Throughout the nation, standardized tests are used to measure academic achievement and to document the achievement gap. Recently, public schools in Atlanta were embroiled in a standardized-test cheating scandal. After an investigation, 178 educators were accused of misconduct. Some teachers allegedly changed the students’ answer sheets. Others simply gave the students the answers. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one teacher said, “I had to give them the answers. Those kids were dumb as hell.”
People want to believe that excellent teachers will prevent or close the achievement gap. The bottom line is that for many African-American children, the achievement gap begins to develop the day the child is born, years before they enter school. Therefore, we can only depend on ourselves for the academic salvation of our children.
African-Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status, may be unaware of how critical the birth-to-age-3 time period is for child development. All parents should be informed of the research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the authors of Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children (Paul H. Brookes, 1995).
Hart and Risley conducted observations in the homes of professional, working-class and welfare families. They found that infants and toddlers in the homes of professional families heard, on average, about 30,000 words a day (excluding television). In working-class families, they heard about 18,000 words, and in welfare families about 9,000 words a day. Researchers have concluded that this early talking is the foundation for later academic success. Even illiterate parents can talk to their children.
Educators must also emphasize the importance of parents reading to their children every day, starting the day their child is born. If parents read one, short, different book to their children every day from birth, they would read more than 2,000 books to their children by the time they reach age 6.
Research has found that a greater percentage of white mothers with a high-school diploma reported reading daily to their children than African-American mothers with at least a college degree. It is no surprise that white students from extremely low-income families have mean standardized test scores that equal or excel the mean scores of African-American students from upper-income families.
African-American parents should also encourage their older children to engage in pleasure reading for at least 30 minutes each day, including during the summer. The reading done in conjunction with school assignments may simply not be enough.
For the purpose of enhancing the early literacy experiences of all children, I have started The 2,000 Book Movement on Facebook. The goals of The Movement are that parents will read at least 2,000 books to their children by the time they reach age 6; that infants and toddlers will hear 30,000 words a day; and that older children will engage in 30 minutes of pleasure reading each day. The Facebook movement page also contains videos and articles for parents.
Some people have criticized my position that a lack of early reading experiences in the African-American community caused the achievement gap. At least two people have accused me of following the cultural deficiency model. As Amy Taylor explained in Communique Online (2004), a cultural-deficiency model blames the culture without acknowledging the unfair treatment of the people. I wrote a book in which I devoted an entire chapter to detailing the racism that contributed to the current state of African-American literacy levels. There is no way my plea for increased, early literacy development follows this model.
The African-American community desperately needs to focus on what will help us. The mere fact that white people engage in a particular activity (more reading) should not relegate a recommendation to being the equivalent of the kiss of death. It is harmful to our community when we focus only on what others (teachers, the government, etc.) can do for us, as opposed to what we can do for ourselves.
No one should assume that African-American parents will not do whatever they can to help their children. One single African-American mother reads at least three different, short books to her daughter every day. Then right before her daughter goes to sleep, she reads the same book to her. Her goal is to read more than 5,000 books to her daughter by the time she reaches age 6.
The African-American community has to be informed that when we do not read and talk to our children during the birth-to-age-3 time period, we are not developing a firm foundation for later academic success. Reading and talking to infants and toddlers are behaviors that all parents can adopt. The power to save our children is within us, and we must look to ourselves to save ourselves.
Veda Jairrels is the author of “African Americans and Standardized Test Scores: The Real Reason for Low Test Scores” and a professor of education at Clark Atlanta University. She taught in the public schools of New York City.