Superb Article on the State of Youth Education in America

Paul Tough had a superbly written article in Sunday’s NYT magazine on the state of youth education in America and, more specifically, the troubling achievement gap between the poor and the well-off.

My favorite quote, on the subject of differing parenting styles between poor and middle class parents, was:  "As Lareau points out, kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite — but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society."

If you want to spend 15 minutes and get a solid briefing on the state of U.S. education, the succeses and failures of charter schooling, parenting styles that work, and what various people are trying to do about our problems, print out the article and read it carefully. Excerpts:

The academics have demonstrated just how deeply pervasive and ingrained are the intellectual and academic disadvantages that poor and minority students must overcome to compete with their white and middle-class peers. The divisions between black and white and rich and poor begin almost at birth, and they are reinforced every day of a child’s life….

There had, in fact, been evidence for a long time that poor children fell behind rich and middle-class children early, and stayed behind. But researchers had been unable to isolate the reasons for the divergence. Did rich parents have better genes? Did they value education more? Was it that rich parents bought more books and educational toys for their children? Was it because they were more likely to stay married than poor parents? Or was it that rich children ate more nutritious food? Moved less often? Watched less TV? Got more sleep? Without being able to identify the important factors and eliminate the irrelevant ones, there was no way even to begin to find a strategy to shrink the gap.  

Researchers began peering deep into American homes, studying up close the interactions between parents and children….

They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

When Hart and Risley then addressed the question of just what caused those variations, the answer they arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 “utterances” — anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy — to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.  

What’s more, the kinds of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of “discouragements” a child heard — prohibitions and words of disapproval — compared with the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another — all of which stimulated intellectual development.  

Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child’s life. Hearing fewer words, and a lot of prohibitions and discouragements, had a negative effect on I.Q.; hearing lots of words, and more affirmations and complex sentences, had a positive effect on I.Q. The professional parents were giving their children an advantage with every word they spoke, and the advantage just kept building up…

Another researcher, an anthropologist named Annette Lareau, has investigated the same question from a cultural perspective. Over the course of several years, Lareau and her research assistants observed a variety of families from different class backgrounds, basically moving in to each home for three weeks of intensive scrutiny. Lareau found that the middle-class families she studied all followed a similar strategy, which she labeled concerted cultivation. The parents in these families engaged their children in conversations as equals, treating them like apprentice adults and encouraging them to ask questions, challenge assumptions and negotiate rules. They planned and scheduled countless activities to enhance their children’s development — piano lessons, soccer games, trips to the museum.  

The working-class and poor families Lareau studied did things differently. In fact, they raised their children the way most parents, even middle-class parents, did a generation or two ago. They allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and weekends as they chose — playing outside with cousins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends — but much less freedom to talk back, question authority or haggle over rules and consequences. Children were instructed to defer to adults and treat them with respect. This strategy Lareau named accomplishment of natural growth.  

In her book “Unequal Childhoods,” published in 2003, Lareau described the costs and benefits of each approach and concluded that the natural-growth method had many advantages. Concerted cultivation, she wrote, “places intense labor demands on busy parents. … Middle-class children argue with their parents, complain about their parents’ incompetence and disparage parents’ decisions.” Working-class and poor children, by contrast, “learn how to be members of informal peer groups. They learn how to manage their own time. They learn how to strategize.” But outside the family unit, Lareau wrote, the advantages of “natural growth” disappear. In public life, the qualities that middle-class children develop are consistently valued over the ones that poor and working-class children develop. Middle-class children become used to adults taking their concerns seriously, and so they grow up with a sense of entitlement, which gives them a confidence, in the classroom and elsewhere, that less-wealthy children lack. The cultural differences translate into a distinct advantage for middle-class children in school, on standardized achievement tests and, later in life, in the workplace.    

…However you measure child-rearing, middle-class parents tend to do it differently than poor parents — and the path they follow in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages. As Lareau points out, kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite — but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.  


3 comments on “Superb Article on the State of Youth Education in America
  • Very interesting, Ben. As a good liberal, I love being PC, however I have an anecdote that is anything but. The summer before I entered high school, I volunteered at the afterschool program for a summer school at a poor, low preforming elementary school in San Francisco’s Mission District. Now, the students I worked with might not have been a good sample of Marshal Elementary’s students, because they were the ones who needed to stay after and had to attend a summer school. This said, many of the 5th graders I worked with were the most obnoxious, rude, ungrateful, good for nothing degenerates I had ever come across. They were nothing like the curious, sweet students at my middle-upper-middle class hippie grade school, or the formal, academic students at my preppy high school. After spending a month there, I was realy to give up. I dont really know what the point to this post is, but we should respect the teachers who put up with that day in day out.

  • I’ve often wondered about the costs and benefits of the modern style of parenting. What’s fascinating to me is that I can see a microcosm of this study in my own family.

    My wife was raised in a traditional way. She was a latchkey child, and her father was extremely strict in demanding that the children be seen and not heard, and that they behave quietly and submissively towards adults.

    I was raised in the modern way. My mother stayed at home and used her Masters in library science (specialization in children’s literature) to keep me well-supplied with literature. I was often encouraged to be the center of attention, and loved to perform for adults whenever the chance presented itself.

    My wife caused few problems in school; I was often cited as a disruptive influence. My wife prefers to avoid confrontations; I have a truly American sense of entitlement. My wife believes in humility, and views it as her duty to put some kind of brakes on my overweening arrogance, which in my youth, manifested itself in sayings like, “I’m the smartest person I’ve ever met,” and “If someone does better than me in any class, it’s like a personal insult.”

    For better or worse, my narcissistic, self-satisfied personality seems to make me a good fit for Silicon Valley.

    The interesting thing will be to see what happens with our kids….the only thing we tend to disagree on in our lives is that she thinks I’m too lenient, and I think she’s too strict.

  • Good education (and early development of a child) is only part of the equation when it comes to the adult “quality of life”.

    There are many examples of successful and happy “self-made” people from working families, there are many examples of “old money’s” kids ending their lives (prematurely) as drug-addicts and junkies.

    Education in a formal sense is also an evasive subject (not that having a good education limits your chances of becoming a happy successful person) – just have a look at Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Alan Sugar etc.

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