To Close the ‘Opportunity Gap,’ We Need to Close the Vocabulary Gap

This month, Mike Petrilli joins Deborah Meier on Ed Week”s Bridging Differences blog. Here is his first blog entry.

Dear Deborah,

Thanks for inviting me to join you on your blog. Even though we disagree on many issues, I have great respect for you and the work you”ve done in your career.

As I write this, I”m returning from the Education Writers Association annual conference, held this year at Stanford. I spoke on a panel about the “opportunity gap” with professors Sean Reardon and Prudence Carter. Reardon, as you know, recently published a fascinating but sobering study about the growing income achievement gap. (ASCD”s Educational Leadership has an accessible .) And Carter co-edited the new volume, Closing the Opportunity Gap.

What Professor Reardon”s research shows is that, over the last 60 years, the achievement gap between the nation”s poorest and richest students has widened dramatically. That”s true of both test scores and college attainment.

This finding is not surprising for people who have been paying attention, but what is surprising is where the gap lies. It”s not that poor children are falling behind the middle class—they”re not. It”s that the richest students are breaking away from everybody else.

Why is this happening? Here Reardon has to speculate. He considers whether it”s simply the result of America”s growing income inequality, and concludes that yes, that”s part of the story. Rich parents have more time and money to put into their children”s cognitive development because, well, they”re rich. But that doesn”t come close to a full explanation.

He offers a thesis that rich parents are behaving differently today—differently than they used to, and differently than middle-class and low-income parents. Rich parents are obsessed with their children”s social and intellectual development. They are spending dramatically more time parenting. And they are getting and staying married. (Forty percent of U.S. children today are born to single mothers; almost none of the richest children are.)

The first question, Deborah, is whether this behavior of the most affluent parents is even a “problem.” I would argue that rich parents are acting virtuously. I don”t think we want to tell them, “Stop spending so much time with your kids! Stop spending so much money on their cognitive development! Stop providing them the unfair advantage of two engaged parents!”

Still, their behavior creates a conundrum, because it almost certainly will make our society even more inequitable, as their children get a lot more education than everybody else”s and, thus, the best jobs and the related rewards. As Megan McCardle put it, “all the people who are really good at school are marrying the other people who are really good at school, having children who are really, really good at school.” And now that “returns to education” are larger than ever, that means they”re producing children who are really, really likely to be rich themselves.

The alternative approach is to help low-income and middle-class kids catch up. Carter”s book offers some ideas worth trying, especially high-quality preschool for kids in urgent need of it—which, by the way, would be more doable if we stopped spreading the money so thin.

Still, the message that comes through in Professors Reardon”s and Carter”s work—and from others on the left, including Diane Ravitch and Richard Rothstein—is that there”s not much schools can do about these gaps. They are visible before kids even enter kindergarten; they don”t grow much, if at all, while children are in the K-12 system; and they are fundamentally related to our country”s economic and political system. We”ll never make much progress until we get serious about redistributing income, or reviving labor unions, or raising the minimum wage, etc.

And that”s where I disagree. We need to stop having these extreme arguments, between “No excuses!” on one side and “It”s all about poverty!” on the other. Poverty matters immensely. Schools matter immensely. Let”s get on with addressing both.

So Deborah, what could schools be doing that they aren”t already trying? Let me offer one idea. (In the coming month, I”ll suggest others.) It”s simple: Schools could help young children build their vocabularies.

Now, that doesn”t sound so controversial. Who would be against that? And indeed, the early-childhood world is increasingly interested in the topic of vocabulary development, in part because of studies showing that poor students enter kindergarten with an enormous vocabulary deficit. Cities are launching new efforts to teach low-income parents to speak to their babies and toddlers more (and more effectively) in an effort to close this deficit.

But what can preschools and elementary schools do to build vocabulary? It”s not sitting down with kids and making them memorize flash cards. It”s teaching them content. Knowledge. Stuff! History and science, art and music, literature and geography. Yes, to little kids. (You know, the ones who are curious about EVERYTHING. Who can learn a TON just by listening to a good read-aloud story.)

E.D. Hirsch has argued for 30 years that the key to building students” vocabularies, and thus their ability to read and learn, is content knowledge. Once a child learns to decode, her “comprehension” ability mainly comes down to the store of knowledge she”s got in her head. If she can sound out words but can”t read a passage about dinosaurs, it”s not because she hasn”t been taught “comprehension skills”—it”s probably because she”s never been taught anything about dinosaurs.

Yet our preschools and elementary schools systematically reject this obvious approach because they deem it not “developmentally appropriate.” Furthermore, they say, why teach all those “facts” when kids can just Google them?

The problem is compounded by a lamentable reaction by many high-poverty schools to testing and No Child Left Behind: They delay teaching social studies and science until 4th or 5th grade so they can focus on teaching reading in the early grades. Which is nuts—teaching content is teaching reading.

I could go on and on about this, as the folks at the Core Knowledge blog and the cognitive scientist Dan Willingham often do. Do you follow their work?

Let me end on a hopeful note: I believe that the Common Core State Standards will help fix this problem. The English/language arts standards were heavily influenced by Hirsch”s thinking (which is why he”s endorsed them), as they expect students to engage with rich and challenging texts—both fiction and non-fiction in subjects like history, science, and geography—as early as possible.

If schools want to do well on common-core assessments, they had better start teaching their students knowledge. (Using Hirsch”s Core Knowledge Language Arts program would be an excellent place to start.)

If the common-core standards help to bring back art and music, science and history, civics and literature to our elementary school classrooms, don”t you think it”s worth supporting? Given that there is excellent scientific evidence for the role of vocabulary—and thus, knowledge—in academic success, and given that the knowledge gap is clearly a major contributor to the “opportunity gap,” and given that you have been a long-time advocate for greater equity, won”t you reconsider your position on the common core? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

-Mike Petrilli

Deborah Meier”s response appears here.

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