On the day they start kindergarten, Latino children are often already at a disadvantage. Their social skills and readiness to listen and learn are top-notch, but their cognitive and verbal skills, abilities that strongly predict future academic success, tend to be significantly less developed than those of their white peers. If they have attended preschool, that may have helped, but a new study from UC Berkeley confirms what other research has found: The discrepancy starts much earlier, and even high-quality preschool makes up only about a third of the deficit. Why the big difference? According to child-development experts, the parents of white children are talking to their children more, telling stories, reading books and inviting them to suggest their own ideas — even when they're too young to speak.
In other words, preschool alone will not prepare toddlers for success in school. That's a problem. But solutions are clear, inexpensive and relatively easy to achieve.
At the age of 9 months, Latino infants and their white peers possess the same cognitive skills, according to the Berkeley study, released last week. But by 20 months, the Latinos have fallen behind, and by 30 months the differences are marked. By the time they reach preschool age, the vocabularies of the Latino children are far smaller. A rich early vocabulary — no matter the language — is the single most promising predictor of good reading skills.
Just as language differences don't explain the discrepancies, neither do a family's finances.
Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at Berkeley, said that because teachers in Latin America are so respected, many Latino parents — especially those with little formal education — feel that they can't possibly play an important role in their children's educational development. Yet it doesn't take a college degree or a diploma, or even literacy. Telling stories, asking questions, playing with children interactively — these simple actions can make a profound difference.
Programs funded by schools and governments that provide home visits by a nurse or social worker or other mentor have shown repeatedly that they improve educational outcomes. In addition, thanks to the advice and counseling such programs offer, the children tend to have fewer injuries, mothers are more likely to delay their next pregnancy, and families are less likely to rely on social welfare programs later.
President Obama has been an enthusiastic supporter of home visits and included funding for them under the Affordable Care Act. He would like to expand such programs to include more low-income families, but even its current level of funding is uncertain as Congress looks for programs to cut.
That makes little sense. Home visits strengthen families, are flexible enough to meet individual needs, yet are relatively low in cost. Both Republicans and Democrats should find plenty there to support.