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.”

Obama’s universal pre-k isn’t universal

President Obama’s pledged “to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America” in the State of the Union speech. His “early learning” plan doesn’t do that, which is a good thing. Obama is focusing on disadvantaged children who may not be learning enough at home to be ready for school.

In short, universal pre-k isn’t universal, writes Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic. Sharing costs with the states, the president would try to improve preschool quality and expand access for four-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. (That tops out at $46,100 for a family of four.) He’d also expand Early Head Start for low-income children from birth through age 3.

Forty-two percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in taxpayer-funded, center-based preschool.

Obama also proposes expanding home visits to high-risk families — young, single mothers — by nurses and social workers. Visits by public health nurses appear to lower the risk of child abuse and neglect — and increase the use of birth control.

Early education helps disadvantaged children — for awhile, writes Emily Richmond, noting the president’s call for states to add full-day kindergarten. She researched that issue in 2007.

The greatest benefits to full-day kindergarten seemed to be for minority children and those growing up in poverty, who were more likely to otherwise arrive unprepared for first grade. But the gains trickled off unless those full-day kindergarten students continued to receive the tailored instructional programs and services they needed as they advanced into the higher grades.

Here’s how I summed the data at the time: “Full-day kindergarten may be a springboard to academic success, but it’s apparently of little use if students are diving into an empty pool.”

Except for a few boutique programs, preschool gains don’t last.  By third grade, Head Start graduates do no better  in school or in social and emotional skills than similar kids who weren’t in the program, according to a federal study that was not released for four years.

Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst asks if we can be “hard-headed” about funding preschool.

Head Start spends about twice as much per child per year as states ($8K per child per year for Head Start vs. $4K for state pre-K). And Head Start includes many program components that are advocated by early childhood experts such as health, nutrition, and parental involvement that are much less prevalent in state pre-K. If a year of Head Start does not improve achievement in elementary school, should we assume that a year of state pre-K does?

Universal pre-k in Georgia produced very slight gains (for the neediest children) at high cost, Whitehurst writes. A Texas pre-k program produced slightly better gains for low-income children.