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Thursday, May 29, 2008
SO SHOULD THE LOUISIANAÂ LEGISLATUREÂ
Robert Redford posed the question at the end of the movie, The Candidate, which should have been asked by the newly elected Louisiana Legislature: “What do we do now?”Â The new guys and gals in town started off with a bang declaring a homerun after a successful special session on ethics reform.Â It was more like a double, but the public perception was that they were on the right track.Â But now the question is being asked, where do they go from here?Â More specifically, are they resting on their laurels?Â
With just a little over three weeks to go until the current legislative session comes to an end, the focus so far seems to be on Sazerac cocktails, significantly higher automobile insurance rates, droopy pants, lap dancing, a misguided effort to allow scatterbrained (literally) motorcycle riders to go helmetless, and an unrealistic effort to immediately wipe out the income tax at a cost of over $4 billion.Â
By any objective measure, most of these proposals should go by the wayside, and the focus should be on educating our kids, particularly at a very young age.Â Yet the legislature, in its wisdom this week, stripped from the Governor’s budget some $14 million on new programs for improving reading skills of pre-kindergarteners.Â To no avail, the state superintendent of education pointed out that Louisiana ranks 50th in the U.S. by the National Assessment of Education Progress, which measures key early learning skills.Â Â
A significant number of kids in LouisianaÂ need “catch-up help” from the day they enter kindergarten. Louisiana has one of the highest percentages of poor families found anywhere in the country.Â And there is a great disparity in the ability to read, and even to communicate, involving children from different economic levels.Â
A few months ago, I had as a guest on my radio show Professor Todd Risley, who published a study entitled “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.”Â He explained that there is a great difference in both the number of words and the prohibitive or affirmative tone of words heard by young children, depending and whether their parents are on welfare, in the working class or professionals.Â
Simply put, Professor Risley determined that a child’s verbal development is not so much about IQ or social economic status.Â It’s more about how a kid is talked to and how positive the tone may be.Â This is interesting stuff here.Â Risley’s study found that by age 3, children of welfare parents heard 10 million words, where those with working-class parents heard 20 million words.Â If the parent was a professional, the child heard 30 million words.Â In addition, he found that with children 13-18 months old in welfare families, almost 80% of the feedback to the child was negative.Â That’s right, 80%.Â In working-class families the percentage dropped to 50%.Â And when he studied professional families, more than 80% of feedback to the child was affirmative.Â
Here’s what all this means.Â In a state that is as poor and under educated as Louisiana, it’s notÂ just important, but imperative that a pre-kindergarten program be mandatory in every single school in the state. Waiting to teach a child to read until the first grade is obviously a big mistake.Â Kids who do not learn to read in the early grades almost never recover academically, and fall further and further behind with each passing grade.Â Reaching the middle school years, they literally cannot read their textbooks and often become academically frustrated and disruptive.Â Hopelessly behind, these kids begin dropping out of school in large numbers by the eighth grade.Â
There are two messages here.Â First, Louisiana parents, grandparents, babysitters, uncles and aunts all need to talk and read to children from birth on, using big words, and giving lots of positive reinforcement.Â This can be done for free.
The second message is that the legislature needs to put many extraneous matters aside, and make a top priority early learning development.Â You can talk all you want about economic development.Â But the best economic stimulus package is an early foundation for learning.Â Governor Buddy Roemer said it well in the campaign of 1987.Â The oil and gas of Louisiana’s futureÂ is in the minds of our six year olds.Â
Cutting $14 million from Governor Jindal’s budget on a new reading program for improving reading skills of preschoolers was a mistake.Â Hopefully, reasonable minds will realize that a correction is necessary, and see that these funds are restored.Â
Indiana Jones came back to the big screen this week.Â In Indy’s last movie, he was in pursuit of the Holy Grail.Â The ancient crusader guarding the Grail revealed that one could gain it only by drinking from the correct cup. You may remember that the bad guy drank from the most ornate cup and suffered a horrible death.Â Quote the crusader, “He chose poorly.”Â Indiana Jones picked the simplest cup.Â The knight nodded with approval, “He chose, wisely!”Â
When it came to helping close the gap of those less educated at an early age, the Louisiana House of Representatives last week chose poorly.Â They have just a few weeks left to make proper amends and choose more wisely.Â
“I learnt most not from those who taught me, but from those who talked with me.”
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown’s column appears weekly, and is published in a number of newspapers and websites throughout Louisiana.Â You can read past columns by going to Jim’s website at www.jimbrownla.com.Â Jim’s regular radio show on WRNO, 995 fm out of New OrleansÂ can be heard each Sunday from 11:00 am till 1:00 pm.