Thursday, April 28, 2005

Why NCLB can't work

The problem is in the homes not the schools.

Says Bill Cosby and a few others:

In January, almost 2,000 people jammed the auditorium at Wayne County Community College in Detroit in order to hear Bill Cosby yell at them—there’s really no other way to put it—for being bad parents. That was after a crowd had already filled a hall in Newark. And another in Springfield, Massachusetts. And another in Milwaukee. And yet another in Atlanta.
So Bill says black folks need to be better parents. Good. But in what way? Where are the errors being made?
So why have we been able to make so little headway in improving the life chances of poor black children? One reason towers over all others, and it’s the one Cosby was alluding to, however crudely, in his town-hall meetings: poor black parents rear their children very differently from the way middle-class parents do, and even by the time the kids are four years old, the results are extremely hard to change.
We know this. The fact is not in dispute. It is uncomfortable. So what are the differences?
....poor parents raise their kids differently, because they see being parents differently. They are not simply middle-class parents manqué; they have their own culture of child rearing, and—not to mince words—that culture is a recipe for more poverty. Without addressing that fact head-on, not much will ever change.

Social scientists have long been aware of an immense gap in the way poor parents and middle-class parents, whatever their color, treat their children, including during the earliest years of life. On the most obvious level, middle-class parents read more to their kids, and they use a larger vocabulary, than poor parents do. They have more books and educational materials in the house; according to Inequality at the Starting Gate, the average white child entering kindergarten in 1998 had 93 books, while the average black child had fewer than half that number.
Now perhaps some of this difference is related to poverty? Perhaps money will fix the problem. Sorry. The problem is not a difference in books or educational toys. It is a difference in culture.
But poor parents differ in ways that are less predictably the consequences of poverty or the lack of high school diplomas. Researchers find that low-income parents are more likely to spank or hit their children. They talk less to their kids and are more likely to give commands or prohibitions when they do talk: “Put that fork down!” rather than the more soccer-mommish, “Why don’t you give me that fork so that you don’t get hurt?” In general, middle-class parents speak in ways designed to elicit responses from their children, pointing out objects they should notice and asking lots of questions: “That’s a horse. What does a horsie say?” (or that middle-class mantra, “What’s the magic word?”). Middle-class mothers also give more positive feedback: “That’s right! Neigh! What a smart girl!” Poor parents do little of this.

The difference between middle-class and low-income child rearing has been captured at its starkest—and most unsettling—by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley in their 1995 book Meaningful Differences. As War on Poverty foot soldiers with a special interest in language development, Hart and Risley were troubled by the mediocre results of the curriculum they had helped design at the Turner House Preschool in a poor black Kansas City neighborhood. Comparing their subjects with those at a lab school for the children of University of Kansas professors, Hart and Risley found to their dismay that not only did the university kids know more words than the Turner kids, but they learned faster. The gap between upper- and lower-income kids, they concluded, “seemed unalterable by intervention by the time the children were 4 years old.”
The problem can't be fixed in school. It has to be fixed by changing the culture. This will not be easy. For instance, how do you get parents with no experience of being talked to to talk to their kids even when the kids are too young to carry on a conversation? And it is not just talk. The parents must increse their vocabulary. Studies have been done.
Trying to understand why, their team set out to observe parents and children in their homes doing the things they ordinarily did—hanging out, talking, eating dinner, watching television. The results were mind-boggling: in the first years of life, the average number of words heard per hour was 2,150 for professors’ kids, 1,250 for working-class children, and 620 for children in welfare families.

But the problem went further. Welfare parents in the study didn’t just talk less; their talk was meaner and more distracted.
This is going to be tough. It is not a matter of money. It is about telling (or at least instructing) parents on the proper way to raise children. Not exactly a government function in America.

The article goes on to talk about "the Mission":
In middle-class families, the child’s development—emotional, social, and (these days, above all) cognitive—takes center stage. It is the family’s raison d’être, its state religion. It’s the reason for that Mozart or Rafi tape in the morning and that bedtime story at night, for finding out all you can about a teacher in the fall and for Little League in the spring, for all the books, crib mobiles, trips to the museum, and limits on TV. It’s the reason, even, for careful family planning; fewer children, properly spaced, allow parents to focus ample attention on each one. Just about everything that defines middle-class parenting—talking to a child, asking questions, reasoning rather than spanking—consciously aims at education or child development. In The Family in the Modern Age, sociologist Brigitte Berger traces how the nuclear family arose in large measure to provide the environment for the “family’s great educational mission.”

