"I did start reading quite young but I was always read to by my parents, who are both actors. Bedtime stories from when I was about two/three to when I was about 15. In fact they didn't stop until I eventually kind of kicked them out of my bedroom." ~Samuel West
Last week, I offered here a bulleted list of ways in which economics and public health are tied to education. I'd call the three an unholy triad, but I'm fairly certain that label's already been bestowed elsewhere. To paraphrase myself, several bullets began with words similar to the following:
Poor kids are less likely than their middle class and wealthy peers to [fill in the blank].
The blank could be educational (and often was last week), or it could be health-related, which in turn is related to some educational outcome. (Once more, I encourage everyone to read the work of economist James Heckman on poverty, education, and resiliency factors.) I drew broad strokes relationships, because I wanted to create an idea, a framework around and within which we could begin to 1 shade our understanding of how these constructs operated conjointly. The goal, of course, is to put as many known pieces of this puzzle on the table in as ordered a fashion as possible so that eventually the empirical work can be done to create a solid path analysis that is complete1.
If last week was macro, then this week I want to follow that discussion with a micro-inspection of one area we laid out. To begin, previously on wrighterly:
Before we get too deep into our micro-view here, I think it's important to define what exactly we're looking at above. Points one and two are both academic performance outcomes with different predictors. In #1, academic performance is predicted to be lower for poor kids than for middle class or wealthy kids, and in #2, academic performance is predicted to be lower for kids in single parent homes than for kids in two-parent homes. Point three is a little bit different. If taken in isolation (i.e., if I hadn't given #s 1 & 2), it would appear to be a simple outcome with being a poor kid predicted by whether one comes from a single-parent home versus a two-parent home, single-parent homes predicting a greater likelihood of being poor. However, #3 actually serves to explain part of the relationship between #1 and #2. Thus, it is both a predictor and an outcome in that it also helps to predict some of the poor academic performance of economically disadvantaged kids.
The takeaway message is that these are complex relationships even at the 30,000 foot level. The ties binding economics, public health, and education that I outlined last week were truly only the broad strokes, and these relationships represent those that researchers have studied individually without a tremendous effort - Heckman notwithstanding - to formulate a testable path model to package them all together. Within each individual relationship exist multiple elements explaining some portion of the broader element. I'd like to start with one of these.
About three and a half years ago when Daughter No. 3 was just a week or so shy of her fifth birthday, I posted a review of the children's book Good Night, Good Knight here on wrighterly. The review included the following video of Daughter No. 3 and me reading the book aloud. I recall two or three takes being necessary due to the giggle factor and someone sneezing near the very end, but we edited that out. Early on, Daughter No. 2 can be seen crawling through the frame in the background, but oh well, nothing homegrown is perfect, not even daughters nor videos containing daughters. This one remains a favorite of mine.
Stories and the sharing of them have always been a tradition in our home. We write them, read them, orate them, and take great pleasure in the discovery of the words of others. Since the earliest days of Daughter No. 1 lo these many years ago and exhortations for just one more time, Mommy for the classic Goodnight, Moon, I have read to my children long past the age when many children's parents cease the bedtime story because their children have become capable of reading to themselves. I confess a particular fondness for (good) children's and YA fiction, and often one of my daughters and I have shared a book or a series by trading off who reads a chapter aloud so that we can both enjoy the story. Words, stories, and the molding of the former into the latter simply are part of our DNA... but we are an unusual story.
My children have never been financially fortunate. At times and not a few of them, they've been downright financially unfortunate as friends and family alike can attest but graciously do not. The reasons for our economic difficulties are varied and as unique to our family situation as others are to them. No one's story is the same. My children, however, haven't followed the general relationship trends already noted between economics and academic performance. Some of Heckman's non-cognitive factors certainly come into play, but there's a critical relationship between poverty and academic performance at work here that's even more crucial and relevant to the discussion.
Researchers have long known that poor kids have far lower literacy rates than kids from middle class or wealthy families. They enter school in Kindergarten with lower literacy rates than their better off peers, and they have great difficulty closing the literacy gap. (This knowledge is the driving force behind Head Start programs, Early Head Start programs, and many others.) If kids can't catch up in the first year or two of school, absolutely everything the educational system is designed to provide for them is doomed to catastrophic failure. There are many reasons why poor kids suffer this deficit, and at risk of violating my own rule1 of making sure we have all the ingredients for our soup, I'm going to give you just a few examples.
My kids have never been financially fortunate. Even today when my salary is good and I can do many of the things for them I may not have been able to in the past, I still struggle with student loan debt from college and paying for Daughter No. 2's braces. We look more like a "normal" American family if there is a definition of such. Where my daughters found their fortune was in the twin facts that my own education afforded me the knowledge of how critical their early literacy was to their development and I never had to be away from them during the times when kids need to be read to. I struggled with money but not with the full trappings of poverty.
There may be no panacea for poverty in America. Not today. There may be no ability for any given one of us to lift every one of America's poor kids to a better standard of living. Heckman suggests we don't even need to. What we do need to do is manage to touch every child with words, with the visual representation of them, with the wonder of stories on pages. Head Start is a start, but it isn't nearly enough. If we understand the fundamental truth that early literacy may in fact be a key determinant in most of the economic and academic relationships not directly related to public health, then our interventions should be focused on taking literacy to the streets and not expecting the streets to come to us.
1If we want to fully understand any phenomenon, it is critical to correctly specify the statistical model we build. "Correct specification" entails including all factors known to affect the outcome(s) we're studying. If we believe something might influence our outcome but leave that something out for any reason, however well-intentioned, then we're mucking with the statistics and with the data. Predictor variables only predict as well as the model is built. Consider building a model to predict rain and not including humidity levels in that model. Things might start to behave very strangely indeed. Last week, I did create just the broad outline of a path model. It did not include every known variable (such as mother's level of education, which is incredibly important to academic performance). Beginning this week, we'll start to fill in those gaps.
52 Mondays is my 2013 project here on wrighterly. You can read about it at wrighterly.com as well. Each Monday, I'll post a different essay on some topic related to PK-20 education in America. The purpose is to raise the level of dialog on these issues if only among the modest audience I currently enjoy.