Today we have the honor of sitting with The Basics Founder, Ronald Ferguson, PhD. He’s an economist whose focus on education and youth development has had a tremendous impact on the way institutions, communities and families interact with children. Ron’s made a career of intentional change through his work as an author, Director of The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, Co-Founder of Tripod Education Partners, and over 30 years of teaching at the Harvard Kennedy School, and now, The Basics.
In our interview, Ron details the scientific research, as well as his own familial experiences, that fuel his passion for spreading the five simple yet powerful Basics of early childhood caregiving.
The Basics Founder, Ronald Ferguson, talking to a local Father. Photo Credit: The Basics Videos
Ron, you told me that thirty years ago you noticed a relationship between academic and growing wage disparities, which is what got you started working on education. Which specific academic skill disparities did you notice?
Initially, it was reading and math scores. In 1979, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) administered the Armed Forces Qualifications Test (AFQT) to over twelve-thousand 14-to-21 year-olds.
The NLSY interviewed the same young people every year, so ten years later, at the end of the 1980s, we looked to see how their skills measured at the end of the 1970s (when the test-takers were teenagers) predicted their earnings and employment status when they were young adults. As it turned out, the scores from 1979 predicted most of the black-white and Latinx-white hourly earnings gaps in 1989 and ‘90. It was stark evidence that reading and math skills really mattered.
Over the decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s, we had gone through a period when the importance of reading and math skills in the labor market increased. It was actually a period when the black-white and Latinx-white achievement gaps appeared to be narrowing, but they were closing more slowly than the market value of skills was rising. For example, if a ten-point difference in AFQT scores between two 25-year-olds in the mid-1970s predicted a one dollar per hour difference in their wages, an increase in the market value of skills that the AFQT measured might cause that same ten-point difference in scores to predict twice as large a difference in wages.
The racial gap in academic skills seemed to be narrowing, but technology and other factors were making academic skills more valuable to employers, increasing economic inequality.
That’s when I and a lot of other economists started working on education.
That's interesting! I know you developed the Tripod Project in 2001 (which later became Tripod Education Partners) to reduce the academic opportunity gap in elementary and secondary schools. I'm curious what prompted the shift to early childhood through The Basics in recent years?
I didn’t switch. My work still focuses on cradle to career. I added the preschool and early childhood period, because I saw in nationally representative data that the cognitive skill gap was evident by the age of one, and pretty stark by the age of two, less than half the way to kindergarten!
So, the gaps that we care about, the disparities that predict later life outcomes, were already fairly well developed by the time children hit kindergarten. We really needed to back up and start focusing on families prenatally.
Can you say more about these cognitive skill gaps?
By cognitive skill, we're talking about a child’s mental agility. The ability to respond well to intellectual stimuli.
And for little kids, it’s really a lot about the quantity and quality of adult-child interactions. For example, a scholar named Ann Fernald, with some of her colleagues, studies how rapidly children two-years-old and younger associate words with objects.
In one study, children from more advantaged backgrounds were already six months ahead in language processing speed, compared to economically disadvantaged peers, by the time they were two-years-old.
There’s a fair amount of research that gives us a way to interpret those findings, showing that children from more advantaged backgrounds tend to experience more verbal language -- their parents tend to talk to them more. So, they've had more practice at hearing and responding.
There's also a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University from the last two years looking at four- to six-year-olds. Scientists were interested in whether they could use MRI, brain scan technology, to detect how home language environments affected the brain.
They had three dozen kids wear devices at home to measure the number of words they heard and spoke.
In addition to the sheer number of words, the scientists tracked the amount of back-and-forth conversational turn-taking. Children who were engaged at home in more conversational turn taking showed a distinct pattern in their brain scans: a part of the brain associated with language “lit up” more on the MRI screen when a researcher in the lab read the child a story.
So, it looks like it matters that children in back-and-forth conversations have to process what the other person is saying, then formulate and deliver their own response. And every one of those exchanges requires the use of that “muscle,” the brain. The more the child uses the brain, the stronger it gets.
That's fascinating how the brain works! I appreciate that you've taken lots of research like this and put it into five simple Basics that every family can use.
I noticed a consistent theme of research-to-practice in your work. I'm curious, what qualitative and quantitative outcomes do you expect from The Basics?
We've isolated the types of early childhood lived experiences that contribute to early brain development. Families who use The Basics consistently, who otherwise might not have, can alter their child’s lifetime trajectory of success.
