In a landmark 2004 study, “The Early Catastrophe,” Betty Hart and Todd Risley demonstrated that in the first four years of life, the children of high income parents are exposed to roughly 30 million more words than those in low income households. These differences cut across all racial and ethnic groups. The disparities were derived almost solely based on income. Hart and Risley entered the homes of 42 families with different socio-economic backgrounds. Their findings were remarkable. They showed extraordinary differences in the number of words spoken and the types of messages conveyed. These differences resulted in significant discrepancies not only in children’s knowledge, but in their skills and experiences. Further research has demonstrated that these discrepancies do not dissipate over time. It is strong evidence that the achievement gap we worry about is an income based gap that is best bridged by fostering more social mobility.

It is this disparity Mayor Gray’s “Sing, Talk, and Read” initiative was created to address. Last week at the Dorothy I. Height/Benning Library, Mayor Gray launched a campaign to “raise awareness of the important role that parents and caregivers play in getting their children ready to learn…It targets parents and caregivers of children from birth through 8 years of age and emphasizes the importance of weaving singing, talking, and reading into the daily activities of young children.” Economic Growth DC supports this initiative because it has an important long term impact on economic growth.

DC’s economy needs more consumers. It needs more consumers with disposable income who are capable of contributing to increased economic activity. This accelerates job growth in a virtuous cycle and produces the increased tax revenue the District needs to do the things it says it wants to do in the next ten years, like increase our stock of affordable housing. We are doing a pretty good job of importing consumers, with over 1,000 mostly high-income individuals and families moving to the District every month. The other way to help ourselves is to move residents from low-to-mid-to-high-income as often and as quickly as possible.

The real job of our education system is to churn out young people who are equipped for a job that provides them with disposable income. This and other research shows the system starts at birth. If we can get our youngest children exposed to even 10 million more words by age four, it will have a tremendous effect on student achievement starting in elementary school. More children doing well in elementary school means a higher high school graduation rate and young folks leaving school prepared for college, for a technical training program, or a higher skill job that provides higher wages and disposable income.

This type of intervention is not easy, nor cheap, and it is not a short-term fix, but it is crucial to the District’s future economic growth. Education focused non-profits and business groups should adopt and support this program as a long term investment in the District’s economy.

Link to the Mayor’s press release:

http://mayor.dc.gov/release/mayor-gray-kicks-early-literacy-campaign-and-urges-parents-sing-talk-and-read-young-children

Link to the District’s early childhood education website:

http://learndc.org/earlychildhood