What if we talked about monolingual White children the way we talk about low-income children of color?

Here is a wonderful post from Nelson Flores over at Educational Linguist. Conversations about the “language gap” falsely position non-Standard-English-speaking families and children as flawed.  This brilliant piece of satire helps show what the problem is with that way of treating these students.  We cannot effectively educate students of color if we continue to view them as somewhat deficient versions of White children.  Instead, we need to study and capitalize on their strengths, many of which are completely absent from the repertoires of children from the dominant culture.

We could add to this article, “Monolingual children have been shown to have lower executive function than bilingual children, leaving them ill-prepared for the impulse control and higher-level thinking that are required in schools. The effects are far-reaching: monolinguals have been shown to be at increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease in adulthood.”  Any other facts about the “scourge of monolingualism” that should be included?

What if we talked about monolingual White children the way we talk about low-income children of color?.


About the NPR News piece “Mexican-American Toddlers: Understanding The Achievement Gap”

We need to stop thinking of poor kids and minority kids as deficient versions of middle-class white kids. They are not. They have a range of appropriate skills according to how they have been socialized in their community, and the role of schools is to serve kids based on the skills they bring into kinder. Traditional school is designed to serve middle-class white kids, building on the skills most of those kids learned at home (letters, numbers, answering questions the asker already knows the answer to) but doesn’t assume that they have skills like storytelling, interpersonal problem-solving, multilingualism, or creativity with language, so those are taught at school. Meanwhile, kids who DO come in with those strengths (typically minority students) but lacking the ones that white kids have are labeled as not ready for school. What if school was redesigned to build on the strengths that minority kids already demonstrate, and to teach them what they don’t know yet? Isn’t that why we have kids go to school for at least 13 years?

School for Linguists

After reading this piece on the NPR website, as well as the research article it reports on, I felt I had to write to the ombudsman. The text of my letter follows.

Dear Ombudsman:

In the story “Mexican-American Toddlers: Understanding the Achievement Gap” on last week’s All Things Considered, I was disappointed not to hear a response to Bruce Fuller from an expert on bilingual and multicultural education. Including this perspective would have highlighted two significant problems with the piece: first, that Dr. Fuller’s research is framed in a highly anglocentric way, and second, that some of the claims he made on the radio are not supported by his research.

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Why I Hate the Marshmallow Test

Maybe you’ve heard of the marshmallow test.  It’s a perennial favorite of people who write about how things that happen in childhood can predict everything that matters about your future. You can read about it in the Atlantic, in the New Yorker, in the Times, or at CNN, or listen to a podcast on it at Radiolab.  The Wall Street Journal uses it as a metaphor for Obama’s budget in 2012.  KQED recently wrote about “A ‘Marshmallow Test for the Digital Age.”

Basically, a researcher puts a marshmallow down in front of a kid and says, “I’m going out of the room now.  You can eat this right now or you can wait.  If you can wait until I come back, then you can have TWO marshmallows.”  Here’s an adorable video of some kids trying to resist temptation:

The first experiments (paywall) were conducted in the 1960s and 70s by Walter Mischel at Stanford.  Researchers followed up with participants years later, and found that their ability to “delay gratification” (wait for the marshmallow) predicted higher SAT scores, lower body mass index, less crack cocaine use, higher sense of self worth, and just better coping ability (all summarized in this article, which also has a paywall).  Basically, waiting for the marshmallow at 4 meant you were winning at life at 34.

What frustrates me about the buzz around the marshmallows is that it gets treated, in a shorthand way, as though kids either “pass” or “fail” the marshmallow test, and that presages whether they will pass or fail all kinds of future tests.  Mischel himself does not conflate behavior in the experiment with passing/failing, but others seem to hold it up as proof that waiting is a virtue and some kids don’t have it as young as preschool.

