Behind from the Beginning

Community Organizing Ideas and Issues

New Orleans  There are few things that I read that have the ability to simply shock and startle, but a piece by Paul Tough in the Sunday New York Times called “What it Takes to Make a Student” was simply arresting. The argument in a nutshell is stark: lower income and minority children are disadvantaged virtually from birth because of the lack of verbal exposure and positive reinforcement provided by their parents. The problem is so significant and gap so large that schools under any normal assessment and teachers within any customary public system are inadequate to catch up. Both with ACORN and our union we have been involved with educational issues and public schools for decades, and from time to time have felt we were making progress, but this argument, if true, sets our whole perspective on its ear.

I have been prodded recently to think a lot about the ways in which our constituency of low and moderate income families are unfairly trapped in one system after another having the effect of producing almost a captive class caged in predatory conditions and barred from opportunity in an affront to any standard of fairness. This piece was too close to home.

The article mustered the following evidence constructing this cage for our constituency:

* Betty Hart and Todd Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas produced a study in 1995 intensively following a small number of families and recording all interactions between parents and children. They found that there was a wide gap in classes in the acquisition of vocabulary virtually from the birth. By age 3 lower income children had half of the vocabulary that middle income children enjoyed, and IQ tests were consequently skewed as well. They believed the culprit here was in the conversations. Middle and upper income parents talked to their children between 2 and 3 times the amount that lower income parents did. To top that off, when the talking was being done, the more well-to-do were virtual cheerleaders for their children with constant encouragement compared to lower income parents. By age 3 they found that the average richer child was propped up 500,000 times and only discouraged 80,000 times, while on the other side of the tracks the poor child was beaten down 200,000 times and only propped up 80,000 times. All of this deadened the child’s IQ and vocabulary, creating a life sentence in a prison neither had imagined.

* This work was backed up by Jeanne Brooke-Gunn at Teachers College in hundreds of hours of interviews that found: “Children from more well-off homes tend to experience parental attitudes that are more sensitive, more encouraging, less intrusive and less detached — all of which, they found, serve to increase IQ and school readiness.” They found “wealth does matter,” but “child-reading style matters more.” My god, what are we dealing with here?!?

* Annette Lareau, an anthropologist, looked at this “raising” thing more closely and found that working and poor parents did things differently, following more closely the way they were raised by their own people. They allowed something she called “accomplishment of natural growth,” which meant allowing the kids time to play and find their own way with friends and cousins, while deferring to their elders and not talking back. Middle class children were products of “concerted cultivation” in her view and encouraged to talk back, argue, feel entitlements, and build confidence that makes them more surefooted as these children approach school and public challenge. In short Lareau found that poor children were potentially great kids who might be nicer, happier, and more polite, but damned if they were ready for the contemporary American meat grinding machine and the public schools experience that is the first thumping a child gets away from hearth and home.

This is unsettling stuff, my friends. We can organize a lot of things, but here is a classic “devil and the deep blue sea” set of choices. Can we for a minute believe that we can, organizationally, impact the way our people raise their children? Or, do we believe that we can change the educational system sufficiently to offset and overrun the early disadvantage, so that the children have a chance to catch up and have a fair fight of life before they are grown?

The article in effect went with the default judgment without saying as much by highlighting KIPP schools, which one of my colleagues quickly dismissed as “boutique” efforts, which of course they are with 12000 students in 50 odd schools under their management, but they are teaching something that might be worth our learning. They have our kids in an educational immersion system to offset the structural and cultural disadvantages. They run the schools from 8 to 5 and half-day on Saturday. They go 11 months a year with only a 1 month break for the summer. In effect they are putting our kids through a full court press to catch another team that has more speed and height when they come into the game.

There is something to that. Catching up to even is a bitch, but can there really be a choice. Should we start moving our schools to move to full-time education for our kids and do it now? It would cost some money in teachers pay, but do we have a choice?

The word will get out to parents over time. God knows none of us are raised the way the word was done 100 or 200 years ago. Social and cultural changes do occur after all. But, they take time and lots of it.

We need to rethink what we are doing here!

Graphic from the KIPP website