We know that the ease of learning depends upon early brain development -- a child’s orientation to life, their tendency to identify things that they're interested in and become passionately engaged in learning more about those things. So, it’s not just how much the child knows, it’s the child’s tendency to set high aspirations and to be confident enough to investigate and learn things that they initially don't understand.
There are a number of qualities that contribute to life success, and it goes beyond basic reading and math skills. More recent research is showing that self-management skills, called executive function skills, are really important in the long term.
Executive function skills are the skills an individual uses to make a plan and actually follow through on it; to shift their attention from one thing to another; to resist the temptation to do something that they have an urge to do, but know that they shouldn’t.
Executive functioning skills are strongly affected by the sense of security children have early in life, which helps make the first Basic, Maximize Love, Manage Stress, so important.
Each of The Basics is linked to a set of skills and attitudes that are foundations for lifelong success. The big impact we want to document over time is the trend line in school readiness rotating up. There are still large percentages of children who arrive in kindergarten without having the executive function skills that they need to do well. Of course, along the way, we want to be able to document changes in parental knowledge and childcare routines, as well as some markers of early childhood developmental progress. But ultimately, over a period of several years, The Basics is a community-wide public health initiative to raise that trend line in school readiness. Research at the Brookings Institution indicates that over 80 percent of kids who enter kindergarten school-ready are still on track with reading and math skills as of fifth grade, but fewer than half are if they entered kindergarten underprepared.
We at The Basics are becoming more interested in supporting the parents’ belief in their own potential, which will reflect back on the child’s ongoing development. We know the types of mindsets that help human beings persist in the face of adversity; to be their best selves. So, paying attention to the parents’ development is worthwhile in and of itself.
We want parents to become empowered with their infants and toddlers, then stay engaged for the rest of the children's lives, knowing that what they do as parents actually makes a difference.
I appreciate the holistic approach to outcomes that not only aims to help the child, but the parents as well.
Our last question gets a little personal. I wanted to learn more about how you were raised and your child-rearing years.
My grandmother was a master teacher of special education students. Even at home, she was constantly teaching. On top of what my parents did, she spent a lot of time with me as a preschooler building my skills and confidence. She was also my oldest son’s childcare provider for the first year-and-a-half of his life.
I grew up the oldest of five boys, no sisters. We each had our own unique mix of relationships with our parents and grandparents, which I think helps explain why we turned out so differently. My coauthor Tatsha Robertson and I have written about it in a chapter on siblings, in our new book, The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children.
The book reveals a pattern with eight principles or “parental roles” we found in how exceptionally high-achieving young adults were raised. It covers birth through adolescence and also addresses why some siblings didn’t do as well. The Formula is a great supplement to The Basics, for parents of older children.
Thirty years ago, my wife Helen and I read the standard parenting books, and they were helpful. But what we learned wasn’t as simple to keep track of, or to organize life around, as The Basics and The Formula. I don’t think we did either The Basics or The Formula to the degree that we would now, now that we know them.
We emphasized fun and love in our parenting (Maximize Love, Manage Stress) Our home was not especially stressful, so there wasn't a lot of stress to shield our kids from, but even if there had been, I'm not sure how intentional we would have been in shielding them from it.
With Talk, Sing, and Point, I’m not sure how aware or intentional we were with pointing. If we had known about the science of language acquisition, I’m sure we would have done it more.
With Count, Group, and Compare, we probably would have been more intentional about playing grouping and comparison games.
Our kids had all kinds of toys and art materials and I remember playing computer games together, but we probably would have done even more with Explore through Movement and Play.
We read stories at bedtime pretty much every day until at least fifth grade, but we almost never discussed.
Thank you for sharing your personal journey. Now we have a deeper understanding of your dedication to this work.
Let me end by saying that one reaction we get regarding The Basics, is that we're wasting our time trying to reach parents who are preoccupied with life’s stressors, like how to pay rent.
They mean that parents need help first dealing with emotional baggage from a lifetime of stress and hardship. Surely some do. But my reaction is, “Let’s tell them about The Basics anyway, and let them decide for themselves,” instead of arbitrarily and paternalistically making the decision for them.
Agreed! We appreciate you planting the seed that can have a significant impact on generations to come.
This interview was conducted by Dominique, blogger behind DommiesBlessed. It has been edited for clarity and length. The Basics continues to have an impact on communities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, Yonkers, New York and Palmetto, South Carolina. Want to incorporate The Basics in your work? Start with our free online toolkit here. You can also follow The Basics on Facebook, Twitter, and sign up to receive our newsletter.