But as my favorite professor likes to say, kids make sense.  We can’t treat the kids who reach for that marshmallow as though they are unable to delay gratification.  What if they are just using a sensible strategy to achieve gratification based on what they have experienced in life?  Sure, if all the grown-ups I have ever met tend to follow through on their promises to me–the dentist really does give me a prize after a cleaning, my mom really does read me a story after I brush my teeth–then I totally believe this random adult who has come into my preschool to offer me treats.  But what if the adults in my life typically don’t, or can’t, despite their best efforts, come through for me?  What if my mom promised we wouldn’t change schools again but then unexpectedly got laid off so we had to move?  What if my dad always says he’ll play catch with me after dinner but then seems to have urgent emails every night?  Or even if I know I can trust my parents, maybe I’ve learned not to depend on people outside the family for my happiness.  All I know now is, there is a marshmallow right in front of me.  Who knows if this guy is really going to come back in with another one?  What if he even takes this one away?  Isn’t a bird in hand worth two in the bush?

Then, on through life, so it goes.  The instability continues, and so does the logic that it’s better to have something good now than to plan for something that may never materialize.  I’m just imagining examples here: As a kid, Jamal was frequently suspended from preschool, teaching him that his routine could be disrupted at any time.  As he grew up, he was told that if he worked hard, he could get a good job, yet employers never seem to respond to his resume.  He has a lower sense of self-worth.  Leila and her mom kept having to move from apartment to apartment to follow the jobs.  This made her mistrust the future in preschool, and made her miss the SAT prep course offered at one high school she briefly attended.  Lee developed a sweet tooth as a kid when food was in short supply at his house.  He learned to eat whatever was in front of him as soon as it was available, and to down sweets in particular before his brothers got them.  Now as an adult, he wants to exercise and be healthy, but his neighborhood has no parks, grocery stores, or safe areas to work out.  He has a high BMI.  In all these (totally fictional) examples, the instability causes both the marshmallow eating and the later worse life outcomes.  Not delaying gratification is what makes sense in these contexts.

Mischel talks about this in the New Yorker piece.  He points out that what happens outside the home definitely affects kids’ ability to delay gratification.  My favorite line is this, about parents: “do they make waiting worthwhile?”  Exactly.  If your parents, or your life circumstances, mean waiting makes no difference, or even makes you worse off, then waiting is not a reasonable behavior.

This great Slate piece talks about a more recent experiment that attempts to test this idea.  They placed kids in either “reliable” or “unreliable” scenarios, where adults either came through for them or didn’t, and then gave them the marshmallow test.  Guess who didn’t wait very long?  Those kids weren’t unable to delay gratification–they were sharp kids who had learned how the world around them worked.  Kids make sense!

Learning Needs Teaching

This editorial was written in response to the question, “How does K-16 education need to change to prepare young people to become effective citizens and cultural change agents in the 21st Century?”  It was originally published in the Green Money Journal “Whole Mind Education” issue (Winter 08/09).

Learning Needs Teaching

If we want to prepare our nation’s young to be active, engaged citizens, we must address the failure of the education system to effectively prepare the 13 million children growing up in poverty – nearly one-fifth of our nation’s youth – for full societal participation. And we can reach them, if we are willing to do what it takes to provide our nation’s most needy students with outstanding instruction.

One month after graduating from college in 2007, I flew to San Francisco to join the ranks of Teach for America (TFA) and get trained on the essentials of teaching.   Two months after that I was handed my very own second-grade bilingual classroom in East Oakland and met my 20 darling, enthusiastic, and mostly seriously below-grade-level students. My students came to me with many challenges that I had never faced during my childhood education. Half of them had had a series of substitutes for most of first grade, and as a result didn’t learn to read until the very end of the year when the school finally found a permanent teacher. A few had transferred into the bilingual program from an English-only class, whose teacher (according to veterans at my school) had generally ignored her non-English-speaking students. One student’s parents were illiterate and had no phone. Another’s father was in jail. Another lived in a one-room converted garage with three sisters, a jobless father, and a mother who takes in sewing to support her family. Many were undocumented immigrants and had no health insurance. All were low-income non-native English speakers. They have many factors stacked against them, and statistically speaking the odds of their achieving academically are not good. Of the 13 million children growing up in poverty in the United States (approximately 19% of all US children, White & Chau, 2009), half will not graduate from high school. Those who do will perform, on average, at the level of eighth graders in well-off communities (Teach For America, n.d.).

