Editor’s Note: Diana Tarant Schmidt’s novel Remember For Me will be available soon. Click here to grab your copy.
If everything in life is a fight, then one fight you can’t afford to lose is reading to your children.
I recently had a conversation with another teacher who worked in a school district that reflected a population of wealthier residents. I, however, work in one that is its polar opposite. Over half the students in my building live beneath the poverty line. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines this as a four person household in 2016 whose annual income is less than $24,300. Most people would struggle to make ends meet on that salary on their own, let alone supporting three other people.
This teacher from the wealthier school district commented that her administrators communicated to their teachers that “these kids are smarter, so they need to be taught a year ahead of the standard curriculum.” In other words, a kindergartner should be learning at a first grade level and so on. Now I am all for challenging kids and pushing their abilities, but it got me thinking: Does that really mean that my students are “dumber” because they don’t live in the right area?
Now, of course I know that is not the case. My classroom is full of bright, creative, thoughtful, diverse thinkers. Our school collectively speaks over 50 languages. Multilingual students, in my opinion, reflect a far greater intelligence than those who only speak one. However, there is one major difference: My students do not come from homes where parents read to them as voraciously as many other districts. This is not for lack of trying, as many choose to believe. Many of these parents work third shift jobs, or multiple jobs just to put food on the table. Many of these families have come from other countries to provide their children with opportunities in education that they did not have. Not everyone in the world has access to education. Reading to children in English may not be an option in their home.
So in the scheme of this game of life, these children have already lost the first round of their pre-education to those children who had that opportunity. According to the National Education Association, where parent involvement is low, the classroom mean average of reading scores is 46 points lower than the national average. Where involvement is high, classrooms score 28 points higher than the national average. That chasm of 74 points is something that only gets bigger as education begins in preschool.
Interestingly, preschool begins round two of the fight. Preschool is not provided by the state as free education. CBS Chicago estimates the cost of a five day preschool as $1,605 a week. So, if the choice lies between keeping food on the table and clothing on the backs of children, which do you think good parents will choose? Round two to the rich people.
The benefits aside from academic preparedness from preschool are prodigious:
• School systems would save large amounts of money in after the fact interventions that would be deemed unnecessary if the gap between student abilities was not so large.
• The NEA reports that “a longitudinal study of participants in a Chicago public schools program serving preK through third grade students reported that at age 24 program participants had acquired more education and were less likely to commit crimes than those who did not receive the same level of service.”
• Children are more eager to learn.
As teachers, we often define the benefits of reading and preschool through vocabulary acquisition. This is one factor in how schools decide which students are “ready to learn”. This means that by age four, children of professional families will have heard an average of 30 million more words directed at them through reading than those from families on welfare. This gap has lasting effects on educational performance and a love for reading.
This “30 million word gap” is becoming a more common conversation, but still not much is being done about it.
So, until the powers that be begin offering services that are accessible to all children, there is little that can be done other than READ!