Who’s responsible for poor kids?

Matilde Ascencio holds her 18-month-old daughter Vitzal as she waits in line to receive food aid in a Chicago suburb. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The U.S. is not the land of opportunity for the children of poorly educated parents, writes social scientist Robert Putnam in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

When Putnam finished high school in 1959 in a small Ohio town, factory jobs provided steady paychecks for classmates who didn’t go to college. Now there are few steady jobs for workers with only a high school diploma.

“There’s such instability in the families of poor kids that 60 to 70 percent of them — of all races — are living in single-parent families,” Putnam told NPR’s Scott Simon. In the wealthiest fifth of families, only 6 percent of children are raised by a single parent.

If you have two educated parents, “you’ll have a larger vocabulary, you’ll know more about the world,” Putnam said, and such children will have “a lot of adults in their life that are reaching out to help them. They tell them about what it means to go to college.”

Not-very-educated single parents, short on time and money, are less likely to take their kids to soccer practice, dance class or church, Putnam found.

Sympathy for poor children isn’t enough, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. We need to reintroduce social norms, such as what it means to be a good father.

These norms “were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another,” he writes. We don’t want to hold people responsible for their choices.

People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

Privileged people could do better too, Brooks concludes, though he’s not clear on how.

Liberals made a “historic mistake” 50 years ago when they rejected the Moynihan report’s warning “that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable,” writes Nicholas Kristof, also in the New York Times.

“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history,” wrote Moynihan. “A community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families … never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos.”

Tech won’t close achievement gap

Technology won’t close the achievement gap, writes psychologist Susan Pinker in the New York Times. “Showering students, especially those from struggling families, with networked devices” could widen the class divide, she warns.  

In the early 2000s, nearly one million disadvantaged middle-school students were given networked computers. There was “a persistent decline in reading and math scores,” concluded a multi-year study by Duke economists. “What’s worse, the weaker students (boys, African-Americans) were more adversely affected than the rest,” writes Pinker. “When their computers arrived, their reading scores fell off a cliff.”

It’s likely many kids weren’t using the devices to do school work, she speculates. Most people prefer to play games and surf social media sites.

Babies born to low-income parents spend at least 40 percent of their waking hours in front of a screen — more than twice the time spent by middle-class babies. They also get far less cuddling and bantering over family meals than do more privileged children. The give-and-take of these interactions is what predicts robust vocabularies and school success. Apps and videos don’t.

One Laptop Per Child gives low-cost laptops to poor children so they can “go online and educate themselves — no school or teacher required,” writes Pinker. It hasn’t worked out that way. Children spent more time on games and chat rooms and less time on their homework than before, researchers reported.

In the classroom, “technology can work only when it is deployed as a tool by a terrific, highly trained teacher,” writes Pinker.

The Tech Timeout Academic Challenge asks students to shut down their digital devices for a few days and then discuss or write about their experiences.

Racial injustice?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof sees “racial injustice” in the harsh sentence given to a 13-year-old black boy who shot a white woman in the face as part of a gang initiation and robbery.

Ian Manuel

Ian Manuel

Twenty-four years later, after years of painful surgeries to rebuild her mouth, the victim is advocating for her attacker’s release.

A white 13-year-old probably wouldn’t have been given such a long sentence, Kristof believes.

Would a white 13-year-old be seen as troubled, a candidate for rehabilitation, rather than dangerous? Maybe. I think many people would care about the crime rather than the skin color.

Ian Manuel was raised — badly — by a single mother addicted to drugs. Arrested 16 times, “he desperately needed help, but instead the authorities kept returning him to a dysfunctional home,” writes Kristof.

“We as a society failed Manuel early on, and he, in turn, failed us,” argues Kristof. “When you can predict that an infant boy of color in a particular ZIP code is more likely to go to prison than to college, it’s our fault more than his.”

Most black boys born in bad neighborhoods don’t commit brutal, senseless crimes. And most kids removed from their dysfunctional homes — typically placed with relatives or in foster care — do very, very poorly as adults. “Society” doesn’t know how to save boys like Manuel.

Starting out behind

Some children are almost a year behind when they start kindergarten, according to Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry, a Mathematica analysis. Four risk factors — single-parent household, mother with less than a high school education, low-income household and non-English speaking household — correlate with kindergarten readiness.

