Faces of Education

Visiting my grandson shortly before his graduation from college, I had the privilege of sitting in on his Democracy and Education class.  Although an undergraduate, his class was made up almost entirely of advanced degree students, most of whom had already had teaching experience in various parts of this country and abroad.  There was much discussion about whether or not education promoted, or was meant to promote equality. Same question about economic success.  There were references to theoretical formulations, but students also spoke from their experiences teaching thus far, and their experiences often did not match theoretical aspirations.

The students spoke of the impact of poverty and the disparity of resources for schools in different areas.  At the end of the class, the professor summed up by saying that a primary problem in today’s educational system has its roots in the United States Constitution.  In this he was referring to its incorporation of slavery and its legacy of racial discrimination, particularly in regard to education.  Inequality of achievement along racial lines is a major target of concern in education today. 

During the class discussion, it was interesting to note that the most intense negative feelings were expressed about the impact of the present focus on test results, and along with that the criticism and blame that has been directed at teachers.  It was easy to identify with the feeling that teachers express about being under attack for problems that have so many underlying causes over which they have no control.  This is the same blame and criticism that parents have long experienced for children’s behavior that has its roots in other factors.  Parents and teachers have long been favorite targets of blame for various social problems.

Along the lines of asking parents and teachers to fix social problems, there was an interesting article in the N.Y. Times several weeks ago called, “The Power of Talking to Baby.”  In it, the author Tina Rosenberg discusses the fact that by the time a poor child is one year old, she has likely already fallen behind middle-class children in her ability to talk, understand and learn.  The gap between poor children and wealthier ones widens each year and become huge by high school.

Researchers have been trying to find out what it is about poverty that limits a child’s ability to learn.  One idea taking hold is that the key to early learning is talking.  In particular, the greater a child’s exposure to language spoken by parents and caregivers from birth to age three, the better.  A research project published in the 1990s studied how parents of different socio-economic backgrounds talked to their babies.  The researchers visited 42 families each month and recorded an hour of parent-child interaction.  When the children were nine the researchers examined how they were doing in school.  The tapes had been transcribed and analyzed, revealing a huge discrepancy in the number of words heard by children in families on welfare, working class families, and professional families.  The greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were three, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school.  TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.   

This finding will be tested on a large scale by the Providence Talks program which recently won a five million dollar prize for best new idea.  Hoping eventually to reach about two thousand new families a year, the program will use new technology consisting of a voice recorder worn by a child in clothing with a special pocket.  Sixteen hours of continuous recording is then analyzed by speech-recognition software.  In earlier studies with many fewer participants, the new recording device was used along with workshops on the importance of talk, and strategies for increasing it.  The results of these studies showed a significant increase in the number of words used and the number of conversational turns.

 The article states that “while we know that richer, more educated parents talk much more to their children than poorer and less educated ones, we don’t know exactly why.”  One answer referred to, again based on research, is that poor women, who tend to get advice from friends and family, were simply unaware that it was important to talk more to their babies.    

All of this recalls approaches developed in the ‘sixties as part of the “war on poverty”.  Trained professionals were to visit mothers on a regular basis to teach them how to read to their children, and to teach other aspects of child care.  This was the explicit idea that one way of fighting poverty was to help mothers do a better job of child-rearing.  Today, it is the disparity in educational achievement that is to be solved by teaching mothers how to talk to their babies.

Talking to babies is an almost programmed, inborn species response from mothers.  Human babies are totally dependent and nature assures they will be taken care of by providing them with a variety of behaviors that elicit certain characteristic adult responses, including what we call baby talk.  If mothers are stressed, depressed, preoccupied by worries stemming from being poor, or being overburdened, of course they will not be as responsive to their babies or young children.

Many mothers are in need of support and help.  They respond well to the interest shown by programs like those described, and providing that interest and support is all to the good.  But let’s not regard them as the solution to the larger social problems of poverty and education.

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