This short piece from the Times illustrates a point I’ve been making for a long time: a lot of our educational difficulties probably stem from inequality in prerequisite skills that are developed prior to formal schooling. Or perhaps skills isn’t even the proper term, as what we’re talking about might best be understood as acquired rather than learned. The article points out that language and literacy skills are both hugely determinative of future success and largely developed prior to formal education.
As the education theorist E. D. Hirsch recently wrote in a review of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed,” there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success. Schools have an enormously hard time pushing through the deficiencies with which many children arrive.
As I wrote here at BJ earlier this year, ” Literacy skills, in particular, are likely dependent on students meeting certain thresholds of relevant exposure at a particular age. It’s possible, in other words, that an energetic and bright teacher might have a huge impact on a student who has already developed the prerequisite reading skills but have essentially no chance with a student who lacks them.” Of particular interest– and particularly discouraging– is the possibility that this dynamic is the product of a critical neurological period during which the developing brain is unusually receptive to syntactic conditioning. This would be discouraging because it might suggest a permanency to early-life educational disadvantage.
I think this sort of thing demonstrates the inadequacy of our educational discourse. First, it really should give pause to anyone who is among the “blame teachers first” crowd; how can a teacher be blamed for the results of processes that begin, at the latest, during the toddler stage? But more to the point, it demonstrates that our educational outputs are conditioned by a host of factors that are really beyond society’s control. We don’t take children from their parents, and of course we shouldn’t. But a growing body of evidence suggests that parental input at the earliest stage of life have a huge impact on the success of children. How do we square that with our egalitarian aspirations, when we know that not all parents are made equal? I don’t have an answer, except for this: to protect all of our people from disadvantage through a robust and generous social safety net.