Educational Reform: Slow but Sure vs. Fast and Fail

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 19th, 2011

A version of this column, “How to Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores,” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., appears in today’s editions of the New York Times — rp.

The latest bad news from our nation’s schools is that the verbal scores of our top students – college bound 17-year-olds who sign up to take the SAT – have once again declined. This unsurprising result is consistent with verbal scores for 17-year-olds on the more broadly based National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have remained essentially unchanged for 40 years.

How worried should we be? Very. And our concerns should be particularly acute because nearly nothing in our otherwise laudable and energetic education reform efforts takes direct aim at the Great Verbal Decline that took place among 17-year-olds from (roughly) 1970 to 1980.

Cognitive psychologists, who are rarely heeded in the intense rough and tumble of the education wars, agree that early childhood language learning (age two to ten) is critical to later verbal competence because of something they call the “Matthew Effect,” which determines the rate at which new word meanings are learned. The name comes from a passage in the Book of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Those who are language-poor in early childhood get relatively poorer, and fall further behind, while the verbally rich get richer.

In short, the more words you already know, the faster the rate at which you will acquire new words. This sounds like an invitation to vocabulary study for tots, but that’s been tried, and it’s not effective. Most of the word meanings we know are acquired by indirect means — by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading. The Matthew Effect in language can therefore be restated this way: “To those who understand the gist shall be given new word meanings, but to those who do not understand the gist there shall ensue boredom, frustration and discouragement, but not new words.” Multiply that classroom experience thousands of times over the years, and you get lower vocabularies, lower verbal scores.

But note the first half of the Matthew Effect. “Unto every one that hath shall be given.” Clearly the key is to make sure that from kindergarten on every student is brought along from the first days of preschool to understand the gist of what is heard or read. And that means children need to be offered coherent knowledge about the world around them from the first days of school. This is no mere theoretical notion: a recent article in Science by Professor David Dickenson showed that when children in preschool and kindergarten are taught substantial and coherent content concerning the human and natural worlds, the results show up five or six years later in significantly improved verbal scores. (Five years is the time span by which this kind of educational intervention needs to be judged.) By systematically staying on a subject long enough to make all pre-school children familiar with it, the gist becomes understood by all and the rate of word learning increases. This is particularly important for low-income children who come to school with smaller vocabularies and rely on school to impart the knowledge base that affluent children take for granted. Research conducted in France showed that if disadvantaged children receive coherent and cumulative content from a very early age, and if that practice is sustained through the early grades, verbal scores are higher for all by the time they reach later grades, and the demographic achievement gap is greatly reduced. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia puts it simply: Teaching content is teaching reading.

The insights of the Matthew Effect seem simply absent from the most visible current reform strategies, which focus on testing, improving teacher quality, increasing the number of charter schools and other fast-paced structural issues. Attention to these structural issues is good, but not enough–we need to pay equal attention to the substance and year-to-year coherence of what teachers teach and children learn, especially in the critical early years. Under the influence of recent reforms our best public schools – both charter and non-charter — have certainly improved the verbal scores of their students, but not as much as their math scores, and not nearly enough to overcome the huge gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Our national verbal decline transcends this “achievement gap” between demographic groups. The language competence of our high school graduates fell precipitously in the seventies, and has never recovered. What changed—and what remains largely un-discussed in education reform—is that in the decades prior to the Great Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-based approach that dominates in our schools today. On the surface, this is a paradox. De-emphasizing history, science, art and music in favor of spending time learning to read, and take reading tests should raise scores on those tests. The Matthew Effect explains why it doesn’t work.

Nonetheless verbal scores on the standardized tests taken by 17-year-olds may be the closest thing we have to a crystal ball or a canary in a coal mine. Some firm correlations of life chances with verbal skills have been established over many years of research on the large data sets of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth. Verbal scores of 17-year-olds predict the students’ future and our collective future. An ability to read, write, speak and listen competently correlates with a students’ capacity to learn new things readily, to communicate with others, and to work at a job effectively. It predicts their future income levels. As the verbal competency of each new generation declines or stagnates, so too will our general economic effectiveness. The single most urgent need of our schools is to raise our children’s verbal scores.

The lesson is a simple one for education reform: the administrative structure of a school, and the heroic abilities of the individual teacher, important as they are, matter less than whether a child gradually gains a critical mass of enabling knowledge over thirteen years of schooling. The key to verbal competence is a broad base of knowledge. The best-intentioned reform efforts will not succeed—cannot succeed—without a commitment to ensuring that all children receive such enabling knowledge from the first days of school.