Valentino’s data suggest that the main factor driving the difference are teachers’ beliefs about how children learn and should be taught. In her study, poor children and children of color were more likely than their more-affluent, white peers to have teachers who believed in an adult-centered, top-down approach to child-rearing. The study didn’t look at whether this direct instruction was problematic or beneficial, but separate research on the question is mixed. On the one hand, many studies have found that children from all backgrounds benefit from guided play and rich conversation, especially when it comes to outcomes like vocabulary and problem-solving. On the other hand, some find that low-income children do better in discrete math and reading skills when they have either individualized or whole-group direct instruction in preschool. It’s worth noting, however, that the latter studies have only looked at a narrow set of achievements, mostly test scores.
“We tend to use such discrete measures of success,” Valentino told me. “Direct instruction is a really good way to improve test scores and technical skills in the short term, but it’s not at all clear that is the right thing in the long term. There could be other negative consequences.”
One of the downsides to the basics-only approach is that it is focused on children’s deficits—on making up for what children lack rather than building on what they have and opening up new areas for exploration. In a report called “Being Black Is Not a Risk Factor: A Strengths-Based Look at the State of the Black Child,” the psychology scholar Wade Boykin describes this approach as “the stance of benevolent pathology.” Despite best intentions, he argues, education reformers often view poor and minority children as the victims of life experiences that threaten their ability to learn and succeed in school, a frame that cries out for remediation. For achievement gaps to be genuinely and permanently narrowed, he concludes, educators ought to build on the assets and valuable life experiences of low-income children and students of color, recognizing that those assets sometimes look different than those enjoyed by white, middle class families. Focusing on children’s strengths includes engaging them in topics and activities that interest them and actually connect to their lives, unlike a random list of words. When children are engaged, they learn material more deeply, apply it to their lives, and seek out more knowledge. Those skills make them more successful not just on tests, but in real life.
When I asked the early-childhood literacy expert Judy Schickedanz about the argument for basic-skills-only instruction, she framed it as one that focuses on achievement gaps—the disparities in how children from different backgrounds perform academically—rather than opportunity gaps—the disparities in access to quality schools and resources. “If we say, ‘well, direct instruction is better than they would be getting elsewhere,’ then we’re not talking about real opportunity.” In today’s knowledge economy, giving children the opportunity to enter (or stay in) the middle class means ensuring that they have abilities like curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking.