Could one unit taught in high school end the achievement gap?

I’m reading Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson. The book envisions a future for education dominated by personalized, computer-based learning. I have issues with some of their conclusions— especially since much of their thesis rests on an unquestioning acceptance of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences— but midway through the book I was thunderstruck. They may have hit on the best shortcut to closing the achievement gap I’ve heard of.

I’ll explain. After five chapters heavy with examples from the business world that the authors want to import into education, the book takes a left turn in Chapter Six, the shortest chapter in the book, titled, “The Impact of the Earliest Years on Students’ Success.”

Most reformers are toiling away in the realm of K-12, but the authors pause to remind us, “[A] rather stunning body of research is emerging that suggests that starting these reforms at kindergarten, let alone in elementary, middle, or high school, is far too late. By some estimates, 98 percent of education spending occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined.”

The authors, however, reject an expansion of early learning programs like Head Start. They think there is no substitute for a parent who will provide many hundred of hours of one-on-one talk with the child. So, if parents— especially ones of lower-income children on the unhappy end of the achievement gap— aren’t providing this crucial individualized support for language development, what gives?

Christensen, Horn, and Johnson point to the epochal research of Todd Risley and Betty Hart, which compellingly shows a direct correlation between a child’s IQ and their scholastic achievement with the amount of “extra talk” and “language dancing” a child experiences between birth and age three. Extra talk and language dancing are is described as being“engaged face to face with the infant and speak[ing] in a fully adult, sophisticated, chatty language— as if the infant were listening, comprehending, and fully responding to the comments.”

The volume of extra talk and language dancing makes all the difference in setting up  a child for academic success and confidence, or academic struggles and negative attitudes toward school.  Risley and Hart argue that class and race don’t impact IQ— it’s all about the extra talk and language dancing before age three do.

The authors of Disrupting Class propose teaching Risley and Hart’s breakthrough findings to high school students. They argue, “Rather than funding programs that hire people to substitute for parents who aren’t succeeding at preschool talk, quite possibly we might have greater impact if we taught children how to be parents before they become parents.”

It’s a stirring idea. The essence of Risley and Hart’s work—talking to babies is so SO important— should be as universally known and understood as the facts in drivers’ ed class.

The authors elaborate: “[High] school might be the placeto teach courses that conveyed the methods of early cognitive development to tomorrow’s parents… Young, single, inner-city mothers who otherwise would be trapped with their children in the multigenerational cycle of educational underachievement and poverty certainly would benefit from knowing how to shapre their early interactions with their children to help them succeed in school. It would also likely help professional couples… [who are] often so anxious to get back to their careers that they hand their babies prematurely to caregivers whose responsibilities for multiple children give them little bandwidth for [extra talk and language dancing].”

Risley and Hart’s findings are detailed in their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, originally released in 1995. I’m adding it to my summer reading list. Maybe the rest of the USA won’t be far behind.

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