The Mission, as we’ll call it, was not a plot against women. It was the answer to a problem newly introduced by modern life: how do you shape children into citizens in a democratic polity and self-disciplined, self-reliant, skilled workers in a complex economy? It didn’t take all that much solicitude to prepare kids to survive in traditional, agricultural societies. That’s not the case when it comes to training them to prosper in an individualistic, commercial, self-governing republic. “[I]n no other family system do children play a more central role than in that of the conventional nuclear family,” Berger writes.
In any case no school program of testing is going to fix this.

Demming says that you can't test your way into quality at low cost if you don't use the results of the tests to change the process. You do not want to keep fixing problems down stream caused by an upstream defect in the process.

Now how we change this is a question I can't answer. But I can tell you this. NCLB is not the answer.


Anonymous said...

I'm catching up, OK. Good post. Extremely difficult problem. First off, we're not allowed to go in and tell these folks that what they are doing is wrong, are we? After all, its their culture, and who are we to judge... and don't get the wrong idea, I'm not talking skin tint here and neither were you, I'm talking ecomomically poor culture, but you see where I'm going? How the hell can we intervene before these kids are four years old? A lot of things in this world need changing, what a task. Who was that guy pushing the rock up the hill...?

Luther McLeod

Cardozo Bozo said...

At one time only a small percentage of Westerners were "educated." Now, most of them are. How did that happen? How did the culture of so many whites change, within individual families?

Or maybe, the people who have the discipline to work hard at being parents have the discipline to work hard at work ... which is why they're middle class.

Give people the discipline to work hard and apply themselves, and it can take them anywhere.

Works for the Army ...

M. Simon said...


Intelligence tests which are not normed show a 20 point improvement in 100 year over the whole population.

I would say that it is evident that culture changed for whites and some blacks.

I think a lot of what has held black culture back is its anti-white attitude.


I think you do it with a "black" sitcom. Maybe even a "white one" as long as it was popular with blacks.

This is really a problem for Hollywood.

When will they get a clue?

I suppose you could bring this to the attention of Roger Simon.

Morgan said...

I think you guys are onto something. The crucial determinants of academic success are the attitudes and behaviors of the learner.

Here's a thought experiment. Who learns more - a student in a 21st century multimedia classroom extravaganza who doesn't want to be there, won't pay attention, and is among a group of people who think that disrupting the classroom environment is great sport, or a motivated student with an unqualified teacher, hand-me-down texts with pages missing, and a leaky cardboard box for a classroom?

It seems to me that the answer is obvious, "of course the motivated learner learns more!".

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. And a thirsty horse will find whatever water is available.

To what extent these attitudes and behaviors are "fixable", I don't know, but efforts to improve education with more money, fancier gadgets, and better tests (though I am certainly in favor of standardized tests) strike me as misguided. Even attempts to make education stimulating and fun have a limited upside - kids would get bored at Disneyworld if they went there 150 days a year.

Let's try this. Instead of "mainstreaming" kids who aren't equipped to learn in a normal classroom, pull them out and train them in appropriate classroom behavior, attempt to impress on them the incredible importance of academic success for their future, and lean on their parents to back up those messages.

It might not work, but at least it has a chance of working, because it is directed at the root of the problem.

Mike in Texas said...

Hear! Hear!

This is a great post that speaks volumes about what the real problems are. Too bad we live in a politically correct world where people refuse to speak the truth.

Polski3 said...

Good Post. Thanks for letting us know about it via the Weekly Carnival of Education.

One "problem" I have noticed with many "children of poverty" is that they are not able to communicate at a normal voice level. They are almost yelling. Why? I hypothesize that this is due to the high level of noise in the home they are growing up in; loud blasting TV, music etc. When they do want/need to say something, they have to shout/yell over the noise in order to be heard. "How to properly speak at a lower volume" is just another of the many things they must be taught when they reach school.

Chap said...

Perhaps this is the key to why middle class black folk in the South in the sixties tended to raise kids who became achievers?