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THOMPSON: It's the Parenting

Soft skills Nobel Prize winner James Heckman is rightly heralded for inspiring the best of President Obama’s educational reforms, especially high-quality preschool. He also points the way out of the cycle of blame and shame worsened by NCLB. Investing in early childhood, Heckman argues, is both fair and economically efficient. There is no downside, and the benefits are greater than any other investment.

About the only drawback of Heckman’s approach is that it requires us to address the uncomfortable truth about poverty and educational under-performance, which is "the real resource scarcity is parenting." The key is not intellectual or instructional but socio-emotional. Our children need to be taught the "soft skills" required in school and outside life. "Skills beget skill. Motivation begets motivation."

I had been wrestling with a hunch that we would be better off with the old system of the Office of Health, Education, and Welfare, but I couldn’t figure out the logistics or how to articulate the idea in a constructive manner. But Heckman phrased it just right. We need a Department of Human Capital. - John Thompson


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Changing Cabinet names would be window dressing that would not address the special interests and issues involved.

Before further involving the federal government in kids 1-5, it would be wise to look at the "best data" of what is actually going on. That's to be found in the NCES Early Childhood Longitudinal Study--Kindergarten and Birth Cohorts.

My reading is that there is not nearly as much variability in "poverty" home practices 1-5 as commonly imputed. Irrespective, aggregate children enter K with adequate prerequisites and motivation to acquire the academic accomplishment the citizenry has been begging schools to deliver for as long as polling of domestic issues has been done.

It's not the parents. It's not the kids. It's not the teachers. It's not the "standards." It's the instruction.

Extending the current flaws of the el-hi enterprise to ages 1-5 is a dubious course of action at best. More thought is needed.

With much gratitude to Dick for getting here first and saying much the same thing. I have just been reading some research by Bernice Lott into stereotypes of low-income parents and the differences in school response that they elicit (compared to middle class families). One has to wonder--what kind of parenting style, or skill might adequately prepare kindergartners to transcend this reality?


At you suggestion, I've been playing around with the NCES web site. Obviously you know much more about that and perhaps you can give me some guidance. But I strongly disagree with your statement "Its the instruction." And its not just because instruction is repeatedly undercut by the flawed policies that you and I agree about.

I'd like to hear more about your "reading ... that there is not nearly as much variability in "poverty" home practices 1-5 as commonly imputed. My level of response is borrowed from my old field and a great historian (Pat Limerick) who would informally poll all of her cab drivers. Her poll showed that people of all races, religions, nationalities, regions, etc. produced the same percentage of "jerks." My experience tells me that the same pattern ranges from parenting to prejudice to whatever.

Also, that's why Heckman and others stress the importance of high-quality nurturing preschool, not high cost day care. If it took New Jersey a couple of decades to improve their preschool, it will take patience everywhere.

I don't want to answer for a Nobel Prize winner but he also indicated that parenting scarcity transcends all of those boundaries and its "seems" to be getting worst throughout societies across the world. As I will explain tomorrow, the Oklahoma Mental Health Director joined in "Its the trauma!" And this is why Oklahoma is a good example (Heckman went to high school 100 yards from my house and his family is from Gotebo) and because we're "the whitest state with the Deep South's social problems" we are a good place to discuss this. A white conservative businessman from near the cotton belt near Gotebo joined in with the story of the anger and alchoholism his father brought back from three years of combat. Check out the old Sports Illustrated article about Coach Buddy Ryan who supposedly coached in the NFL with a system labeled as "Black." It recounted Ryan's trauma growing up near Gotebo with the alcoholism and the beatings and then when you add in combat expereinces... We are seeing what happens in education when a critical mass of children, regardless of race, find themselves in neighborhood schools after the less traumatized have left..

That gets me to Margo/mom. Your point is why it is doubly important to teach soft skills to young people of color. and if parents aren't capable of providing the soci-emotional, then society must help - along with helping the parents. Robert Balfanz's latest study of middle schools shows why it is doubly important and that high risk kids need a wide curriculum with nurturing and with plenty of adult mentoring. And with the decline of the old industrial economy, soft skills become triply important..

Nobody denies that racism persists and discrimination doesn't take place in education and elsewhere. But i've never seen any part of society that tries so hard to overcome both the legacy of racism and persisting racism. Schools have flaws. but I can't think of any other institutions that tries harder to examine its own responses and to root out racism.

I think Heckman has seen the realities that we all see but he sees it clearer. As was confirmed last week by the Pew Trust's study of neighborhood effects. In the 21st century, parents and the peer pressure of neighborhoods will be the prime factor in upward and downward mobilities. Think about this. Four in five Black children from the top three quintiles in the 1980s have experienced downward mobility as opposed to 40% of comparable whites.

Given that statistic, we need an honest conversation - not the political correctness that labeled Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ralph Ellison and Bill Cosby.

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