Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition – the Great Conversations and the 32,000,000 Missing Words!

The “competition” goes to school - Kashmir

I have a confession. I am neurotic. A neurotic book buyer, a neurotic book reader. As Thomas Jefferson once put it, “I cannot live without books.”

Some of us get our kicks from a cliff-hanging ball game, others a tasty desert. Me? A Great Conversation with a Great Book. Crumpled-down page corners. Highlighted passages. When I’m done, my book is a mess. But I‘ve had a Great Conversation. Joseph Addison once said, “Books are the legacies that a great genius leaves to mankind.” Yes, Joseph, how right you are! What a rich endowment the great thinkers and authors have provided us!

Our Great Conversations with the Great Books opens us to explore the great ideas - truth and beauty, science and art, mind and cosmos, philosophy and government, liberty and duty, nature and God. The Great Conversations provide the renewable energy for lifelong learning, the architect of our “Weltanschauung” - our worldview.

Some of us see the objective of our Great Conversations, our learning and education, and therefore their influence on our worldview, as narrow, vocational, specialist in their limitations. Others advocate a broad, liberal education, necessary, they say, for sound decision-making in a complex world and for the exercise of meaningful citizenship, so necessary to mollify our daily bombardments from propaganda and the resultant dangers of uneducated political power. We leave that debate to another time, except to ponder the dictum of Rousseau:

It matters little to me whether my pupil is intended for the army, the church or the law. Before his parents chose a calling for him, nature called him to be a man. … When he leaves me he will be neither a magistrate, a soldier, nor a priest; he will be a man.

Now, the proper training necessary to hone our skills to have these Great Conversations, whether narrow or broadband, requires an early beginning, actually at birth. There is a pretty solid body of evidence that, when it comes to our reading skills (the building blocks for our Great Conversations), we don’t “will” ourselves to be ignorant readers. And being an ignorant reader is not simply the result of being lazy. Our fate is decided for us, when we are very young, before we are old enough to think about the choices we might make.

Cognitive science tells us that if learning our reading fundamentals doesn’t start very early and the skills aren’t in place by age nine or ten, our brain’s bank of available neurons, so necessary for our life-long ability to read and have meaningful Great Conversations, disappear, never to be retrieved.

We talk a lot today about the deteriorated position of American school kids on the world scene. Panic grips us as a nation. Our children no longer can compete. Much of the world’s business, once done here, is being performed off shore. Canada, Finland, China, India and a host of other countries that compete with us provide a better, more meaningful education, particularly in reading and math skills. Once the world‘s education leader, we have dropped far out of the top ten. In fact out of the top twenty.

Treasure in our library: original McGuffey Reader, copyright 1879

Treasure in our library: original McGuffey Reader, copyright 1879

Harvard Professor, Marc S. Tucker, in his provocative work, Surpassing Shanghai, tells us that none of the countries we compete with approach education as the United States does. In fact we do the opposite of the winning country competitors. Tucker’s “getting a Great Education” key points include:

1. Our education system is essentially the same as it was 100 years ago, aimed at producing an 8th grade literacy, suitable for the mass production factory environment that no longer exists. Computers and machines now dominate factory mass production requirements. We need an entirely new system that teaches the “high skills” needed to compete in the global market. High-skills education can’t be reserved for our elite as high-skills education has been under the “mass production” education system. high-skills education must be universally provided for all of our kids, as it is provided by our competitors. As Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, put it, “average is officially over.”

2. Our competitors place teachers on a par in respect, training, and compensation with other professionals, and recruit teachers from the ranks of those considering other professions. Women in America at one time only had teaching as an available field; now women dominate law, medicine and a host of other professions. To provide the best for our kids, teachers must be recruited in competition with their other professional opportunities. Our competitors pay their teachers on par with beginning engineers, and insist that the teachers are well-educated in the subjects they teach. And they reward their teachers by granting them discretion of the kind customarily provided to professionals in other fields. Our competitors trust and respect their teachers.

3. Our competitors educate children not merely to pass tests (in fact testing is minimized), but rather, to apply knowledge as independent thought, capable of critical reasoning and non-routine problem-solving, and for social skills, personal habits, and those values that define their nation.

But, there is a catch, even if we could be politically capable of straightening out our ineffective education system as Tucker recommends.

Achieving the Great Education that prepares our kids for Great Conversations that positions them to knock the socks off Shanghai, India and the rest of the global competition requires the “toddler-years” preparation we allude to above. In Leaving Johnny Behind: Overcoming the Barriers to Literacy and Reclaiming the Risk Readers, Anthony Pedriana focuses on two critical problems:

1. A child’s early exposure to words.
2. A child’s early development of phonic [alphabetic] reading skills.

Pedriana writes “The toddler years represent a critical period for language acquisition.” It’s the words our youngsters hear in their early conversations with their parents, between their parents and others, and the words they gain during the time their parents read them stories, that orient them to their world and give them skills to communicate and to understand.

Pedriana cites the 2.5 year study, Meaningful Differences in Everyday Experience of Young American Children, reported in the Children of the Code, seeking an answer to the question: “What was happening in children’s early experience that could account for the wide discrepancy in rates of vocabulary growth that existed among 4-year olds?“

The study examined three separate family groups: children of professional families, children of working class families, and children of families participating in family assistance programs (low socioeconomic status – “SAS”). The study concludes that the SAS families have only 50% of the number of language interactions experienced by children in working class families, and 71% fewer language interactions than children raised in professional families.

