The governor’s proposed budget includes minor funding on new programs for improving reading skills of pre-kindergarteners. And there seems to be only a lukewarm response from legislative leaders to find additional funds. To no avail, the State Superintendent of Education pointed out that Louisiana ranks 50th in the U.S. by the National Assessment of Education Progress, which measures key early learning skills.
A significant number of kids in Louisiana need “catch-up help” from the day they enter kindergarten. Louisiana has the highest percentage of poor families anywhere in the country. And there is a great disparity in the ability to read and even to communicate, between children different economic levels.
A few months ago, I had as a guest on my radio show Professor Todd Risley, who published a study entitled “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” He explained that there is a great difference in both the number of words and the prohibitive or affirmative tone of words heard by young kids, depending and whether their parents are on welfare, in the working class or professionals.
Simply put, Professor Risley determined that a child’s verbal development is not so much about IQ or social economic status. It’s more about how a child is talked to and how positive the tone may be. This is interesting stuff here. Risley’s study found that by age 3, children of welfare parents heard 10 million words, where those with working-class parents heard 20 million words. If the parent was a professional, the child heard 30 million words. In addition, he found that with children 13-18 months old in welfare families, almost 80% of the feedback to the child was negative. That’s right, 80%. In working-class families the percentage dropped to 50%. And when he studied professional families, more than 80% of feedback to the child was affirmative.
Here’s what all this means. In a state that is as poor and under-educated as Louisiana, it’s not just important but imperative that a pre-kindergarten program be mandatory in every single school in the state. Waiting to teach a child to read until the first grade is obviously a big mistake. Kids who do not learn to read in the early grades almost never recover academically and fall further and further behind with each passing grade. Reaching the middle school years, they literally cannot read their textbooks and often become academically frustrated and disruptive. Hopelessly behind, these kids begin dropping out of school in large numbers by the eighth grade.
There are two messages here. First, Louisiana parents, grandparents, babysitters, uncles and aunts all need to talk and read to children from birth on, using big words, and giving lots of positive reinforcement. This can be done for free.
The second message is that the legislature needs to put many extraneous matters aside, and make its top priority early learning. You can talk all you want about economic development but the best economic stimulus package is an early foundation for learning. Governor Buddy Roemer said it well in the campaign of 1987. The oil and gas of Louisiana’s future is in the minds of our six-year olds.
There is still time to help close the gap of those less educated at an early age. It’s election year and a short legislative session is at hand. The Louisiana legislature needs to put aside extraneous proposals and deal with the single most important thing that can be done to move Louisiana forward. Fund the educational tools for young minds to get a much earlier start in acquiring basic knowledge. What could be more critical?
“I learnt most not from those who taught me, but from those who talked with me.”
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.