However, all is NOT lost for my students or those like them. While there is much controversy in the educational community about the effectiveness of TFA, there is no doubt that their foundational principle promotes an important and under-recognized truth: the achievement gap between low- and high-income students can be narrowed or even closed with good teaching. If we want to prepare our nation’s young to be active, engaged citizens, we must address the failure of the education system to reach this huge sub-population, nearly one-fifth of our nation’s youth. Addressing the myriad effects of poverty on education is a complex process that will take a long time, but we can make an immediate and far-reaching impact on achievement by addressing the role that good teaching plays in education. We need better training to create a corps of teachers who have the skills needed to minimize the achievement gap, better pay to attract the best teachers to the areas that need them most, and on-going training and support to retain great teachers in these difficult environments.

First, teacher training, recruitment and evaluation must be based on student performance outcomes. Student achievement is the only worthwhile measure of teacher achievement. How to measure student achievement is a very controversial issue, but the refrain I heard throughout my TFA training holds true: “No one is teaching if no one is learning.” TFA has been observing and analyzing their most successful teachers for years in order to distill the teacher characteristics necessary for maximum student learning, .   This research has led to a document known as the Teaching as Leadership (TAL) Rubric, which is used to recruit, select, train and constantly evaluate corps members. It consists of six broad traits and 27 sub-traits that TFA has found to be present in the classrooms of virtually every classroom where low-income students are achieving: setting ambitious goals for students, investing students and their influencers, planning purposefully, executing effectively, continuously increasing effectiveness, and working relentlessly (Teach For America, 2009). This sort of model (not necessarily the TAL Rubric itself) must be adopted nationwide. Teachers must be prepared and evaluated according to the proven best practices as demonstrated by student achievement, which aren’t just programs or curricula but which are mindsets and approaches to teaching.

In addition to improving teacher effectiveness by focusing on student outcomes, a great deal more must be done to attract the best teachers to the schools that need them most – where the students are furthest behind. They can achieve, but they and their educators must work twice as hard to overcome the extra obstacles they face. These schools need teachers who go above and beyond what is traditionally required of teachers. I, and every other TFA corps member I know, regularly put in 60-70-hour weeks, more than 20 hours beyond what we are paid for, but we cannot build a sustainable education future on self-sacrificing volunteers. We need to support dedicated teachers with salaries comparable to those of business professionals who put in a similar number of hours. It must be worth the while of excellent teachers to stay where the work is most challenging but most necessary.

Which brings me to my third recommendation: teachers, particularly in low-income schools, must get more support in order to reduce teacher turnover. In 2006 the National Education Association reported that 50% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. According to a study released in 2007 by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, “so many teachers leaving the profession creates a self-perpetuating cycle of failure in some school systems, as a lack of experienced mentors and a sink-or-swim environment lead to trouble in the classroom and demoralization” (Nelson Hernandez, “Teacher Turnover Costs Systems Millions, Study Projects,” Washington Post, 21 June 2007). The first years of teaching are extremely challenging and often demoralizing, particularly when students perform at several years below grade level. Had I not been provided the constant technical and moral support of my TFA advisors and, in particular, a corps of peers going through the same experience, I might not be able to sustain the energy necessary to stay in teaching. To keep teachers in low-income schools, they need regular one-on-one mentoring from master teachers that includes frequent opportunities for both parties to observe each other teaching. Furthermore, they need the opportunity to participate in formal social and professional networks of teachers in similar schools, and not just through required credentialing classes. Both of these things have been invaluable in helping me and my fellow corps members stick with teaching in the face of great challenges.

In sum, if we as a country are willing to invest in what it takes for all children, even the most disadvantaged, to receive outstanding instruction, then we will be well on the path to preparing our children for the challenge and opportunities of 21st Century citizenship.


O’Brien, I.  “Learning Needs Teaching.” Green Money Journal. Whole Mind Education issue (Winter 08/09). Issue 70, Volume 17, No. 2.

Teach For America. (n.d.). Our Mission. Retrieved January 02, 2015, from https://www.teachforamerica.org/our-mission

Teach For America. (2009). Teaching As Leadership: Online Navigator. Retrieved January 02, 2015, from http://www.teachingasleadership.org/

Wight, V. R., & Chau, M. (2009). Basic Facts about Low-income Children, 2008: Children Under Age 18. New York, NY. Retrieved from http://nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_892.pdf