Word Problems

The education gap between rich and poor children is crucial in terms of understanding how this country operates. This is true in all countries, and even true within schools, and it starts early. As Jessica Lehey put it in this piece in the Atlantic last year:

Higher-income parents spend nearly a half hour more per day engaged in direct, face-to-face, Goodnight Moon time with their children than low-income parents do, and by the time these children are 5 years old, the poor ones will have heard 30 million fewer words than their wealthy peers. Nearly all of my more affluent students read in their leisure time, but approximately two out of every 10 of my poor students tell me, “I don’t read” when I offer to help them pick out an independent reading book.

But just because there is a difference in terms of the number of words students have heard doesn’t necessarily make that the most important thing to address. There’s also a “shoe quality gap” a “toy gap” a “bedroom square foot gap” between rich and poor kids. A difference doesn’t mean that giving kids more words will make them smarter.

According to a recent article by Molly McManus over at the New Republic:

Unfortunately, the focus on the “word gap” takes teachers and other educators away from thinking about how to address the larger issue of inequality in education. Instead, it focuses attention on what children do not have in terms of an arbitrary word count.

Moreover, when we use the “word gap” to identify poor children as behind before they even begin school, that affects their teachers’ view of what they are capable of doing. It directs attention toward the things that poor families do not have and cannot offer their young children.

words

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the word gap doesn’t matter. It’s just that we don’t know it matters that much. The most difficult thing going on here is that by focusing on this, very real, gap we spend a hell of a lot of time trying to fix this gap, just by drilling kids with more words. Because if you can measure it we’re going to try to fix it. This is true even though it might not really matter. McManus:

Following the “word gap” logic, teachers often view vocabulary building as the most important aspect of education. However, in reality, there is a wide scope of early learning experiences that all young children, particularly those experiencing poverty, need to develop.

…Teachers of poor students and/or students of color often dwell on the experiences and language that their students are missing and default to teaching practices such as vocabulary drills and rote repetition that emphasize obedience and quiet behavior.

It also might not help. Poor kids still don’t know as many words, even after they spend years getting exposed to more of them.

The McManus solution is more project-based learning, which is supposed to help build on the experiences all students have when they enter school. This makes some degree of sense, but it’s not really clear that sort of teaching will be any more effective. And if students do project-based learning without exposure to advanced vocabulary, they’re likely to still face problems later on in school. The the effectiveness of the vocabulary drills is certainly worth exploring.

The true solution here might be taking a look at actual rich kids. They don’t know more words because their parents just threw words at them every day. No, they mostly know words just because their parents used them in context, probably because they spend more time with them, and also just did more activities with their children, so these children learned the sort of important problem skills that matter in terms of real achievement. That’s what results in important education gains later on. It’s probably not really because a 9-year-old knows how to use a work like “euphemism” in context.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer