As I wrote in October, I’m a recovering NPR listener. I have little relapses on an almost daily basis, but I’ve noticed that I’m happier and less angry when I commute to mindless sports talk or CD’s that were emotionally significant to me 10 years ago. The ceaseless coverage of John Boehner, foreclosures, the Taliban, and now Jared Loughner can really be too much to take when you’re trying to get set for first block.

This morning, though, I tuned in and caught an excellent Morning Edition story by Alix Spiegel on talking to kids, and it reaffirmed some facts that need to be part of the larger teacher quality and ed reform discussion. It’s in vogue right now in the education reform scene to declare that great individual teachers can close the achievement gap through their greatness.

But according to landmark research by Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley:

…the average child in a welfare home heard about 600 words an hour while a child in a professional home heard 2,100.

“Children in professional families are talked to three times as much as the average child in a welfare family,” Hart says.

And that adds up. Hart and Risley estimated that by the age of 4, children of professional parents had heard on average 48 million words addressed to them while children in poor welfare families had heard only 13 million.

It was no wonder that the underprivileged children they saw at their preschool could not catch up and often lagged behind once they went to school. They simply weren’t getting the experience with language provided to their peers.

Students enter kindergarten at vastly different literacy levels. The die, for most, is cast. When I worked at P.S. 85 in the Bronx, the low-literacy kindergartners were already feeling frustrated, behaving oppositionally with teachers, and crystallizing negative attitudes about school. It’s terrifying. Blaming these kids’ high schools teachers for their low achievement seems way off-base.

The NPR story goes on to discuss a program by Dr. Alan Mendelsohn that has shown success for educating poorer parents about how to speak to their very young children. Get that program everywhere! Talk about a vital investment for everybody.

In the secondary schools I’ve worked in, virtually all of the kids labeled “at risk” for dropping out are low-skilled readers.

Most of those kids who have fallen significantly behind from the start of life can’t be substantively helped by scrambling to pick up the pieces in adolescence. In fact, that disparity in words consumed between readers and non-readers widens exponentially further in the school years. Maybe some of the low-skilled readers can grab on to basic literacy skills; virtually none will be able to achieve the nuanced grasp of language required to be competitive in the increasingly knowledge-based economy. When words are limited, options are limited.

A child’s brain starts developing in the womb. Offering support to all kids’ brains as soon as possible— not just when they turn 5— should be a national priority. The reauthorization of ESEA is an opportunity to address this need on a mass scale.

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