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″ (http://www.gsa.gov/graphics/pbs/The_Early_Catastrophe_30_Million_Word_Gap_by_Age_3.pdf). 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.