I have written dozens of articles in which I have criticized politicians for hijacking public education and for the harm they have done to children through creation of bad policies and laws. The fact is, the laws they create are often driven more by misguided political platforms and campaign contributions than by research. So, while politicians assure us that everything they do is with excellence in mind, their actions are so lacking in substance that this is nothing but another hollow political promise. In fact, everything they touch screams of mediocrity (or worse). Let me offer the perfect example.
Childhood literacy, i.e., a child’s ability to read and write, has been a pet project in political circles for years now. In fact, our legislature even implemented a law known as “The Third Grade Reading Guarantee,” even though this law guarantees nothing. It guarantees nothing because, as usual, in its creation, legislators ignored everything we know about how children become literate. Ignoring research is their standard practice when it does not align with their political agenda, which, in this case, is that schools are solely responsible for a child’s education, nothing outside of school matters, and if kids don’t become appropriately educated, poor teachers and poor schools are to blame. Of course, there is not a shred of valid research that supports this stance, which, to be fair, is primarily a Republican position.
But childhood literacy does not begin when a child enters school. Every bit of meaningful research ever done on this topic supports this notion, yet, in political discussions about literacy development this fact is never acknowledged. If kids can’t read or write, it HAS to be the school’s fault, right?
The latest scientific research tells us that children actually begin learning while still in the womb. This research is so new, that there is much to learn about just what kind of learning a fetus does, but what is not open for debate is that language development is occurring, in earnest, at birth, and if the time from birth until a child enters school is ignored, her or she is placed at a disadvantage from which he/she may never recover.
According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, “The first three years of life, when the brain is developing and maturing, is the most intensive period for acquiring speech and language skills. These skills develop best in a world that is rich with sounds, sights, and consistent exposure to the speech and language of others. There appear to be critical periods for speech and language development in infants and young children when the brain is best able to absorb language. If these critical periods are allowed to pass without exposure to language, it will be more difficult to learn.”
Similarly, in the book “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children” (1995) and 2003 summary article “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley reported on a study investigating language development in young children that indicated that children from “professional” families would hear roughly 30 million more words by age 3 than children from “welfare” families. There have been many studies done world-wide that demonstrate the negative impact living in poverty often has on childhood development, and the data is stunning, considering we are all by-products of our life experiences. But, what do our “leaders” do when discussing how to improve childhood literacy? Why, they ignore the research, of course!
Now, naturally there are children who grow up in poverty who develop wonderful literacy skills, just as there are those who grow up in a wealthy environment who lack those same skills. Research does not suggest that a child who grows up without money is doomed to fail any more than it suggests that a child who grows up surrounded by wealth is guaranteed success. But research DOES show that a child who grows up in a language rich environment surrounded by highly educated people who provide him or her with many varied life experience BEGINNING AT BIRTH has an advantage over one whose life is devoid of these advantages. Research also shows that poverty or lack thereof impacts those experiences regardless of where in the world one lives. Those facts cannot be debated. But, what do our “leaders” do with this knowledge? Why, they ignore it, of course!
So, if our legislators were REALLY interested in achieving excellence, they would engage in discussions about things that give our children their greatest opportunity to achieve success. They would talk about how important it is for a child to grow up in a language-rich, stress-free environment where they are loved, nurtured, and safe. They would attest to the importance of parents or other care-givers reading to, talking to, singing to, and otherwise engaging with their children in a positive manner. They would acknowledge the role life experiences play in a child’s development and that the most important educators a young person has is his or her parents or caregivers. They would also admit that schools can play an integral role in helping prepare a child for success, but they cannot undo the damage of uninvolved parents.
Instead, they discuss none of these things, and until they do I, for one, am not interested in listening to their blathering about how they are interested in excellence. Frankly, they wouldn’t recognize excellence if it slapped them in the face.
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.