The more risk factors, the worse kids do. Forty-four percent have one risk factor, 13 percent have two and 6 percent have three or four.


The number of high-risk kindergarteners has not improved since the 1998-99 cohort of students and may be getting worse, notes EdCentral.

Closing the ‘word gap’

Providence Talks hopes to close the “word gap” between rich and poor, reports NPR. The project is funded by a $5 million, three-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Providence will distribute small recording devices — essentially word pedometers — that tuck into the vest of a child’s clothing. These will automatically record and calculate the number of words spoken and the number of times a parent and child quickly ask and answer each other’s questions.

The LENA Foundation in Colorado developed the device, which makes it easy to track verbal interactions. Parents will get coaching in how develop their children’s language skills.

The children of low-income, less-educated parents may be six months behind in language development by the age of two, a Stanford study estimates. By the time they start kindergarten at 5, they score more than two years behind.

The Providence experiment was inspired by Three Million Words in Chicago, another gap-closing effort.

Aneisha Newell says that program taught her to talk to her young daughter in new ways. She says she never realized bath time — with colors and shapes of bubbles and toys to describe — could be a teachable moment. She ended up breaking the program’s record for the most words spoken.

And then there was the moment her daughter — not yet 3 years old — used the word ‘ridiculous’ correctly.

University of Chicago Professor Dana Suskind, who started 30 Million Words, said sitting in front of the TV doesn’t develop language. It takes interaction between the caregiver and the child.

“We can’t just have people saying 30 million times ‘stop it!’ It’s got to be much more,” she says.

The parent should “tune in” to what the child is looking at, talk about it and ask questions that can create a sort of “serve and return” between parent and child.

In Chicago, adults and children spoke and interacted more after receiving feedback from the LENA recordings and home visits, reports The Atlantic. Suskind is advising Providence Talks.

“Close the word gap, advocates say, and you might close the achievement gap and maybe even disrupt the cycle of poverty,” concludes The Atlantic. 

I like the idea of working directly with parents rather than trying to create preschools to do — a few hours a day — what parents aren’t doing at home. I’d make videos modeling parent-child conversations — and throw in a little coaching on how to get a child to “use your words.”

‘Crack babies’ do as well as other poor kids

When the crack cocaine epidemic was at its peak in the late ’80s, many thought “crack babies” were damaged irreparably. A long-term study finds crack-exposed children do no worse than similar children whose mothers didn’t use drugs during pregnancy, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The most powerful risk factor: poverty.

A 1989 study found nearly one in six newborns at Philadelphia hospitals had mothers who tested positive for cocaine. Hallam Hurt, then chair of neonatology at Albert Einstein Medical Center, began following babies born at the hospital — half exposed to cocaine, half not exposed. All came from low-income families and nearly all were black.

Troubling stories were circulating about the so-called crack babies. They had small heads and were easily agitated and prone to tremors and bad muscle tone, according to reports, many of which were anecdotal. Worse, the babies seemed aloof and avoided eye contact. Some social workers predicted a lost generation – kids with a host of learning and emotional deficits who would overwhelm school systems and not be able to hold a job or form meaningful relationships.

The crack-exposed children didn’t do well in school or life, but neither did the children in the control group.

The researchers consistently found no significant differences between the cocaine-exposed children and the controls. At age 4, for instance, the average IQ of the cocaine-exposed children was 79.0 and the average IQ for the nonexposed children was 81.9. Both numbers are well below the average of 90 to 109 for U.S. children in the same age group. When it came to school readiness at age 6, about 25 percent of children in each group scored in the abnormal range on tests for math and letter and word recognition.

In both groups, children raised by a nurturing caregiver did much better than the average. You’d think the crack-using mothers would be especially dysfunctional caregivers, but perhaps they were more likely to let competent family members raise their kids.

The team has kept tabs on 110 of the 224 children originally in the study. Of the 110, two are dead – one shot in a bar and another in a drive-by shooting – three are in prison, six graduated from college, and six more are on track to graduate. There have been 60 children born to the 110 participants.

