The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, record players won’t solve inequality

And other things Joe Biden gets wrong about the education gap

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at the Democratic debate Thursday. (David J. Phillip/AP)
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Responding to a question about the legacies of slavery during the Democratic debate Thursday, former vice president Joe Biden left many scratching their heads when he urged parents from poor backgrounds to “make sure you have the record player on at night” to ensure their children hear an adequate number of words. While much of the criticism of the remark has centered on Biden’s old-fashioned choice of technology, far more important is that his sentiment reflected an equally out-of-date view on what plagues poor children.

Biden was voicing a deeply flawed theory that arose during the 1960s and that blamed parents, especially mothers, for the struggles of poor children and children of color. These parents, the theory argued, doomed their children to fail in classrooms by not offering them enough mental stimulation, such as books, colors on the wall or educational experiences.

As a result, policymakers crafted solutions to change these behaviors rather than targeting poverty itself. While such theories began to fall out of favor in the 1970s, and have since been thoroughly debunked by research, this flawed understanding among policymakers and the public at large has never truly been displaced. As a result, policymakers like Biden often advocate what they perceive poor families to lack, such as positive role models, a respect for the values of education or even a better work ethic, rather than what poor families truly need: food security, jobs, access to health care and affordable housing.

In the 1960s, well-intentioned anti-racist policymakers developed theories about why poor children and children of color were falling behind. Rather than faulting failing schools or social inequities that left children hungry, policymakers suggested that parents, particularly mothers, were the ones at fault. Poor children were not ready to read, common wisdom suggested, because they were “culturally deprived,” meaning they were not adequately exposed to necessary cultural stimulation at home. There were simply not enough books in the house, not enough colors on the walls; poor mothers did not transform a trip to the grocery store into an enriching cultural experience like their middle-class counterparts.

These theories of cultural deprivation essentially faulted poor people for their failings, suggesting that a child growing without the trappings of a middle-class environment was doomed to fall behind. This idea that low-income and minority homes were fundamentally different from and inferior to middle-class homes was broadly accepted and formed the basis of many policy interventions designed not to ameliorate poverty but to “fix” poor people’s behaviors. Painting the ideal home for perceived educational success as a traditional white, middle-class, two-parent family resonated broadly with an American public concerned about rapid societal shifts.

But by the mid-1970s, cultural-deprivation theories began to fall out of favor among scholars and child development experts who researched these issues. From studying culture and development, researchers understood that there wasn’t one mythical culture that would best support child development. They began recognizing that racial and ethnic minorities had their own rich cultures and appreciating the linguistic richness of vernacular English. But this new research never really gained currency with the broader public or politicians.

Then, in 1995, the deficit-based approach received a critical boost. In a well-publicized study, two researchers counted the number of words spoken by parents to their children and extrapolated to suggest that by age four, children reared in middle- or upper-class households had been exposed to 30 million more words than their less-advantaged peers. This 30 million “word gap,” they suggested, was crucial in understanding why poor children were inadequately prepared to succeed in primary school.

This study, which has never been successfully replicated, was deeply flawed. It involved only 42 families, and the gap itself was calculated by comparing six African American children with 13 more advantaged children, only one of whom was not white. Furthermore, the methods in which words were counted and defined were excessively strict, leading many researchers to conclude that there was a gross undercounting of words spoken in disadvantaged homes.

Nonetheless, because it was easily quantified and understandable and fit with traditional thinking, the word gap had broad appeal. A bevy of well-intentioned programs sprung up designed to mitigate the effects of poverty on children by directly tackling the word gap through interventions like providing free books for parents to read out loud. These laudable interventions, however, simply served to reinforce a skewed, deficit-based perception of poor families rather than attempting to expand on their strengths and resilience. Moreover, none of these interventions addressed enduring segregation and uneven distribution of resources in schools.

The word-gap idea has proved durable even as multiple criticisms of the research have emerged over the past two decades. A major study last year, designed to test the theory and replicate the original findings, not only failed to find a gap but also found that in many poor families, children are in fact exposed to a rich verbal environment, sometimes even more so than in better-off families.

Knowing this history provides crucial context for Biden’s record player comment. While his dated choice of technology made many chuckle or cringe, Biden’s prescription for poor children reflected a long tradition of highlighting deficits, verbal and otherwise, in poor and minority families while ignoring the true causes of poverty and inequality.

Preschool children today are still enrolled in studies in which they wear a vest and a recording device counts words uttered in their earshot. While Biden’s perplexing reference to record players can be understood within this context, his prescription was ill-informed. Relying on outdated ideas like the word gap will simply lead to remedies that perpetuate racial inequalities and don’t actually address the real problem: the toxic effects of poverty driven by structural racism. For Biden or other Democrats to be advocates of a quality education system for all American children, they must instead embrace the best understandings of experts in education and child development and reject outdated perceptions that emphasize what poor families might lack. Even well-intentioned purported allies can do great damage otherwise.

The mention of the word gap in response to a question about centuries of American racism also revealed a broader problem: While Biden mentioned redlining and other racist practices at the beginning of his answer, he ended with the word gap, itself a paternalistic, racist idea. To actually address America’s troubled racial legacy politicians must reject theories that blame African Americans rather than a system that has and continues to systemically disenfranchise and disadvantage minorities. By continuing to focus on a purportedly broken culture, politicians like Biden are destined to perpetuate the racism and racial inequality they aim to solve.