The bank robber’s secret to early childhood education

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman

September 10, 2015


In the vast “how-to-fix-education” universe, early childhood programming seems to be the new elixir. Governors and mayors push it, as does our president, viewing it as a smart investment in the future. Many children come to school unprepared to learn, so we have to intervene earlier. Right? An instinctive response is to advocate for more early childhood education. Who can argue with that? Some seek universal full-day programs for three- and four-year-olds, while others focus on babies from birth to age two.

As an early childhood observer (though not a practitioner), I suggest we step back to ask whether a different, more direct approach might be better. Before we create new programs, let’s consider Sutton’s Law. This delightful decree is named after Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because, as he put it, “that is where the money is.” Thus, when diagnosing challenges, consider the obvious first. “When you hear hoof beats behind you, think horses and not zebras.”

When children come to school unprepared, think home! Build on the reality that home is where children reside with their first teachers, their parents and caregivers. The road to improve early education—especially in the area of language skills, so vital to school readiness—surely begins at home and branches out from there to daycare centers, preschools, or schools.

The research basis for this approach is powerful. In 1995, Professors Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley turned early childhood education on its head. Frustrated by their experience with programs that did not have a lasting effect on children’s language and growth, they sought a different approach. Now, some twenty years later, their landmark research remains strong.

Hart and Risley tracked verbal interactions in forty-two “well-functioning” families of infants and their parents living either in poverty, a working-class home, or professional comfort. Every month until the age of three, the researchers tracked conversations at home, counting the number of words children experienced. The numbers in the three groups varied widely, creating the now-famous “thirty million word gap.” Even if that oft-cited number is too high, the point is made: Children whose families were on welfare heard and processed far fewer words than did those in professional families. The researchers found that school readiness differences, much of which are centered on language and communication, were related to these disparate numbers from children’s earliest years.

Of course, the study was more nuanced, detailing the types of conversations and parental directives that children heard, but the above summary will suffice here. The importance of parent-child conversations—reinforced by recent follow-up studies and work at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and elsewhere—cannot be overstated, especially as we know that early gaps continue into the school years.

Given this reality, the latest push for early childhood programs seems to circle back to earlier, often-disappointing approaches. Shouldn’t we instead follow the language development research to focus on babies and toddlers at home first, pursuing the direct avenue of working with parents? It can’t be said often enough—proposed programs should be based on objective research of efficacy.

Also, and most unfortunately, current reform efforts put the entire burden of closing this gap on schools! Yet where is evidence that creating more programs outside the home will be effective on a large scale? Can we really expect public educational institutions to get us where we need to be, even if they start children earlier and they are truly excellent (a big if)? Why not look for horses instead?

The Economist cautions:

In January Barack Obama urged Congress and state governments to make high-quality pre-schools available to every four-year-old….

That is a good thing. Pre-school programmes are known to develop children’s numeracy, social skills and (as the term “pre-school” suggests) readiness for school. But they do not deal with the [language] gap in much earlier development that [research has] identified. And it is this gap, more than a year’s pre-schooling at the age of four, which seems to determine a child’s chances for the rest of his life. [Emphasis added.]

Simply stated, for early language development, school is too late. Home is where the work should begin. And if parents do not realize how important their role can be, it is our duty to share with them the value of talking with, reading to, and playing and singing with their babies from the earliest opportunity.

Let’s end on a high note and mention important efforts currently underway. For example, Rhode Island’s “Providence Talks” program sends trained visitors into homes to assist parents in introducing their children to more words. A group called Too Small to Fail has launched campaigns for children between birth and age five by in various cities; California’s First 5 initiative enrolls parents and caregivers in research-supported practices; Ten Books A Home sends volunteers into homes to help model literacy and language skills; and the Head Start’s National Center on Parent, Family and Community Engagement also helps parents and caregivers learn to talk, read, and sing with their children.

We should scale up these promising practices before (or along with) the early childhood push currently underway. Helping parents improve their communication skills with their babies and children will go a long way toward closing the thirty million word gap and improving school readiness. This is where we should put our creative national resources to work.

Willy Sutton robbed banks because that was where the money was. We should build capacity in the home because that is where young children and parents are. Let’s help children’s very first teachers be as effective as they can be! Then they can send their kids to school ready to learn.

About Miriam

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA—an expert in public education, focused on special education law— is a lawyer, author, speaker, consultant, and reformer. For more than 35 years, Miriam worked with educators, parents, policy makers, and citizens to translate complex legalese into plain English and focus on good practices for children. Now, she focuses her passion on reforming special education, with her new book, Special Education 2.0—Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law. Presentations include those at the AASA Conference, Orange County (CA), Boston College (MA), CADRE (OR), and the Fordham Institute (DC). Her writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Education Week, Education Next, Hoover Digest, The University of Chicago Law Review on line,, and The Atlantic Monthly on line.

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