We all know, on some level, that impoverished kids face long odds. But quantification has a way of casting a problem like this in stark relief.
In 1995, academics Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published research that settled on an alarming number: kids in welfare families hear about 32 million fewer words by age four than their peers in middle- and upper-income families.
The impacts on vocabulary and language development — and the implications for children's life prospects — are staggering.
Enter Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, whose office is floating an intriguing remedy: using high-tech recording instruments to identify and fix vocabulary deficits in real time.
The idea is still in development. But it is promising enough that Bloomberg Philanthropies recently named Providence's proposal one of 20 finalists in its Mayors Challenge competition, which encourages cities to develop innovative — and replicable — approaches to big problems.
The finalists, which also include Boston, San Francisco, and Indianapolis, attended a Bloomberg Ideas Camp in New York City November 12-13 to refine their proposals and hear from speakers like Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire behind the foundation.
Next spring Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce one $5 million grand prize winner and dole out $1 million grants to four additional cities.
Providence has benefited from Bloomberg's largesse before; the city just won a $25,000 grant from the foundation last month for Leyendo, a project that will use Spanish-speaking tutors to help students struggling to learn English.
But the Mayors Challenge, which drew submissions from 305 cities in 45 states, offered a much larger prize. Taveras's office cast about for ideas on Twitter and Facebook. But ultimately, it settled on a proposal developed in the mayor's office and in line with his passion.
"At the end of the day," says Toby Shepherd, the mayor's deputy director of policy, "the mayor's priority really is education."
The project would identify potential participants through a database developed by the state's Department of Health, which screens newborns for risk factors. Families that decide to partake would receive small LENA (short for "language environment analysis") recorders to be tucked into children's clothing.
The devices, developed by Boulder, Colorado firm Infoture and turned over to the non-profit LENA Research Foundation, allow for detailed tracking of kids' auditory environments.
They are not eavesdropping devices, exactly; City Hall won't be listening in on family conversations. But the recorders can track the number of words spoken by adults, the number of conversation turns between children and adults — providing a sense for whether children are engaged in frequent discussion with their parents — and the minutes of exposure to television.
The data is compared against a research sample of 329 families. Participants are then assigned a percentile for each measure — i.e., a child is in the 70th percentile when it comes to exposure to words spoken by adults.
It is not a perfect device; there are plenty of reticent kids who grow up to be quite accomplished. Critics say it can get parents worked up about problems that won't, in the end, be problems.
But Shepherd says the city is excited by the technology's potential. "It's been piloted in academic studies and in hospitals," he says, "but never been tried on this kind of scale before." Still, he says, if the city has identified the tool it would use — the LENA device — it's still figuring out the tool kit: that is, what sorts of intervention services it would provide and which organizations it would partner with to deliver those services.
These, of course, are among the most vital questions policymakers have to confront. But they've already shown some imagination.