

Childhood’s ‘long shadow’

Only 4 percent of low-income Baltimore children had earned a college degree by age 28, concludes a Johns Hopkins study that followed 790 first graders for 22 years. Forty-five percent of higher-income children went on to earn a degree.

“A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories,” Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander says The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood.

White men from low-income backgrounds were less likely to attend college, but more likely to find well-paying blue-collar jobs. At age 28, 45 percent were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds.

At age 18, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black drop-outs.

White women from low-income backgrounds were much more likely than black women to be in stable family unions with a working spouse or partner.

At age 28, 49 percent of black men and 41 percent of white men from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction. But whites were much more likely to be working because of their stronger social networks, the study found.

When pre-k is too late

New York City is adding prekindergarten seats to public schools, but pre-k may come too late to change the trajectory of disadvantaged children,writes Ginia Bellafante in a New York Times blog.

Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.

A young, single mother “who thinks one book is enough” isn’t likely to expand her child’s vocabulary or knowledge of the world through talking, reading or exposition, writes Bellafante. “We should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth,” she concludes.

The left is squeamish about telling poor people how to behave, Bellafante concedes. “No one wants to live in a world in which social workers are marching through apartments mandating the use of colorful, laminated place mats emblazoned with pictures of tiny kangaroos and the periodic table.”

But perhaps paternalism can be sold as “compassion,” she concludes.

The Harlem Children’s Zone includes a Baby College, a parenting workshop for expectant parents and those raising a child up to three years old. There’s an intensive preschool program to prepare three- and four-year-olds for kindergarten. It’s not clear the “pipeline” concept is effective enough to justify the costs.

Preschool: We don’t know what works

Preschool is not a no-brainer, write University of Virginia professors Daniel T. Willingham and David W. Grissmer in a New York Times commentary. Research is murky on how to design preschool programs that help disadvantaged children.

When New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, went to Albany earlier this week to talk about his program for universal preschool, the discussion reportedly focused on funding, not on whether or how preschool would actually help children. President Obama seemed equally confident when he introduced his plan for universal preschool last year, flatly stating, “We know this works.”

Actually, we don’t.

A preschool that “works” could mean different things. It might simply be a safe spot for kids to go. Or it could be a means to get poor kids ready to learn reading and math; they are currently eight to 10 months behind wealthy kids when they start kindergarten. Mayor de Blasio and the president are more ambitious: They think that preschool ought to change life trajectories, resulting in more high school graduates and fewer prison inmates.

Preschool proponents cite the Abecedarian and Perry preschool programs from the 1960s and ’70s, which had long-term benefits. But these were “expensive, intensive” boutique programs that haven’t been replicated.

Preschools in large state programs  show variable results. Head Start, which focuses mostly on social activities, shows “minimal” academic benefits, the professors write. Pushing a kindergarten curriculum into preschool doesn’t work either.

 The preschools that do work teach less well-prepared kids precursor skills, the kind that many wealthy kids learn at home, through activities that don’t look especially academic. Songs and rhyming games, for example, help children hear that words are composed of individual sounds, making it easier to learn how to read letters. Kids gain knowledge about the world — important for reading comprehension in later elementary years — when they are read to by their parents and when they listen to them. Jigsaw puzzles and globes help kids develop spatial skills, which later help with math. Household rules teach children to learn to control their impulses, part of learning self-discipline.

If these skills aren’t being taught at home, it’s hard for a preschool teacher to make up the difference in a few hours a day, they write. “We need a national study . . . beginning at age 3 and continuing through at least second grade” to determine what “works” — and can be replicated.