Earlier this month, I went to an open house at David C. Barrow Elementary School, of which, along with eight other Galises, I’m an alumnus. I can’t always remember what happened twenty-four hours ago, but I remember my school days there vividly, including the names of most of my teachers and the principal.
The atmosphere at the open house was one of high anticipation as streams of happy, excited parents and children found their classrooms, where they were greeted by equally happy, excited teachers. Obviously, nobody got the memo about “failing” public schools.
My visit to Barrow School confirmed yet again my long-held belief that lurching from one educational “reform” to another as we’ve done in recent years has been largely waste motion. The magic bullets that are supposed to boost our embarrassing international school achievement rankings are, I’m convinced, more about what people will tolerate in the current political and economic climate than about helping school children be all they can be.
We’ve known for some time now that family income is an even better predictor of a child’s school performance than race. Kids do better, on average, the higher up the income scale their parents are, no matter what their race or ethnic background. And the disparity has grown wider in recent decades, according to Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, 40 percent larger than 30 years ago as measured by test scores.
What we’ve only fairly recently begun to understand is what’s holding many kids back. In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley of the University of Kansas published research showing that “by age 3 a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity matters: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.”
If we’re serious about moving the school achievement needle, we can’t do better than address the cognitive deficits that a lot of children suffer during the crucial years between birth and the age of 3.
Early Head Start serves this at-risk population. But it’s chronically underfunded. According to the latest information I could get, the Clarke County School District gets enough funding to serve just 80 expectant mothers, infants, and toddlers through age two and another 84 children ages three through four. And because this is a means-tested program, families have to jump through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops to qualify.
Two programs that may offer more promising models for reaching kids during the critical first three years are under way in New York City and Providence, Rhode Island. At New York’s Bellevue Hospital, doctors in the Pediatrics Department stress to parents the importance of talking and reading to their children and send them home with free books. Follow-up appointments give doctors a chance to keep pressing home the cognitive development message. And all families have to do to qualify for this early development initiative is walk in the door.
Providence, where only one in three children enters school ready for kindergarten reading, recently won a $5 million prize to leverage its existing network of nurses, mentors, therapists and social workers who already make home visits to pregnant women, new parents and children. Providence is going to train these home visitors to provide an additional service: encouraging the rich interaction between parents and kids that’s commonplace further up the income ladder.
I don’t for a minute underestimate the challenge of ensuring that no child is left behind where it counts most—at the kindergarten door. But the logistical and policy challenges are compounded by the sad fact that public education in this country has historically faced headwinds and still does.
When Thomas Jefferson, an early champion of universal public education, appealed to the Virginia House of Delegates to establish a publicly funded system of primary and secondary schools in the state, the effort failed because the landed gentry who saw themselves as the “natural” leaders of society didn’t see why they should tax themselves to educate people they regarded as their “natural” inferiors. And while some of our current “reformers” think opening up education to market forces is cutting edge, when Jefferson urged the Virginia legislature to authorize and fund what eventually became the University of Virginia, some of the opponents, disciples of Adam Smith whose Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, thought all education should be in private hands. So what’s peddled in many quarters now as cutting edge is really same old, same old.
Finland is one of the countries that regularly eat our lunch in the international school achievement rankings. It’s been held up by members of Congress as an “if-Finland-can-do-it-why-can’t-we” model. But Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg, one of the world’s leading experts on school reform, has pointed out that only about a third of the measured difference between high and low school achievement in this country is due to schools and what happens in them. The other two thirds is due to what goes on outside of school.
If that’s right, then the most we can expect from all the “reformers” who’re making so much noise now is incremental advances, if that, in student achievement. But that’s all we’re going to get as long as it’s easier and cheaper to just scapegoat teachers and plow our well-worn ideological furrows than to devote serious resources to leveling the field for all kids by the time they start school.
Meanwhile, I know that the children I saw during my visit to Barrow School will benefit from the same care and dedication that were lavished on me when I preceded them an impossibly long time ago that still seems like yesterday.