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

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.

Dr. Fuller compares the “rate of cognitive growth” of white and Mexican children between the ages of 9 and 24 months, but in his research, this growth is only measured using a single measurement, the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development. This test is designed to identify developmental delays in young children, but outside researchers at Columbia University Teachers College have raised questions about its reliability and validity, and in particular, they have shown potential biases on the basis of language, culture, and socioeconomic status. That is, the test may identify students as developmentally delayed when in fact they are developing normatively, but give “wrong answers” because they are bilingual, unfamiliar with the objects referred to in test questions, or unused to the sort of questions asked in the test. To label all of these hypothetical children as “falling behind” their middle-class white peers demonstrates an assumption that linguistic and cultural diversity is equivalent to developmental delay.

Even if the Bayley assessment were valid for the population of children that Dr. Fuller is researching, using it as the only measure of cognitive growth shows a highly limited vision of what counts as cognition. Other research has shown that Latino children develop more quickly on measures of social and emotional development, but I know of no researcher who has claimed that Anglo children are “delayed” on this scale. To claim that Mexican “parenting practices are not up to snuff,” as Dr. Fuller does, narrowly defines the goal of parenting as producing children who answer teachers’ questions quickly and accurately. In fact, according to over forty years of research in anthropology and sociolinguistics, the range of child-raising practices in diverse cultures leads to young children having a startling range of strengths, ranging from large English vocabularies to bilingual language proficiency to emotional intelligence to engaging storytelling skills. Perhaps “the U.S. context and the school context” are the ones that are “not up to snuff” if they cannot recognize children’s diverse capabilities.

Finally, even if we accept that pre-literacy and school readiness are important for all children, and assume that the Bayley Scales measure these skills in a valid and reliable way, Dr. Fuller’s research only tracks children’s development up to 24 months. He claims in the All Things Considered piece that Mexican parents show “a weakness of parenting … in the school context,” but the piece reports on a study that only looked at children of preschool age. Despite the implication that these children would do worse in school, to actually make such a claim would be unsupported by the data.

By letting these claims and implications go unchallenged, NPR is contributing to a view of education in which poor and minority children are considered to be deficient in comparison to their middle-class white peers. If the media is going to report on this sort of research, it should be clarified that many experts would question whether Dr. Fuller’s findings mean what he says they mean.

Thank you for considering these issues. If you wish to discuss them further, please feel free to contact me.

All best,

Daniel Ginsberg
Doctoral Candidate, Linguistics
Georgetown University

Posted in Uncategorized
9 comments on “About the NPR News piece “Mexican-American Toddlers: Understanding The Achievement Gap”
  1. […] on NPR. Linguist Daniel Ginsberg (Georgetown University, #Lingchat participant) published a response to the article in a letter to the NPR ombudsman. This chat will focus on the issues raised in these […]

  2. Elizabeth D. Peña says:

    Reblogged this on 2 Languages 2 Worlds and commented:
    Something to think about– I haven’t read the paper, but I will and will also comment. The points raised here are important with respect to assessment of children from different cultures (whose culture is likely not represented on the test) and for bilinguals (who are likely also bicultural).

  3. There is an interesting discussion in the NPR’s Latino USA Early Childhood Community Facebook page. I truly appreciate your letter to the ombudsman.

  4. Reblogged this on Open Doors Literacy and commented:
    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?

  5. Extremely thoughtful response. I certainly would like to read/hear the NPR report. What I can say that I agree with is the idea that we MUST use multiple measures to assess children. You have made very powerful and poignant points. Thank you!

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