The Sciences

The power of home environment

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanOct 7, 2012 3:01 AM

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Before a Test, a Poverty of Words:

Things are very different elsewhere on the class spectrum. Earlier in the year when I met Steven F. Wilson, founder of a network of charter schools that serve poor and largely black communities in Brooklyn, I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year. He answered, without a second’s hesitation: “Word deficit.” As it happens, in the ’80s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley spent years cataloging the number of words spoken to young children in dozens of families from different socioeconomic groups, and what they found was not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also astonishing differences in sheer number. Children of professionals were, on average, exposed to approximately 1,500 more words hourly than children growing up in poverty. This resulted in a gap of more than 32 million words by the time the children reached the age of 4.

This makes sense. It certainly explains the dearth of the children of working class Korean immigrants in higher education, seeing as their parents often have rudimentary English vocabularies. Oh wait.... These tales of the power of upper middle class homes to give their offspring a leg up are commonly distributed because they appeal to common sense, as inferred from cultural presuppositions. One of them is that parents matter, a lot. To some extent this is certainly true. If your parents have the income and wealth to give you a university education so that you don't need to take out student loans, then that's a major leg up. Perhaps even more importantly it is critical in many fields if you come from enough money so that you can toil away in unpaid internships. But I am more skeptical of research which purports to draw a line between the vocabulary of children at age 4 to the vocabulary of children at age 18, because they often imply that parental input is critical. To some extent parental input is important; intelligence is at least moderately heritable. But if parental input in English vocabulary at an early age was so critical then the children of all immigrants would be at major disadvantage. This is just not the case for admissions to elite New York City public schools. The children of Hispanic immigrants are at a disadvantage, but not those of Asian immigrants. Let me offer myself as an example. My English was rudimentary when I entered kindergarten. By the end of the school year I had moved up to the top of the class in verbal abilities according to standardized tests, but I also exhibited some blind spots in my language fluency up until the age of seven (e.g., I had difficulties with male vs. female pronouns, as my home language did not have that feature). Eventually these lacunae were rectified, and I don't perceive any differences in my fluency with those raised in homes where English was the first language. More importantly I grew up with a cohort of children of highly educated immigrants where the families did not speak English at home, and I'm rather certain that almost all these children scored highly on the verbal portion of the SAT. My point is that looking at vocabulary at age 5 is an indicator of underlying conditions. It is not necessarily the cause, and it may be at some causal remove, so fixing the conditions which lead to this result may not solve the problem with different academic outcomes. Finally, as an Asian American I do think it is incumbent upon the cultural elites concerned about gaps between the achievement of various groups to admit that many of the Asian American students who have de facto driven non-Hispanic whites out of elite public schools like Stuyvesant are not economically privileged. This does not negate the broader issues which are being addressed, but it seems farcical to engage in a discussion of the demographics of elite New York City high school, and ignore the plural majority (Asian Americans) because they do not neatly fit into the narrative of privileged white vs. underrepresented minority of color. Addendum:The Nurture Assumption is worth reading.

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