LENA video 1

Russell Winn follows up on his article about the Huntsville School District signing a contract for a program to track conversations between parents and children in their homes.  He provides (via youtube) a previous Board meeting with LENA presentation and a recording of the conversation between the Board and representatives from Lena Research Foundation as they briefly discuss the recordings  between families.

Watch the video presentation (screenshot above from the presentation) which shows the representative’s claim that actual words are not counted, ‘just the sound’ (12:00 mark).  As Winn points out, this is a contradiction to what is posted on LENA’s website.  Winn writes:

What We Currently Know About the LENA Program of Recording Children

  • The board is planning to, as Dr. Cooper stated during her introduction of Mr. Davison, “reach down and start touching students when they are infants and toddlers” to help close the word gap beginning in May 2015. 
  • Recruitment for this program will start immediately in March and April with their community partners. They will recruit children from “birth to thirty months.
  • The first round of classes will begin in May. This will be an 8-week session, and then the district will follow up with a monthly meeting for 10 months to make sure “that parents are still on track.”
  • The community partners include: Huntsville Hospital, “the other hospital” (presumably Crestwood Medical Center), United Way and “various groups.”
  • The meetings will be held at Ridgecrest Elementary School and Second Mile Development. 
  • The community partners will provide incentives for attending and allowing the children to be recorded. According to Dr. Wardynski, “when mom and dad come, they can leave with a box of diapers, and baby formula, stuff like that.”
  • Presumably the community partners will identify low-income parents to participate in the program. These parents will be recruited to participate in a curriculum called “Smarter Happier Baby” (SHB). Mr. Davison claims, “it’s not, a lot of times we’ve found that it’s not that the parents don’t want to, they don’t know how to” talk to their children.
  • Every “stakeholder” will have access to the data that is compiled by the program. As an example, Mr. Davison claimed that if it were 1:00am, and he wanted to check up on how “our students” (children birth to 30 months are students now) are doing, he can pull up that data on his smartphone wherever he is. Thus, the “stakeholders” who can access the data they are compiling include:
    • Huntsville City Schools employees,
    • LENA Foundation employees, partners, “coordinators/educators, administrative staff, and other users of the service,”
    • Presumably the community partners (Huntsville Hospital must have some reason to participate as a stakeholder who recruit and give diapers to parents),
    • and perhaps parents, although they will be receiving a “hard copy” of a report.


There is no data to back up the company’s claim of success.  Winn offers these observations about the Board’s reaction to this presentation:

Thinking Critically About LENA

As our board has demonstrated, repeatedly, that they are incapable of critical thinking, here are some points any parent considering this program should keep in mind.

  1. The recorder will likely record statements like, “You look like your daddy,” or other “not pleasant” conversations despite Ms. McCaulley’s and Mr. Davison’s assurances that it will only record, “wah, wah, wah” like Charlie Brown’s teacher.  (MEW note: below is the video of Charlie Brown’s teacher. Do you really believe LENA is tracking such sounds?) LENA’s website makes this clear. They will be recording children.
  2. The district will target low-income families and entice them to record their conversations with “diapers, formula” and a likely guaranteed spot in the Pre-K program after the child turns 3 or 4.
  3. The district believes that parents (at least poor parents) don’t know how to talk to their children.
  4. The district believes that sending a text message to parents reminding them to talk to their children and bribing parents to attend a weekly and then monthly meeting will fix this problem.
  5. The district believes that it is completely acceptable to turn infants into data points that are available for review by any “stakeholder” at any time day or night via a smartphone.
  6. The board members are more interested in laughing at Dr. Wardynski’s attempts at humor than they are actually doing research to see if the things he is recommending actually have any basis in reality

If the Huntsville City School Board (or any school board pondering such a program for children) would like to research  the 30 million word gap referenced by LENA officials, it should read the 1995 study The Early Catastrophe by Hart & Risley.  From The Atlantic (2010) writing about the study (although this article refers to the word gap as 32 million):

