The childhood learning gap; is it really income or family structure?

23 Oct

Unfortunately, I must beat a dead horse again on this blog.  What I call the ultimate antecedent variable, family structures, is routinely excluded from social science analyses and popular periodicals, leading to mis-specification and false attribution in terms of causality.  It has almost certainly happened again.

In today’s New York Times, a report on a new study goes as follows (excerpt):

Nearly two decades ago, a landmark study found that by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than those of less educated parents, giving them a distinct advantage in school and suggesting the need for increased investment in prekindergarten programs.

Now a follow-up study has found a language gap as early as 18 months, heightening the policy debate.

The new research by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, which was published in Developmental Science this year, showed that at 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes.

The new findings, although based on a small sample, reinforced the earlier research showing that because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households, early literacy experts, preschool directors and pediatricians said. In the new study, the children of affluent households came from communities where the median income per capita was $69,000; the low-income children came from communities with a median income per capita of $23,900.

Since oral language and vocabulary are so connected to reading comprehension, the most disadvantaged children face increased challenges once they enter school and start learning to read.

“That gap just gets bigger and bigger,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an advocate of early education for low-income children. “That gap is very real and very hard to undo.”

Okay, so you get the idea.  Richer parents speak to their kids more, a lot more, than poorer parents.  That produces profound effects for learning development, giving those kids significant advantages in early childhood education and presumably the rest of life.  So it’s the money, is it?  Perhaps, but the correlation between income levels and family structures is so strong that I will venture to say that the researchers are not observing the effects of income disparity on childhood learning but more likely the effects of disparate family structures (out-of-wedlock births, single parenting, divorce, etc., all much more prevalent among lower income classes).  Indeed, after looking at the study myself, participants were chosen apparently without reference to family structure at all.  Further, the study wants us to extrapolate from a tiny sample (48 children) to a general pattern, where I am even more confident that family structure will explain much or most of the early learning gap among children.

Now, to be sure, it very well might be case that poorer parents have less time to actively speak with and engage their children (odd job schedules, for instance), but that might be true of richer parents too (professionals usually work longer hours making more money); moreover, for the very poor, they may have more time to spend speaking with children since subsistence living may be subsidized by government aid rather than an earned paycheck with a punched clock.  So, I’ll go out on a strong oak branch, especially given my own preliminary analysis on the subject, and suggest that the real or primary difference is family structure (two parents instead of one, and especially biological parents being naturally more invested in their children’s development).  Ironically, the report indicated as much when it quotes one researcher who says, “Even in families that are low income and perhaps don’t have a lot of education, there are some parents that are very engaged verbally with their kids,” said Ms. Weisleder. “And those kids are doing better in language development.”

Never missing such an opportunity (and this has happened before in this paper), the NYT suggests to us a simple solution to the learning gap is a government program (pre-k education).  That’s a lot safer to say than promoting traditional family structures, which isn’t publicly permissible anymore.  Rather than addressing the principle cause of the disease (prevention), we are supposed to put all our eggs in the basket of a government program (treatment).  It’s like telling a smoker that the solution to his high risk of cancer is cancer-treatment rather than smoking cessation.  And what of the treatment?  The NYT also tacitly treats parents and government programs as virtually interchangeable.  The same philosophy, ironically from the mother country country of Rousseau, drove French president Francois Hollande to “solve” learning gaps in France by eliminating homework and extending school hours for all French children (since children of traditional families were outperforming their counterparts, let’s just remove learning from the home environment and transfer more of it to the government-school environment; that should level the playing field!).  But of course, artificial and unnatural measures can never, will never, be able to come close to replacing moms and dads raising kids at home, teaching them manners, proper speaking, reading them books before bed, praying with and for them, eating with them around the dinner table, one on one teaching, hugging them in the morning, discussing their lives, making them feel important and loved, disciplining and training them to be responsible adults.  A government program, for instance, can never produce the positive benefits that family dinners may have.  Kids respond to natural authorities (parents), in ways they will never respond to psuedo-authorities (government programs).    Maybe that’s just the way they are designed?

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  1. The childhood learning gap - October 27, 2013

    […] Presbyterian Church (PCA) with his wife, Natalie, and three children, Caleb, Noah, and Sarah Ann. This article first appeared on his blog, The Reformed Mind, and is used with […]

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