Statistically that means that in the first four years of a child’s life, the child raised in a professional family has a 32,000,000 experiential word-advantage over a child raised in a SAS family! Stated another way, a child raised in a professional family has a 4-year exposure to 45 million words, and a child raised in a SAS family has a 4-year exposure to 13 million words! (The working class child’s exposure is to about 26 million words.)

What about the importance of the early development of phonetic reading skills? Pedriana quotes James Wendorf, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, who puts it bluntly:

Reading is the gateway skill. It leads to all sorts of success, both academically and in life. It is the skill that undergirds most of our curriculum, and if children aren’t learning that skill by the end of the third grade, they are in desperate trouble.

Let’s focus for a moment on the numbers – the sobering statistics about the essential reading skills Americans bring to the global competition in 2012. The Children of the Code provides this summary:

According to the U.S. Department of Education more than 60% of K-12 school children are reading below the level of proficiency required for the brain-work of reading to be transparent to the mind-work of learning at the grade level they are in.

Today there are more than 90 million American adults that have less than the “proficient” reading skills needed to complete a Medicare form; 26% of high school seniors lack the “basic” reading skills necessary to read a newspaper. Those of us who live in Florida will not forget the Bush/Gore Florida vote count controversy in the 2000 presidential election, won by 537 votes by Bush. More ballots had to be discarded because of literacy errors than machine errors.

Without a dramatic change in our approach to education, including our toddler-years approach, more than global competition is at stake. The under-educated power of our people is undermining our democracy, dragging down our economy and perpetuating poverty. We have a national learning disability. This challenge is growing, not diminishing, and has become particularly difficult with the explosion of single-parent families.

If we view children as the “inventory” of our education system, we experience horrible, unacceptable wastage, with 30% dropping out of high school and too many of those graduating lacking the basic skills to understand a newspaper article, make an intelligent voter decision necessary for effective citizenship, comprehend the medical instructions accompanying a prescription and in any fashion compete for the jobs that could lift them out of poverty.

Our approach to education as a nation has traditionally been a “local” approach, with states and communities having prime responsibility for funding and for education content, and therefore, for education success.

How we, locally and nationally, provide the Great Education that leads to the Great Conversations that inspires the Great Citizenship and produces the Great Skills necessary for global competition is the prime challenge of our time.

We close with a quote from Montesquieu and a question each of us must answer:

The principle of aristocracy is honor, the principle of tyranny is fear, the principle of democracy is education.

Are we up to doing whatever it takes?


After publishing this blog, I received comments from David Boulton, which follow. Of particular importance are his comments about the difference between “Sensitive Slopes” and “Critical Periods,” further clarified in the discussions on the site he provides,]Sensitive Slopes not Critical Periods.

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12 Comments on "Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition – the Great Conversations and the 32,000,000 Missing Words!"

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Dick: This piece along with David Boulton’s commentary is so important and so very true. Thanks for your willingness to share the facts and science. The more people who understand, the better. We have to start somewhere to dig out of the abysmal condition of system for education in our country. Phonics for the pre-schoolers is a great start. Too many people – at their wits end – are throwing up their hands and walking away; maybe even embracing “charter” and other private schools to replace the entire public school system. Parents have to be involved from the early years.… Read more »

Reading is probably the single most important thing that people can do that actually increases their IQ. Particularly, reading something you don’t entirely understand. It builds a foundation for the next thing you read and makes it easier to grasp.

I tried to add a comment with an embedded video and it seems to have gotten lost so I posted it on on my own site. It includes extensive video of the principal researcher behind the ‘language gap’ research you refer to as well as some important clarification about ‘disappearing neurons’.

Let’s have a great conversation about the ‘mission of education’!

Thank you for your very helpful and enlightening comments. I learned a great deal from your Children of the Code series and appreciate the work you are doing.

Dick Jacobs

Thank you Dick. I appreciate your efforts as well. I see that my first comment did survive so you might want to delete my subsequent ones… thanks again and all the best… David

Thanks Dick. Your piece creates a great framework for conversation. I think one of the most important challenges we face is to have a ‘great conversation’ about the ‘mission of education’. The most efficient path to the kinds of transformative change we need in education begins with co-crafting a new vision of it’s central purpose (see: One point in your piece needs clarification: “Cognitive science tells us that if learning our reading fundamentals doesn’t start very early and the skills aren’t in place by age nine or ten, our brain’s bank of available neurons, so necessary for our life-long… Read more »

Enjoyed your thoughts on the importance of Education! You nailed it. Ed.

Agree that this article is as good as any pointing out that reading skills are of critical importance and must be developed early in a child s life. The question is how can public education take on this task for the average child in the US who is not lead into these skills early by their parent, parents or others who are raising them. Rhetoric skills can be developed later in life, if reading skills are already in place.

That is the challenge; the program we are going to discuss on the 13th is bring phonics to the child care centers that get 75% of the kids. Is it perfect? No. Is it a start? Yes. Is it expensive? No. But it will take a few bucks and that should come from those who have a concern. Our politics are so screwed up I see no reason to involve government


This should be read by all Americans that want our great country to remain in a leadership position. With schools controled and dictated to by students and parents, and not educators and teachers we‘re destined for failure at every competitive level worldwide. your last line says all we need to know ” the principle of Democracy is Education”. Thanks Dick, for sharing this with us. ED McMullen Sr.

The best gift that I ever received from my family – the love of reading! Great insights, Dick.

Our educational system is truly frightening and here in CA it has fallen to the bottom of the state priorities. Education has come to resemble the class system of the middle ages. Only the privileged are entitled to it. The less privileged must have exceptional perseverance to achieve even the minimum education.
I’m not sure that we are “up to what it takes.” It will require a distinct change in public opinion and policy.