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Why Biden’s ‘Record Player’ Goof Was No Gaffe

CALBUZZ--Joe Biden’s tossed word-salad response in the last Democratic debate on the question of how government or society ought to respond to the legacy of slavery –

in which he encouraged parents to talk more to their kids, citing a famous 1995 study finding a 30-million word deficit among children from low-income families – was mostly scoffed at because Biden urged parents to keep the “record player” on more.

The truth is, Biden was correct on the underlying point: There is a staggering gap in the number and content of words spoken to children in various economic strata that is highly correlated to later performance.

Almost immediately, Biden was denounced as a bigoted old white guy telling black parents how to raise their kids and arguing that the study he cited had been “debunked.” Neither critique is true. (Although it did prompt us to suggest a new retro slogan for Biden: “A chicken in every pot and a record player in every home.”)

The first complaint stems from the fact that the question was aimed at seeking social policy responses to the legacy of slavery – a distinctly racial problem, when the study — B. Hart and T.R. Risley (1995). “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children,” Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing) — actually investigated class or income disparities.

Given that, it’s not unreasonable for Biden to assume that the study’s findings apply to some black families – even if a white person’s citation of the study risked sounding like a paternalistic critique of black-family upbringing, a charge to which Biden left himself open via his characteristic foggy verbosity.

Egghead combat. In a summary from “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” published in the American Educator in 2003, Hart and Risley wrote:

“The finding that children living in poverty hear fewer than a third of the words heard by children from higher-income families has significant implications in the long run. When extrapolated to the words heard by a child within the first four years of their life these results reveal a 30-million-word difference. That is, a child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family.

“This gap does nothing but grow as the years progress, ensuring slow growth for children who are economically disadvantaged and accelerated growth for those from more privileged backgrounds. In addition to a lack of exposure to these 30 million words, the words a child from a low-income family has typically mastered are often negative directives, meaning words of discouragement. The ratios of encouraging versus discouraging feedback found within the study, when extrapolated, evidences that by age four, the average child from a family on welfare will hear 125,000 more words of discouragement than encouragement. When compared to the 560,000 more words of praise as opposed to discouragement that a child from a high-income family will receive, this disparity is extraordinarily vast.”

Although some researchers took issue with the study, it was never “debunked,” despite common belief among those offended by it that it was disproved. According to Robert Pondiscio,  senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute:

“The study has drawn fire virtually from the day it was published, but a significant new reconsideration gathered steam with a “failed replication” published last Spring in Child Development by Douglas Sperry, Linda Sperry, and Peggy Miller, which claimed that low-income children hear far more spoken language than Hart and Risley captured and accounted for, finding “substantial variation” within various socioeconomic groups and criticizing as too narrow Hart and Risley’s definitions of children’s verbal environments, which “exclude multiple caregivers and bystander talk disproportionately [and] underestimate the number of words to which lowincome children are exposed.”

“Recently a reader of Tim Shanahan’s [Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago and Founding Di­rector of the UIC Center for Literacy] excellent blog chided him for citing the 30-million-word gap “canard.”

Despite its limitations, “environmental differences (as opposed to genetic ones) still seems to be the best explanation of why poverty kids are underprepared when they start to receive reading instruction,” he replied. The Hart and Risley study is far from perfect, he concluded. “Nevertheless, the results of this body of research continue to suggest that what parents do in the home with their children matters educationally…and that they (and we) ought to be doing more to support their children’s early language learning.” That’s the right answer, and a far cry from “debunked.”

What Mr. Biden meant to say… All this by way of saying that Biden – despite his nebulous language – was right. There is a huge gap in the number and content of words spoken to children that is highly correlated to later performance. Kids who get lots of encouragement in the context of lots of talk do far better later on than children who get lots of discouragement amid sparse communications.

It’s logical and it’s been observed in scientific studies that had no pre-conceived agendas.

“Since Hart and Risley’s study, other researchers have confirmed that the word gap exists. A recent study at Stanford found that by 18 months old, children in different socio-economic groups show dramatic differences in their vocabularies,”  Adizah Eghan, a Bay Area writer and radio producer who happens to be African-American, wrote in an excellent piece for greatschools.org.

Whether Biden’s inelegant citing of the word gap and his clumsy advice on how to address it will hurt him depends in large measure on whether the media suggest the word gap gas been debunked (it hasn’t) and whether media suggest he was talking down to black families (which he wasn’t).

What Biden was suggesting is, in fact, good advice to all low-income families, white, brown, Asian and black, although we stipulate that keeping the record player running may not be the best solution (although our Millennial Spawn assure us Vinyl is Back!).

Of course, as the terrific urban issues reporter Emily Badger wrote in the Washington Post, while there are myriad programs seeking to address the word gap:

None of these programs will change the circumstances low-income parents face that contribute to the word gap. They won’t solve for the single mother who doesn’t have time to read at night because she works two jobs, or the father too preoccupied by the heating bill to play a game of peek-a-boo.

But to the extent that government can help parents find time to talk to and read to their children, it would advance the cause of equalizing outcomes of children of all races.

(Jerry Roberts is a California journalist who writes, blogs and hosts a TV talk show about politics, policy and media. Phil Trounstine is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, former communications director for California Gov. Gray Davis and was the founder and director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. This piece appeared originally in CalBuzz.) 

-CW