Shy Town

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 21 2012

Generalizations (aka my psychology degree is good for something)

Day #3 and it’s been a complete whirlwind everyday with all the new stuff we’re learning and information they’re packing into our brains. I basically get up at 6:30 every morning, go to lessons at 7:30, and work through lunch until 5 when lessons are over. Then I run to the caf and get food and come back and meet up with my collaborative group (“collab” for short) and work on some procedural and logistical plans to get us ready to be in the classrooms next week.

Today we were talking about the concept that kids growing up with a low socioeconomic status can enter the first day of school being exposed to 30 million less words than kids from middle or upper class backgrounds. This has been linked to those students with smaller vocabularies being on a path to be on at a below 3rd grade reading level by the time they finish third grade. And the third grade reading level is (apparently) sometimes used to predict how many beds prisons will need in the future.  TFA likes to toss around these shocking statistics a lot to show how important the Early Childhood Education Pilot Program is and why our positions as ECE teachers are so vital to the education system.

I get it, I really do. But I think it’s a little more than an exaggeration to say that if a child isn’t on the right reading level by third grade they’re destined to fail and we can accurately predict whether or not they’ll be in prison later in life. If this was the case then we should just stop teaching students who aren’t up to par by 3rd grade. And if we’re going to stop teaching them, let’s just throw them in jail. It will save us all some time, hmmm?

So today we looked at the study where all this hullabaloo started. We prefaced it by watching two videos of children talking to adults about the activities they’re engaging in and we’re supposed to compare their vocabulary and language abilities. The first child, Ramon, is being observed in a classroom, surrounded by his peers, and talking about a castle he made and the people living in the castle. You can quickly tell Ramon is an ELL (English language learner) and that he’s trying very hard to come up with the words he needs to explain what’s going on in his head. We were asked to disregard this fact for the purpose of the activity and then moved on to watching Noah.

Noah is being observed by his mother, in his own home, talking about his fire engine toy that he received from his grandparents. His language is more advanced and he is using mostly Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary words (those that are most specialized and kids need to be taught how to us them) in correct ways. He’s responding to his mother’s questions in full sentences, indicating he has full comprehension of how a fire engine, and fire station operate.

When we’re done watching these videos, we’re told that Ramon is a whole year older than Noah and yet Noah’s vocabulary and language skills are much more advanced. Then we’re instructed to read the article “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3″ ( This is supposed to shock us so much more, but instead it just pissed me off.

If you read the article you’ll see that the research done to come to this “shocking conclusion” is less than valid. It’s a longitudinal study comparing the vocabulary of children of professors in the KCK (Kansas City, Kansas) area to those children who grew up in a low income area of town known as Juniper Gardens. They dispatched researchers to observe the children in their homes for one hour a month for 2.5 years from the time they were 7-9 months old until they turned 3. The total number of children who participated through the entire study ended up being 42. 42! They generalized research from a study done with a sample size of 42 and tried to imply that the 30 million word gap that is in existence between low income and middle to high income children is an accurate average based on observations that occurred for 1 hour a month?! Are you kidding me? Have you ever taken a psychology course, ever? That is the worst research study plan I’ve ever heard.

When asked about our reactions to the videos and the reading I shot my hand up and said “I understand the point that you’re trying to make. That students who are of lower income communities are often exposed to fewer words prior to Pre-K and therefore, without intervention, they can be put on the academic path to be behind in literacy skills by the time they reach 3rd grade. However, you can’t show this research and expect that this accurately makes that claim. There is no way you can generalize this data to apply to the majority of pre-k students in the nation.”

This probably wasn’t the right answer, because I was told to ignore the “technical details” and just focus on the data. THE TECHNICAL DETAILS VALIDATE THE DATA. I wanted to scream but we didn’t have time for that. Lickety split, we had to move on.

So then I started advocating for Ramon, the ELL from the first video we watched. Every one was saying that his vocabulary and language skills were subpar because of the amount of trouble he had coming up with words and creating sentences to describe his actions. Then it hit me they asked us to “ignore his status as an ELL while you evaluate him” compared to Noah. More poor data collection! The boys weren’t interview about the same things, in the same settings, or even by people with which they had the same relationships with. On top of that, Ramon was an ELL and Noah’s first language was English! It’s not even a fair fight. Of course Noah is going to have better developed language skills! But I bet if you interviewed the boys in Spanish Ramon could have told you all about his castle, and Noah would have struggled immensely.

