Susan Neuman, who was for a couple of years President Bush’s Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, and is an important educational researcher, has written an editorial in the Detroit Free Press that labels the No Child Left Behind program that sets the standards for public education in this country a failure. It’s a failure because the program’s goal, to lift the educational achievement of children of lower-income families, can’t be solved by schools alone. It takes a whole community – which includes the library – to do it.

A lot of the difference in reading scores between well-off kids and kids in poverty stems from the differences between their parents’ levels of education, and the belief their parents and caregivers have in how much education can make a difference in their lives. It also matters how much children are talked to, and what they’re talked to about. It matters how many questions they’re asked, and whether the parents and caregivers interact with those children over their answers.

Well-off children typically are asked more questions – and adults and caregivers pay more attention to their answers. They’re talked to more, and exposed to a lot more words, and when they start school they know more words and know how to use them. They’re read to more and sung to more. This is the kind of thing Neuman means by “intervention” when she says:

In their 1995 book “Meaningful Differences,” Betty Hart and Todd Risley calculated it would take approximately 41 hours of extra intervention per week to raise language scores of poor children to those of their well-off counterparts by age four — and that’s before starting preschool!

Here is where libraries can make a difference – and here is where libraries can be blowing their horns to the community far louder. We need to be doing whatever we can to get more low-income babies, toddlers, and preschoolers into our preschool programs. And if they aren’t coming in, we need to be traveling to where they are.