We Won't Bridge the Achievement Gap Until We Bridge the Word Gap
Why Initiatives to Level the Playing Field Need to Empower Parents
In 1995 a world-famous study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that some children heard thirty million fewer words by their 4th birthdays than others. The children who heard more words were better prepared when they entered school. These same kids, when followed into third grade, had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and got higher test scores. The bottom line: the kids who started out ahead, stayed ahead; the kids who started out behind, stayed behind. This disparity in learning is referred to as the achievement gap.
I believe those thirty million words are key to closing the achievement gap and giving children the best start in life.
Recognizing the importance of language in a child’s early brain development is an unprecedented opportunity. It allows parents to understand their power in helping their children realize their ultimate potentials. Even more important, it shows parents the steps to enhance that power. Understanding the thirty million word gap also helps set the stage for turning the tide for all children. In this regard, the science is clear. In order to close the achievement gap, in order to ensure that all children in this country are able to achieve their potentials, well-designed, carefully monitored programs, based on scientific evidence, must exist to help it occur. And those programs, geared at helping the children, are parent/caretaker dependent as they are a child’s first teacher.
This is a great paradox. While early childhood is really the story of parents, and although we know the importance of parents in the eventual intellectual outcomes of children, parents are often afterthoughts in program development and reforms for closing the achievement gap. They may be mentioned in the discussion but, in the end, they are usually treated as an add-on rather than the key tool to make the necessary changes. And here’s the historical irony: It was the failure of Hart and Risley’s preschool project to help children become school ready that impelled them to do a longitudinal study on parental influences in children’s academic outcomes.
The importance of preschool is not disputed. But when children enter without the prerequisites for learning, it is largely remedial. To give preschool maximum strength, and to make sure that the lack of school readiness does not predict an academic lifetime of “catching up,” or failure, the children entering its programs have to be ready to learn.
This emphasizes the need to design solid early-childhood programs that include parents to help ensure the school readiness of children who may need additional support. These programs would help parents provide an optimum language environment in the first three years of their child’s life, when essential brain development is occurring. Home visiting would help parents set language goals; careful monitoring would help parents achieve those goals. In order to assure success, and to accurately assess program design, programs would include a built-in procedure for evaluation and improvement.
Success will be dependent on a strong support system. While parenting interventions, in the past, have had problems, and may need more research or evidence-based program development, science demonstrates that making the effort is essential since it will only be when parents, or a child’s primary caretakers, are actively involved as engaged partners in a child’s early years that outcomes will improve.
It’s also true that until we, as a nation, understand the importance of parental involvement, offering appropriate support where such is needed, the lives of millions of our children will essentially be a lifelong game of catch-up.
Can we really do it?
If we can develop a tiny antibody to travel through a body and attack a specific cancer cell, if we can discover how to push a few buttons and call Shanghai from New York, if we can find a way to defy gravity and send a spacecraft to the moon, we can do this.
Dana Suskind, M.D, is the founder of Thirty Million Words and author of THIRTY MILLION WORDS: Building A Child’s Brain