When my children were small, we were fortunate that our lives intersected briefly with a wonderful woman who was temporarily working as a babysitter. She was a refugee and had gone from being a respected professional in her native tongue to a naive beginner in America. As such, she had the unusual experience of being able to learn from the ground up again, something that most of us are not brave enough to do once we’re adults and have established ourselves in a profession.
Since childcare is an easy occupation to enter when you are a newly arrived foreigner in this country, she made money by working in preschools and babysitting while improving her English so that she could go back to the field she had her degree in, social work. Never having paid much attention to the raising of children, it was fascinating to be included in her process both of learning how to care for children in any culture, and also in looking back at the culture she’d come from with a more critical eye.
One day she told me that the thing that had most impressed her about the interactions in our family was that we talked to our children like they were people. “In my country,” she said, “we just tell them to do things and we tell them in a special voice you use for children.”
She mimicked the sing-songy voice that you’ll hear coming from parents of many cultures. She was right that this voice, as sweet as it may have been intended to sound, is usually used to issue orders.
“OK, Benny, it’s time to take your medicine!” we coo at our kids. “Now Susie, you know we don’t treat our friends that way.”
It turns out that our social-worker-turned-babysitter was on to something that researchers have found marks a huge difference in how families raise their children. Working class families are more likely to exchange only functional speech with their children: Get dressed. Don’t talk that way. Do it like this. Middle class families are more likely to have conversations with their children in which back and forth is expected: What did you do in school today? Do you think Ramona did the right thing when she pulled that girl’s hair? What an interesting idea about stars—I’ve never thought of it that way.
There are, of course, many explanations for this difference, and many examples of families that don’t fit the mold. But mountains of research show that not only is this difference real, but its effects are felt throughout our society.
In general, children of middle class parents hear more vocabulary, get asked more questions, and are listened to more than children in families with lower socioeconomic factors. And this difference isn’t just a matter of how we talk—it explains many of the persistent gaps between the well-off and the poor in this country, especially when you’re looking at families who seem “entrenched” in their class. You find them in any community in this country: The family that never seems to get its kids through high school and keep them out of jail. The family that seems to produce well-educated, functional adults time and again. And both of these families for generations have attended the same public schools, had the same teachers, should have had the same opportunities for advancement.
It’s very fashionable to blame teachers and schools for our societal ills, but it’s also very misguided. Yes, of course, our schools can always do better, and individual teachers are not always a credit to their profession. But when you consider just this one factor—the huge effect that family speech has on children’s achievements later on—it negates pretty much every argument for penalizing teachers financially when they can’t make their kids’ test scores go up.
A teacher friend of mine likes to point out that test scores are tightly correlated to zip codes. That is, unless a neighborhood experiences gentrification or an economic slide, you can pretty much predict a school’s scores by looking at which neighborhoods its students come from. The poor have been priced out of Palo Alto, thus test scores are high. And since the people who clean the houses of those affluent residents of Palo Alto often live in East Palo Alto, their scores are lower.
The frustrating thing about this difference is its persistence: year in and year out, dedicated educators work to help children rise out of the life that they were born into. And though they have successes, year in and year out they see the majority of their students grow up and produce children who are much the same as they were. And in our current edupolitical climate, teachers get unfairly blamed for this persistent gap, as if all of the other factors acting on kids outside of the classroom are unimportant.
The research, however, is clear: What happens at home is deeply tied to children’s achievement at school. (PDF fact sheet) Although teachers can do a lot, they can’t do everything. If we really want to work on the achievement gap, we can’t put it all on the shoulders of overworked, underpaid people who should be our heroes rather than our punching bags. We need a more comprehensive view of child-rearing and education in our society.