Politically, Head Start is a winning issue. Last year, New York’s new mayor ran on a platform of taxing the rich to provide better pre-kindergarten programs for the city’s poorer children.
The government has long since established that Head Start does next-to-nothing for children in the long run. It doesn’t matter. Which politician wants to be attacked for being insensitive to early childhood education?
Now, the Economist explains what really helps a child’s mental development. The answer: more conversation with his or her parents. One should add, with caregivers, too.
The Economist reports:
THE more parents talk to their children, the faster those children’s vocabularies grow and the better their intelligence develops. That might seem blindingly obvious, but it took until 1995 for science to show just how early in life the difference begins to matter. In that year Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas published the results of a decade-long study in which they had looked at how, and how much, 42 families in Kansas City conversed at home. Dr Hart and Dr Risley found a close correlation between the number of words a child’s parents had spoken to him by the time he was three and his academic success at the age of nine. At three, children born into professional families had heard 30m more words than those from a poorer background.
The difference between professional families and poorer families can be quantified: 30,000,000 more words by the time a child is three.
People who note that women tend to talk more than men might now understand female garrulousness as a maternal instinct.
What does this tell us about pre-school programs?
This observation … suggests that sending children to “pre-school” (nurseries or kindergartens) at the age of four—a favoured step among policymakers—comes too late to compensate for educational shortcomings at home.
Keep it in mind when someone tries to sell you on the remedial powers of Head Start.
Of course, pre-school programs do have a value:
Pre-school programmes are known to develop children’s numeracy, social skills and (as the term “pre-school” suggests) readiness for school. But they do not deal with the gap in much earlier development that Dr Fernald, Dr Noble, Dr Suskind and others have identified. And it is this gap, more than a year’s pre-schooling at the age of four, which seems to determine a child’s chances for the rest of his life.
The difference between the groups is evident before a child is two years old:
The problem seems to be cumulative. By the time children are two, there is a six-month disparity in the language-processing skills and vocabulary of the two groups. It is easy to see how this might happen. Toddlers learn new words from their context, so the faster a child understands the words he already knows, the easier it is for him to attend to those he does not.
But, the formula only works when parents or caregiver speak directly to a child:
It is also now clear from Dr Fernald’s work that words spoken directly to a child, rather than those simply heard in the home, are what builds vocabulary. Plonking children in front of the television does not have the same effect. Neither does letting them sit at the feet of academic parents while the grown-ups converse about Plato.
But, you might ask yourself, what happens when a baby’s parents do not have the time to sit around and chat with him? What happens when they place him in a day care facility where he will have far less conversation than he would in a one-on-one interaction with a parent? What happens when they hire a nanny who comes from a poorer segment of the population and who tends to speak far fewer words less often than would the child’s professional parents?