Linking rising inequality to declining vocabulary..

What an amazing article by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. He is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia.

He refers to several books/papers/media comments over rising inequality in US:

A number of notable recent books, including Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence, lay out in disheartening detail the growing inequality of income and opportunity in the United States, along with the decline of the middle class. The aristocracy of family so deplored by Jefferson seems upon us; the counter-aristocracy of merit that long defined America as the land of opportunity has receded.

These writers emphasize global, technological, and sociopolitical trends in their analyses.

He says there is another reason for decline in inequality – low vocabulary amidst students. Low vocab leads to poor SAT scores which then lead to problems in college admission.

But we should factor in another cause of receding economic equality: the decline of educational opportunity. There’s a well-established correlation between a college degree and economic benefit. And for guidance on what helps students finish college and earn more income, we should consider the SAT, whose power to predict graduation rates is well documented. The way to score well on the SAT—at least on the verbal SAT—is to have a large vocabulary. As the eminent psychologist John Carroll once observed, the verbal SAT is essentially a vocabulary test.

So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

He points how vocab standards in US dipped over the last decades:

Early in the twentieth century, a well-meant but inadequate conception of education became dominant in the United States. It included optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience. In the 1920s and 1930s, these ideas began spreading to teacher-training institutions. It took two or three decades for the new teachers and administrators to take over from the old and for the new ideas to revolutionize schoolbooks and classroom practices. The first students to undergo this new schooling therefore began kindergarten in the 1950s and arrived in 12th grade in the 1960s.

Their test scores showed the impact of the new ideas. From 1945 to 1967, 12th-graders’ verbal scores on the SAT and other tests had risen. But then those scores plummeted. Cornell economist John Bishop wrote in the 1980s of “the historically unprecedented nature of the test score decline that began around 1967. Prior to that year test scores had been rising steadily for 50 years.” The scores reached their nadir around 1980 and have remained low ever since.

Some scholars thought that the precipitous fall of verbal SAT scores simply reflected the admirable increase in the percentage of low-income students taking the SAT. But Bishop observed that the same downhill pattern had occurred in verbal scores on the Iowa Test of Educational Development—a test given to all Iowa high school students, who were 98 percent white and mostly middle-class in attitude. He argued that the declining effectiveness of American schools was a leading indicator for the shrinking income of the American middle class. The evidence today suggests that he was right. The decline in the educational productivity of our schools tracks our decline in income equality. For 30 years after 1945, Stiglitz observes, economic equality advanced in the United States; after about 1975, it declined.

 This then links with other experts idea that one of the core reason for rising inequality in US is lack of education.

Strong correlation between vocab and life:

Such correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.

Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.” Telephone numbers and Social Security numbers are good examples. The number (212) 374-5278, written in three chunks, is a lot easier to cope with than 2123745278.

Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems. Extend this example to whole spheres of knowledge and experience, and you’ll realize that a large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one’s general cognitive ability.

He points to similar experiences in France which once topped PISA exams and now is nowhere in the list. There are also suggestions to improve vocab which is by linking words through various sentences and context.

He ends with saying this single idea of building vocab can again lead to US towards a more equitable path:

It isn’t overstating the case to say that the most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class is to focus on the question: Is this policy likely to expand the vocabularies of 12th-graders? The physicist Max Planck once said that professors never change their minds. But teachers and principals can, when shown a better way. Educators and policymakers should inform themselves about the critical importance of factual knowledge and about the need for a specific and coherent yearly curriculum to impart that knowledge and language effectively. That won’t just improve students’ vocabularies; it will help restore the Jeffersonian ideal of equality of opportunity.

 Really interesting. Connects many ideas and thoughts..

Wondering about India here..how are we placed? Mint points to findings from recent ASER report. Doesn’t look good at all.

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