Karen Drakewood was on an all-night crack binge when she went into labor in 1990. She feared her daughter, Jaimee,  “would be slow, mentally retarded, or something like that because of me doing drugs,” she said. After several tries — and a year in jail — she got off drugs and found a job. Jaimee, now 23, is a senior at Tuskegee. A single mother of a baby boy, she hopes to become a food inspector. Her older sister has earned a master’s degree; her brother is a university student.

Why ‘Preschool for All’ won’t work

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act — President Obama’s Preschool for All idea — has been introduced in Congress. “Decades of research tell us that … early learning is the best investment we can make to prepare our children for a lifetime of success,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Research doesn’t say that, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst, who’s spent most of his career “designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children.”

Advocates for universal preschool cite two “boutique” programs from 40-50 years ago and “recent research with serious methodological flaws,” writes Whitehurst. They ignore the large, randomized National Head Start Impact Study, which found no differences in elementary school outcomes for Head Start kids. They also ignore “research showing negative impacts” on children in federally funded child care “as well as evidence that the universal pre-k programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, which are closest to what the Obama administration has proposed, have had, at best, only small impacts.”

A newly released Vanderbilt study analyzes Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (TN-VPK) for four-year-olds from low-income families. Researchers compared children who won a lottery for pre-K slots with those whose parents applied but lost the lottery, making it a “gold standard” study, Whitehurst writes. Furthermore, TN-VPK set high quality standards similar to Obama’s Preschool for All proposal.

Yet all cognitive and social/emotional gains were lost by the end of kindergarten. In first grade, the control group did better than the former pre-K students on seven of eight cognitive skills, though the advantage was significant only for quantitative concepts.

Cognitive Outcomes at the end of first grade

The control group also did better — but not significantly — on four of seven measures of social/emotional skills or dispositions, as rated by first-grade teachers.

TN-VPK participants were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten than non-participants (4% to 6%), researchers noted. But kindergarten retention doesn’t predict later school performance, Whitehurst writes. The TN-VPk students also were more likely to receive special education services (14% to 9%).

These findings, which match the Head Start study, are “devastating,” writes Whitehurst. “Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.”

Pediatricians check up on reading

Pediatricians are “prescribing” books
 to low-income children who don’t attend preschool, reports PBS. Reach Out and Read encourages doctors to discuss reading aloud with parents.

Via This Week In Education.

Without books at home, few read well

Children raised in low-income families have few age-appropriate books in their homes, according to First Book, which gives books to disadvantaged children to encourage reading.  The infographic is based on research by Susan Neuman, co-author of Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance.

[INFOGRAPHIC] The Haves and the Have-Nots

Education reform starts with reading, writes Michael Mazenko in the Denver Post. He supports Common Core standards’ recommendation that 70 percent of all high school reading be non-fiction. Students can analyze literature in English class and think critically about informational text in social studies, science, math and arts classes, he writes. That will help the 44 percent of high school students who can’t truly comprehend what they read, according to NAEP.

If Mama ain’t reading, ain’t nobody reading

Preschool can’t compensate for poor parenting, editorializes USA Today.

A few small, high-quality programs have shown enduring benefits for at-risk kids. But intensive study of Head Start, the nation’s largest and oldest preschool program, finds that the beneficial effects, which are real, wear off by third grade.

. . . Children are most likely to succeed in school when pushed by parents who provide stability, help with schooling, and instill an education and work ethic. But for decades now, the American family has been breaking down.

Two-fifths of children born in the USA are born to unmarried mothers, an eightfold increase since 1960.

Children born to unmarried mothers usually lose contact with their father by the age of 5, researchers have found. Without a strong role model, boys “are more likely to turn to gangs and crime.”  Single mothers ”

read less to their children, are more likely to use harsh discipline and are less likely to maintain stable routines, such as a regular bedtime.” It adds up.

What if there is nothing the government can do for low-income children to improve their educational performance?” asks David Hogberg. Parents reading to toddlers shows a lasting educational benefit, he writes. “A study in Child Development found that only about half of low-income mothers were reading regularly to their children.”  Is it hopeless?

In Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut, Fordham’s Checker Finn argues against tax-funded preschool for all children and expores which children need it, who should provide it and “what’s the right balance between socialization and systematic instruction.”