NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 28, 2006

Critics of the No Child Left Behind Act have mainly focused on the failure of in-class learning and teaching to help poor and minority children.  But ample evidence suggests that the educational gap may be the product of differences in the educational atmosphere received at home, says Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine. 


  • A 1995 study found that vocabulary growth differed sharply by economic class and that the gap between the classes opened at young ages.
  • By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words.
  • The children's IQs correlated closely to their vocabularies; the average IQ among the children of professionals was 117, while the welfare children had an average IQ of 79.

The authors found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well.  Subsequently, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another -- all of which stimulated intellectual development.

However, translating that process to helping poor children in the classroom has not been easy.  But one option, charter schools, is succeeding by providing the everyday intellectual and emotional stimuli to which their better-off peers have been exposed since birth.  For example:

  • They require more class time, offer additional tutoring, provide Saturday morning classes and have shorter summers, mimicking the educational experience enjoyed by higher income children.
  • For teachers, an emphasis is placed on explicit goals, but there is also an importance placed on "team building," cooperation and creativity, which helps attract young, enthusiastic instructors.
  • A conscious effort is made to guide behavior and values by teaching character, using slogans, motivational posters, incentives, encouragements and punishments.

Source: Paul Tough, "What It Takes To Make A Student," New York Times Magazine, November 26, 2006.

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