by CalWatchdog Staff | April 18, 2013 6:30 am
April 18, 2013
By Chris Reed
The recent flap over an MSNBC promo in which commentator Melissa Harris-Perry declared that Americans “have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to their communities” didn’t last long. But the Tulane professor’s sort of thinking is more widespread on the left than one might imagine — and it has the potential to blow up into a racial flap that divides Democrats.
Driving this issue is the increasing body of evidence that shows early childhood, from birth to kindergarten, is crucial to long-term cognitive development. This research is why President Barack Obama earlier this year introduced the “Early Childhood and Preschool for All Initiative,” which has led to proposed reforms that amount to more government programs for the very young.
But on this issue, a growing number of liberal education reformers and social scientists are also going onto extremely sensitive ground. They don’t just want government programs for kids under 5. They contend that cognitive development is driven by parents’ behavior, and that some parents are better for their kids than others. This is how City Journal put it:
“The difference between middle-class and low-income child rearing has been captured at its starkest — and most unsettling — by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley in their 1995 book ‘Meaningful Differences.’ As War on Poverty foot soldiers with a special interest in language development, Hart and Risley were troubled by the mediocre results of the curriculum they had helped design at the Turner House Preschool in a poor black Kansas City neighborhood. Comparing their subjects with those at a lab school for the children of University of Kansas professors, Hart and Risley found to their dismay that not only did the university kids know more words than the Turner kids, but they learned faster. The gap between upper- and lower-income kids, they concluded, ‘seemed unalterable by intervention by the time the children were 4 years old.’
“Trying to understand why, their team set out to observe parents and children in their homes doing the things they ordinarily did—hanging out, talking, eating dinner, watching television. The results were mind-boggling: in the first years of life, the average number of words heard per hour was 2,150 for professors’ kids, 1,250 for working-class children, and 620 for children in welfare families.”
These findings have increasingly led social engineers on the left to hint, delicately, that maybe these less-verbal parents should have less definitive of a role in their kids’ upbringing and that the government should have much more of a role. Rob Reiner and Kris Perry — the driving force behind and the first head of the First Five California program, respectively — are national leaders of the government-as-parent cause, which has deep California roots. Here Perry makes the case:
“With all-day, year-round schools providing high quality early education services to disadvantaged children and families in 17 sites across the country, Educare demonstrates that with the right resources and collaboration between public and private partners, the investment in the earliest years really pays off.
“According to research conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Educare schools in six cities — Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Omaha, Seattle and Tulsa — showed positive results in preparing disadvantaged children for later academic success. The study revealed that disadvantaged children who enroll in Educare as infants or toddlers entered kindergarten with the same vocabulary and school-readiness skills as their middle-income peers.”
It is easy to see fury in minority communities over what many would see as the blame-the-victim overtones of this approach, and over the idea that “disadvantaged” parents just aren’t as good as their “middle-income peers.”
Even if they are well-meaning, Reiner, Perry and other social engineers are playing with fire with this line of thinking.
Should we be less worried when discussing public policy issues with racial overtones? In an ideal world, of course. But in the world we live in, claims of racism are used so wantonly and effectively as weapons that it’s no wonder people tread carefully.
Most of the time, those claims are aimed at people on the right who believe in small government or who oppose affirmative action or welfare programs. But in this case, those claims could be aimed at people on the left who believe that “all-day, year-round” government is a better parent than the ones that disadvantaged kids have.
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