Speak Friend

Language understanding is a critical aspect of modern society.  The ability to speak and write critically has become increasingly important as the economy shifts  from manual skill jobs to the service sectors.  However, it is well-documented that low-income communities demonstrate disproportionately low language abilities even at the beginning of their school careers.  Many programs exist to help students combat the gaps that occur in learning as a result of summer vacations, but fewer exist to help eliminate the gap in ability that exists when students enter school.  Rhode Island recently began a novel new program to encourage parents to speak to their very young children that may help close this gap.

Part of the reason for the existence of the gap is the fact that students from higher income families tend to hear far more, and a far greater diversity, of words than children from lower income families for a given age level.   The researchers who discovered this gap speculate that it results from the fact that high income parents tend to be more educated themselves and, as a result, their children are exposed to a greater diversity of words simply by being present when the parents speak.  In an attempt to close this gap, the new program Providence Talks aims to encourage lower income families to speak more, and differently, to their children in order to expose them to the same diversity of words.

The program has not been without controversy, mainly focused on the privacy issues involved with recording everything a family says, but it signals two important steps in the development of educational programs.  The first is the deliberate targeting of what happens outside of school as a means of improving education performance.  The recognition that extracurricular activities and influences affect student performance is not new.  However, many programs have “writ[ten] off parents as unwilling or unable to help” in low income communities.  Perhaps this is an accurate assumption in some cases.  But as initial feedback from the Providence Talks program shows, certainly not in all cases.

Parental involvement is critical in educational achievement but there are many reason why parents may not be involved.  Some are insidious and difficult to solve.  Others are as simple as the fact that parents don’t know how to help.  In the latter case programs that are designed to give parents the tools and information to actively help their children can be a powerful tool to improve student performance.  Thus, writing off all parents as unwilling or unable to help unnecessarily hamstrings programs and harms students.  The story is more nuanced and when programs are designed with that recognition in mind, such that they can help parents rather than disregard them, everyone is better off.

The second step this program takes is the use of Big Data to help improve education outcomes.  While Big Data has become a buzzword lately, the examples of its use to actually improve programs or outcomes are somewhat limited.  A program that monitors and analyzes everything a family says is a perfect example of a program that simply would not be possible without Big Data.  The recording devices used are not only capable of distinguishing between what parents and kids say but also of separating – and not recording – what is said on a TV or radio in the background.  The recordings are then analyzed to count unique words, conversation turns (when a parent speaking switches to a child or vice versa) and language sophistication all without human input.  This analysis is used to help give the parents feedback about how the changes in the way they speak are helping. That does two things.  First, it helps alleviate concerns that the families are being spied on; no human ever sees the transcript or hears the recording before it is deleted.  Second, it expands the scope and feasibility of the program. A computer can do this type of analysis much faster than any human and so many more families can participate.

The actual utilization of Big Data in practice is a very useful demonstration of its power.  It is one thing to talk about the importance of data but here is a program that has harnessed its power to improve programmatic and education outcomes.  It should serve as an example for others of how to turn the high language of funding proposals and board meetings into actual benefits for constituents.

The American notion of equality is often premised on the idea that everyone starts from an equal footing.  Too often in the case of low income kids in our education system that is not the case.  Programs like Providence Talks are a step towards closing this gap.  Using new techniques and information made available by the Big Data revolution it gives parents the chance to be involved in their kid’s education.  Doing so shows how new tools can help to overcome old challenges and give parents the chance to prove they do care and can help to give their kids the best shot at life.

Image Credit: The U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons


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