By Rob Koops
Gallupians have been bombarded once again with a spate of reports in The Independent on the general failure of our schools to achieve AYP, and even an editorial (July 27) that insists that someone must take responsibility. Teachers, parents, and administrators all blame each other, and everyone blames Washington, it seems. We need to change something, but what? And who is going to tame the tiger?
We can find clues to success right around us if we read. Our paper carries an insert “American Profile.” The cover story in the last one was entitled “A Bookcase for Every Child,” by Marti Attoun. It featured a small Arkansas town where the citizens got together to promote literacy by making sure every child had a bookcase stocked with books, and volunteers who encouraged kids in the Head Start program. These people sense that literacy is pretty basic to everything else that happens in school. Can we do that here in McKinley County? How about a local version of Peace Corps in which high school or college kids read to little kids in laundromats while their parents wash clothes? Or how about this: The Independent carried a great article on August 4 by Rasha Madkour. It was about bilingualism, something that all of us – Anglos, Hispanics, and Native Americans – need to read because we have more potential for bilingualism than many other states do. Some quotes:
“. . . today’s parents see the benefits of being fluent in more than one language and they look for ways to encourage it.” [This doesn’t sound like McKinley County – yet!]
“. . . scientific research suggests that bilingualism is good for you, making the brain more flexible . . . [it] may even slow the onset of Alzheimer’s.”
One of our local publications, Leading The Way (August ’11 issue) just featured a young mother from Pueblo Pintado who is doing what author Madkour advocates: making sure her child is bilingual. Leading The Way is to be commended for its steady output of material encouraging the preservation of Navajo language and culture, while recognizing the value of English as a language of wider communication.
Bilingualism is all well and good, but it is not in itself the key to success. You need to ask: Where does bilingualism start? At home, of course, if at all. And the key, according to many recent studies of child development, is LANGUAGE – any language.
Dr. Jenn Berman, a popular child psychologist, says that
“The first three years of life are the most important for nurturing a child’s full potential: that’s when they start forming attachments, developing a sense of self, and learning to trust. During this time, there are critical windows of opportunity that parents can take advantage of – if they know how.”
Language – the more the better – is the main secret, according to Berman. How does this fit with our education system? Are teachers then off the hook? Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. I am convinced our teachers are doing their best to improve students’ scores, but they are simply not scratching where our society itches. They are like people putting buckets under drips instead of finding where the water is coming from and stopping it. Instead of pointing fingers, it might be more useful to study carefully where the problem lies and propose solutions.
Here’s how it goes: Johnnie does poorly in reading and math from kindergarten onward, until he drops out in high school. Billy does well, right from the start, and goes on to college. Kids who are bad at reading and math don’t usually catch up. The best their teacher can do is to keep them from falling farther behind. People say our schools are failing, but in fact, the teachers hardly have time to teach; they are all just doing educational triage – patching up wounded intellects. The problem starts at home.
Research over many years now shows that success in school depends on language input in the first three years of a child’s life. In other words, before he or she goes to school.
If the problem occurs before kids get to school, why not invest our state money where the problem is? One program that offers hope is FACE, Families and Children in Education. We need to strengthen that, expand it, and encourage parents to enroll.
The first three years of life are the most important for nurturing a child’s full potential: that’s when they start forming attachments, developing a sense of self, and learning to trust. If a child’s first three years determine his success in school, teachers can’t simply turn their backs and say it is not their problem. We obviously need educational triage experts to be trained, just like ER staff. But, as Berman says, “there are critical windows of opportunity that parents can take advantage of – if they know how.” Read her book, SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give your Baby a Head Start in the First Three Years. Somehow we need to get these ideas out to our community in culturally appropriate formats.
If you’re an educator, read instead Disrupting Class  by a teacher named Clayton Christensen. It is all about learning and it addresses our school problems as a societal problem, not as a school problem. Let me summarize his chapter on early childhood here.
Christensen lists a lot of reforms that need to be made in schools but then tackles the real problem: “. . . starting these reforms in kindergarten, let alone elementary, middle, or high school, is FAR TOO LATE.” Up to 98% of education spending, he says, “occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined.”
So why bug teachers with these facts? Home life is not their problem. Or is it? First, if they are held responsible for “leaving no child behind” – and even eliminating poverty! – then what happens before school starts is really important to their success. You teachers, if the parents of your students directly control your success as a teacher, it makes sense to think about how we as communities can enhance the home environment. What kids need (and what healthy kids have), according to Christensen, is:
a. intellectual capacity
b. strong, positive self-esteem (related to identity), and
c. curiosity – a life-long motivator for learning
Intellectual capacity is determined in a child’s first three years of age. How? Researchers have studied verbal and physical interaction between parents and children. Their results? On average, parents speak 1500 words per hour to their children. Talkative parents (often college-educated) average 2100 words per hour. What the researchers call “welfare families” averaged 600 words per hour in the studies. By the age of three years, some kids have heard as many as 48 million words, while others have heard as few as 13 million. Further, the most important time for parental verbal input is in the first year – when kids often don’t even show evidence that they understand what they hear. Parents who only talk to their infants after they can speak (around one year) are making a serious mistake. The research shows that children who aren’t spoken to at a young age suffer a “persistent deficit in intellectual capacity” compared to other children.
A fascinating sideline here is that giving orders to children – Eat your food! Sit down! Get out of there! Do your homework!, etc. – does not count as brain food. The author calls that “business talk.” What the kids need, according to those who did the studies, is “language dancing” – face-to-face interaction in which the adults use adult chatty language, “as if the infant were listening, comprehending, and fully responding.”
Adults, the author says, should ask questions that stimulate infants to think deeply about what is happening around them. You might ask, Why not just set the kid in front of a TV? Sorry, you can’t language-dance with a television set. The studies show that TV soon becomes background noise to an infant; it is no more engaging than a business meeting would be. Give-and-take is crucial.
For the scientific-minded, Christensen goes into the neurology of language dancing – what happens in a child’s brain as it hears all this language. The author cites many studies that show the same conclusion: it all goes back to interactive language in the first three years – any language, and the more the better.
Some of us have looked at the generational repetition of poverty, illiteracy, drug-use, unwanted pregnancy, and crime, and we lose heart. Are language-deprived kids destined to grow up and inflict the same fate on their children? Is it hopeless? The authors say, No!
One reason for hope is that the level of income, ethnicity, and level of parents’ education does not determine the cognitive capacity of their children. “It is all explained by the amount of language dancing, or extra talk, over and above business talk, that the parents engage in.” Some low-income people in the studies talked a lot to their infants and these children did well later in school. Some rich business people talked very little to their kids and the kids did very poorly later on. Furthermore, the race of the parents MADE NO DIFFERENCE in these studies.
A few states have begun to get the right idea, but fall short: For example, Massachusetts is trying to legislate universal pre-school. The Head Start Program is a good effort. But in both cases there is not nearly enough face-to-face language dancing of the kind that only parents can accumulate day after day. Much language in kindergarten, the authors say, is business talk.
What to do? The authors ask: Can we teach children how to be parents before it happens? Can effective parenting be taught in high schools? Can it be grounded in some basic studies of cognition and child development? If talks on drugs, STDs, and teen pregnancy are considered important in our schools, why not talks on the importance of chatting with babies?
Back to our schools: Einstein, who gave us the definition of insanity, also said, “In solving a problem, you need to use a different kind of thinking than what got you into the problem.” In the words of the authors of Disrupting Class, “. . . if we persist in believing that the problems of our schools can be solved by only improving schools, we will never succeed.”