Premature judgment

Despite all the advantages afforded by highly educated parents, by living in a home that values the written word, by siblings who read and cherish books, at age six my youngest son leaves kindergarten this year unable to read. What does this say about his future?

Many parents across the nation, like me and my wife, are facing that question as summer approaches. And many will hear the same line that my son's kindergarten teacher gave us. "He's always going to struggle in school."

Can teachers know that at this tender age? To some, a recent report published in Psychology Science suggests the answer is yes. Lead researcher Marc Bornstein tested 564 four-month old babies, then retested them at 18, 24, and 49 months. The results? "We find that to a small but significant degree," he writes in the abstract, "infancy... represents a setting point in the life of the individual."

The findings are sure to re-kindle the age-old debate about nature versus nurture, and could convince educators to adopt a laissez-faire approach. After all, if children's achievement is unlikely to change over time relative to their peers, does it make sense to push them beyond their "abilities"?

The possibility that schools will answer "no" worries Bornstein. The findings, he told the Wall Street Journal (subscription required),"can entice" scientists and others to conclude incorrectly that when it comes to smarts, nature rules. Sean Reardon of Stanford shares this concern, noting that the tests used in Bornstein's study can't measure intangibles such as perseverance and character-key components of success.

But, wonders Sharon Begley, who penned the WSJ story, what role do schools play in convincing children that they will never climb to the top of their class?

Far too often, the answer is a great deal. The "soft bigotry of low expectations" is alive and well. That's what I learned from spending two weeks in sixth grade classrooms recently.  Said one teacher about students from broken homes: they "can't learn." Said another about students who don't master multiplication tables by age 10: "They're cognitively incapable of learning the material."

Success is the cure for that form of bigotry. The type of success that Aspire Schools is achieving in California, and that KIPP Gaston puts on display most every day in North Carolina. The type that Dr. Ben Carson demonstrates in the operating room at Johns Hopkins, where the kid once known as "Dummy" performs neurosurgical miracles that only a handful of his peers would even consider attempting.

And the type of success that my own son will demonstrate when he learns to read, and at a high level, thanks to the help of dedicated tutors and two parents who refuse to believe that his life's prospects are set at age six.

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