In the mid-1980s, Kansas psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley realized that something was very wrong with Head Start, America’s program for children of the working poor. It manages to keep some low-income kids out of poverty and ultimately away from crime. But for a program that intervenes at a very young age and is reasonably well run and generously funded — $7 billion annually — it doesn’t do much to raise kids’ academic success. Studies show only “small to moderate” positive impacts on three- and four- year- old children in the areas of literacy and vocabulary, and no impact at all on math skills.
The problem, Hart and Risley realized, wasn’t so much with the mechanics of the program; it was the timing. Head Start wasn’t getting hold of kids early enough. Somehow, poor kids were getting stuck in an intellectual rut long before they got to the  program — before they turned three and four years old. Hart and Risley set out to learn why and how. They wanted to know what was tripping up kids’ development at such an early age. Were they stuck with inferior genes, lousy environments, or something else?
They devised a novel (and exhaustive) methodology: for more than three years, they sampled the actual number of words spoken to young children from forty- two families at three different socioeconomic levels: (1) welfare homes, (2) working-class homes, and (3) professionals’ homes. Then they tallied them up.
The differences were astounding. Children in professionals’ homes were exposed to an average of more than fifteen hundred more spoken words per hour than children in welfare homes. Over one year, that amounted to a difference of nearly 8 million words, which, by age four, amounted to a total gap of 32 million words. They also found a substantial gap in tone and in the complexity of words being used. As they crunched the numbers, they discovered a direct correlation between the intensity of these early verbal experiences and later achievement. “We were astonished at the differences the data revealed,” Hart and Risley wrote in their book Meaningful Differences. “The most impressive aspects [are] how different individual families and children are and how much and how important is children’s cumulative experience before age 3.”
But there are some who take issue with the 1995 study and its methodology.  Excerpts from PL Thomas writing in  “What These Children Are Like”: Rejecting Deficit Views of Poverty and Language:
Hart and Risley make causational claims based on a very limited sample, and those claims are widely embraced because they speak to the dominant culture’s assumptions about race and class, but not because the study’s data or claims are valid.

The discourse of “scientifically based research,” which equates the scientific method with technique, has led to a body of research that is resistant to meaningful (theoretical) critique. Hart and Risley’s conclusions about the language practices of families living in poverty, for example, are emblematic of a discourse of language deprivation that “seems impervious to counter evidence, stubbornly aligning itself with powerful negative stereotypes of poor and working-class families. It remains the dominant discourse in many arenas, both academic and popular, making it very difficult to see working-class language for what it is . . . or to be heard to be offering a different perspective.” (Miller, Cho, & Bracey, 2005b, p. 153)…

[T]hey are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)

The accusatory blame, then, focusing on impoverished parents is a powerful and detrimental consequence of deficit views of poverty and language….

Despite many well-meaning educators embracing this deficit view as well as Hart and Risley’s flawed study, seeking to help students from impoverished backgrounds acquire the cultural capital associated with the dominant grammar, usage, and vocabulary is actually inhibited by that deficit view:

Finally, Hart and Risley draw attention to a real problem that teachers encounter every day in their classrooms: children enter school with more or less of the linguistic, social, and cultural capital required for school success. However, we take exception to the characterization of this situation in terms of linguistic or cultural deficiencies. Through the lens of deficit thinking, linguistic differences among poor parents and children are transformed into deficiencies that are the cause of high levels of academic failure among poor children. In this formulation, the ultimate responsibility for this failure lies with parents who pass on to their children inadequate language and flawed culture. But, in our view, the language differences Hart and Risley reported are just that—differences. All children come to school with extraordinary linguistic, cultural, and intellectual resources, just not the same resources. (p. 369)

A larger point we must confront as well is that all efforts to describe and address any social class as monolithic is flawed: Neither all affluent nor all impoverished children are easily described by what they have and don’t have. In fact, social classifications and claims about a culture of poverty are equally problematic as deficit views of poverty and language [5].


School board members have a duty to perform due diligence implementing a program that tracks families’ personal conversations, not only from a privacy concern, but also for its claims that by poor students having a larger vocabulary, they will have a better chance at life success. Watch the video here as a mom states this belief.  The program is predicated on LENA’s presentation that a lot of times we’ve found that it’s not that the parents don’t want to, they don’t know how to” talk to their children.   Are there parents who truly don’t know how to talk to their children?  If the district is going to enact this program for low-income families, the presupposition is that families who don’t make much money don’t possess enough parenting skills to know how to talk to their children.

If the parents fail at the assignment to accelerate language development and the child doesn’t come to preschool at age 3 with the desired amount of vocabulary words, is that child labeled a failure at a young age in his/her data set?  Who is deciding what vocabulary classification is appropriate for all children and all  cultures?

The Huntsville School District wants to spend $94,000:

  • to use poor children as guinea pigs for a program that is based on promises that may not be true
  • the permission to track personal conversations with incentives of diapers, formula and perhaps a guaranteed pre-school slot
  • and as Winn writes, The board members are more interested in laughing at Dr. Wardynski’s attempts at humor than they are actually doing research to see if the things he is recommending actually have any basis in reality

But who doesn’t want a smarter, happier baby?  That emotional tug is reminiscent of the plaintive cry of Common Core proponents arguing for the standards...but we need them.  According to NGOs such as Achieve, students aren’t performing well, we just can’t have ‘local’ (national) competition (it’s all global now), and students must be career and college ready according to the NGO specifications.  We’re not given the research/data that they are really needed or will make kids successful, but hey, what’s not to love? Don’t you want successful babies who will emerge as viable human capital?





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