Elon Musk and Vernon Jones asked for advice. Here goes!

Dear Mr. Musk and Mr. Jones,

Amazingly — as I’ve been watching and reading the news, it turns out that both of you have asked for similar advice! So, I hope it’s alright that I’m addressing you together. You want to know how to spend money and promote ideas and policies that will move the needle forward and make a real positive difference for our nation. Thank you for that question and invitation, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, and Vernon Jones, Georgia state representative.

For half a century, I’ve focused on education — first as a teacher, then as a school attorney, and now as a reformer and writer. I’ve learned a few things that I’d like to share — most pivotally, that education is the vital key to maintaining our nation and democracy and that we are failing so many of our students and our nation. As an immigrant English-language learner in 4th grade, I experienced how wonderful public schools can be — they were for me. But now, so many of our students are failing and losing out on the opportunities our nation holds for them — especially students in poverty, minority students, English language learners, many students with disabilities, and many other vulnerable groups. Gaps between those students and others are widening. The pandemic has made the situation worse — even dire.

Yet, in our centers of power in Washington and elsewhere, responses to crises generally involve creating new programs or funding current (often failing) ones.

My solution? Let’s look at the research before we jump in. It tells us to work with families at home. Work with moms, dads, grandparents, and other caretakers with children aged 0 to 5. Our solution to school failures and widening gaps among students lies in helping children before they get to kindergarten. Because many children come to school unprepared to learn, let’s do the right thing. Let’s be guided by efficacy and research before we create new programs or throw more good money after bad.

Research supports the benefits of a more direct (and undoubtedly less costly) approach. In the field of education, it makes sense to pay attention to a child’s home situation when he or she comes to school unprepared. Home is where the child’s first teachers live and is the most practical place to start preparing children for the social and educational experiences they will have in school. Home is where children’s educations begin with their parents and caregivers — especially in the vital area of language acquisition. From there, their education can branch out to daycare centers, preschools, or schools. As I see it, education does not start with an institution — other than the institution of home with family.

I suggest that we start in the home because powerful research supports the efficacy of this approach. In 1995, Professors Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley turned early-childhood education on its head with their report, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Frustrated by their experience with programs that had no lasting effect on children’s language and growth, they sought a different route. Hart and Risley tracked verbal interactions in forty-two “well-functioning” families of infants and their parents in different socioeconomic situations — children whose parents were middle class/ professional, or lower/working class, or on welfare. Once every month until the children in the study reached age three, the researchers visited their homes, counting the number of words the children experienced.

They discovered that the numbers in the different groups varied widely, creating the now famous “30-million-word gap.” That is, children whose parents were on welfare heard and processed a reported 30 million fewer words in the first three years of life than did children of professional parents. I remember President Obama referring to this research in his speeches.

Even if that oft-cited number is too high, and even if other researchers have questioned this study (as they have), the essential message was astounding back in 1995 and still resonates today: education begins with children’s first teachers at home! The early life experiences of many children from lower-class or welfare families often does not prepare them to be “ready to learn.” Once in school, many of these children fall further and further behind. We know that if a child does not read by third grade, that child is more likely not to complete K-12 education. Some of these children enter the special-education system as students with disabilities, especially children in the categories of students with learning, speech or language disabilities (which comprise close to 60 percent of all students with disabilities served by the law). The bottom line: The importance of early-language acquisition at home cannot be overstated, especially as we know that early gaps continue into the school years. See, for example, Jessica Lahey, “Poor Kids and the Word Gap,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/10/american-kids-are-starving-for-words/381552/

Given this reality, I am troubled that too often the push for early-childhood education circles back to the earlier, often disappointing institutional programs outside the home! Please help us here! Please use your creativity and clout to lead us to better ways.

Where is evidence that creating new programs will be effective on a large scale? See the long history of inconclusive evidence for the effectiveness of Head Start, a federally funded program, and similar programs. Of course, there are gems of schools — public and private, regular and charter, but they are not scaled to large systems.

The Economist’s “In the Beginning Was the Word” echoes this caution:

In January (2014), 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.”

Feb. 22, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21596923-how-babbling-babies-can-boost-their-brains-beginning-was-word

Why do we not, instead, follow the research and good practices on language development and pursue the direct avenue at home? Why do we not proactively work with parents and children in the first place? If parents do not realize how important their role can be, let us take this opportunity — and duty — to share with them the value of talking with, reading to, playing and singing with their babies. The key is to talk, read, and sing!

Pockets of promising efforts are currently under way. We need far more. Here are some samples of programs for families of children up to five years of age.

· A program in Providence, Rhode Island, called “Providence Talks” sends trained visitors into homes to do what is described above. Home — Providence Talks.

· Too Small to Fail’s “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing.” Too Small To Fail

· California’s “First 5,” a state initiative enrolling parents and caregivers in research-supported practices; First 5 California — State Site.

· Zero to Three. Home • ZERO TO THREE.

· Start Early, formerly An Ounce of Prevention; Homepage | Start Early.

An ounce of prevention, indeed! In order to ensure equity for young children, we need to scale these in-home efforts toward national policy to help parents be as good at teaching as they can be. They can then send their children to school ready to learn, often without a need for any disability label.

Mr. Musk and Jones. You are both amazingly creative. Help us help our children and our nation! Let’s talk! Perhaps you/we can create prizes for parents and caregivers who are “doing the right thing” for their children. We need to be positive and encouraging. We need to find heroes at home! Prizes? Perhaps a ride in a space ship or in a Tesla?! Let’s honor and reward and encourage people. Together, we need to end the “opportunity gaps” that now thwart the lives of so many little kids — before they even start!

Mr. Musk and Mr. Jones, please help us here! I for one — and many others — stand ready to work with you on this vital crucial effort.

Thanks for reading,

All the best,

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman is an attorney, reformer, and author. Her latest book is Special Education 2.0. And, check out her pandemic medicine bottle art!

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