5/28/10 - head start

In today's excerpt - very early childhood learning:

"In the mid-1980s, Kansas psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley realized that something was very wrong with Head Start, America's program for children of the working poor. It manages to keep some low-income kids out of poverty and ultimately away from crime. But for a program that intervenes at a very young age and is reasonably well run and generously funded—$7 billion annually—it doesn't do much to raise kids' academic success. Studies show only 'small to moderate' positive impacts on three-and four-year-old children in the areas of literacy and vocabulary, and no impact at all on math skills.

"The problem, Hart and Risley realized, wasn't so much with the mechanics of the program; it was the timing. Head Start wasn't getting hold of kids early enough. Somehow, poor kids were getting stuck in an intellectual rut long before they got to the program—before they turned three and four years old. Hart and Risley set out to learn why and how. They wanted to know what was tripping up kids' development at such an early age. Were they stuck with inferior genes, lousy environments, or something else?

"They devised a novel (and exhaustive) methodology: for more than three years, they sampled the actual number of words spoken to young children from forty-two families at three different socioeconomic levels: (1) welfare homes, (2) working-class homes, and (3) professionals' homes. Then they tallied them up.

"The differences were astounding. Children in professionals' homes were exposed to an average of more than fifteen hundred more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes. Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly 8 million words, which, by age four, amounted to a total gap of 32 million words. They also found a substantial gap in tone and in the complexity of words being used.

"As they crunched the numbers, they discovered a direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement. 'We were astonished at the differences the data revealed,' Hart and Risley wrote in their book Meaningful Differences. 'The most impressive aspects [are] how different individual families and children are and how much and how important is children's cumulative experience before age 3.'

"Not surprisingly, the psychological community responded with a mixture of interest and deep caution. In 1995, an American Psychological Association task force wrote that 'such correlations may be mediated by genetic as well as (or instead of) environmental factors.' Note 'instead of.' In 1995, it was still possible for leading research psychologists to imagine that better-off kids could be simply inheriting smarter genes from smarter parents, that spoken words could be merely a genetic effect and not a cause of anything.

"Now we know better. We know that genetic factors do not operate 'instead of' environmental factors, they interact with them."


David Shenk


The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent and IQ


Anchor Books: a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 2010 by David Shenk


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