I quickly realized that TFA didn’t really bring me into these sessions to point out the inaccuracies and faults in their teaching so I kept my mouth shut and made a mental note to type all this up on the blog. I want to have it on record so when I get another TFA survey asking me about my experience I can tell them what I think.

I think what TFA is doing, as an organization, is great. They’re desperately trying to close the achievement gap by mainly targeting low income communities where students are consistently receiving subpar educations and therefore are perpetually behind their higher income peers. Yes, great, more power to you. But don’t try to prove your point by giving poorly done research as your main evidence. Instead of supporting your point it jeopardizes the credibility of your work.

Really TFA? This is the best research you can come up with to support your cause? I know it’s the most shocking research, but I think you should know by now that you’re not keeping all of us future teachers here because of the shock value. We’re in it for the long haul, give us the right ammo with which to combat the achievement gap, don’t perpetuate it by publicizing poor research practices and incorrectly generalizing results.



2 Responses

  1. thelearningcurve

    Holy crap. Sorry that was so long! Comment on my blog with your email and I can email you with more articles and sound research for the above, though.

  2. thelearningcurve

    About your paragraph that begins with “I get it, I really do.”: I taught 3rd grade last year. For two years before that, I taught all grades K-12 Life Skills. Currently, I am headed into a 1st grade position. I thought it was kind of an exaggeration to say, “by 3rd grade, we can predict success,” blah blah, when I began in 2009 with instruction and in 2011 with teaching [this was a finding that was referenced at the beginning of my career in 2009; not by TFA, where I started in 2011]. I’m including this for background, because this subject is a passion point for me and one I lecture about frequently.

    It’s not an exaggeration, that phrase. It is harsh and confounding, but it ain’t a lie. I can actually give you evidence of the students in my classroom last year who are (likely) going to graduate high school and/or college and are (likely) going to be lost in the shuffle well before then. It’s not fair. It’s incredibly devastating, especially when those statistics have a name, a face, a life, but it’s often true. A simplistic explanation follows, but I’d love to follow up with you on this.

    All knowledge builds upon the previous year. I had 3rd graders who knew most, but not all of the alphabet. I had one who could not solve the problem “1-1″ on. his. fingers. Those students were outliers, yes (6 out of 41 at the beginning of the year). But consider the fact that they’d gotten to 3rd grade not knowing these things, not being able to count to 20 sequentially, and nothing – or little – had been done about it. Of the 8 students (out of 40) by the end of my 2011-12 year who were cognitively on a nationwide beginning-first-grade level, only two were retained, despite the fact that I and their other teachers urged otherwise. The rest will be in 4th grade next year, doggie paddling as they did so deftly in years past.

    I disagree with your phrase, “if this was the case, we should just stop teaching students who weren’t up to par by 3rd grade.” Number one, it’s more complicated that being on grade level or not being on grade level, as there are lot of indicators of that and lacking in some references a certain capability, while lacking in others may be more serious or less serious. For example, lacking in number sense and number relationships is serious. Lacking in retelling of memorized facts is not. Either of those could indicate not being on grade level, but they do not say the same things about your grade level competencies. Number two, for me, that’s not a natural jump, it’s just a cynical one. Just because we can accurately predict that doesn’t mean we give up on students. It means we need to unpack the errors of their past and commit to preventing it for the future, and that we have a very limited time frame to do so. It means that we need to do something different than we’ve been doing. We need to recognize that when we get 3rd graders on a level that is cognitively equal to those entering or ending Kindergarten, we cannot continue “teaching” them the way we have before, because it’s not working.

    Now, I disagree with TFA on a lot of things (and their history of statistics-fudging is one of those things), so I understand where you come from and am not taking away from your point there. However, please consider that: TFA uses flawed data BUT this particular finding has been used several times over in educational studies (ie that 3rd grade competencies are increasingly accurate indicators of later life success) – with more time, I can get you those links, remind me via my blog if you’re interested. This is a point I’m passionate about, and a reason I now teach 1st grade, because what is happening to our students by 3rd grade is often criminal. They have not been given the tools to access their own learning, and so they memorize enough to move forward (or get socially promoted) but never truly learn. That’s why my students go to jail instead of college. Not because they can’t learn, or because they don’t want to, but because they are not given the opportunity. The difference in opportunity is often a truer marker for those who succeed and those who don’t, and I don’t even mean financially. Knowledge is power, and power is freedom, but without a link to knowledge, how do you gain either?

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