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By Ash Center Mayors Challenge Research Team

The 2012-2013 Mayors Challenge is a competition to inspire American cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life. The City of Providence was awarded the Mayors Challenge Grand Prize for Innovation and received a $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to implement its winning idea, Providence Talks. Providence Talks aims to close the achievement gap for low-income children with the help of innovative technology and individual coaching for parents and caregivers that will improve the quality of the household auditory environment and the quantity of spoken language. “The Mayors Challenge is an opportunity to find bold, new solutions to major urban challenges,” said Jim Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies. Jim added, “The selection committee chose Providence Talks as the grand prize winner because of its direct, simple approach and its potential to revolutionize early childhood education.” More information on the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge can be found at bloomberg.org/mayorschallenge.

In Providence, two thirds of children are already behind national benchmarks by the time they enter kindergarten.  Mayor Angel Taveras, a self-described “Head Start baby,” knows the importance of early childhood learning – he graduated from Providence public schools and then attended Harvard University.  He now leads the very public schools that he attended and wants to help provide Providence children every possible advantage to succeed.   

When Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Mayors Challenge, issuing a call for the most innovative proposals by cities across the United States, Mayor Taveras seized the opportunity to seek out a new, creative solution to a serious issue in his city. After reviewing a number of ideas, he and his team ultimately developed the program now known as Providence Talks. The team discovered research that shows that high-income children hear an average of 30 million more words than their low-income peers in the first three years. The seminal study of language environment by Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed that the amount of conversation children had with their parents by age three was positively associated with their IQ scores at that age, along with a host of other positive outcomes. Providence decided to apply this important finding by creating a city-led effort to close the word gap using innovative technology: devices that can record and allow measurement of the auditory environment of children. A preliminary study demonstrated that sharing feedback reports generated by the recording devices led caregivers to increase the number of words spoken to their children by 55 percent.  Simplyhaving the information about the number of words their children were hearing inspired them to talk more, read more, and interact more with their children. The children’s increased exposure to words was the single greatest predictor of improved language skills and learning readiness before entering school.

How does Providence Talks work?  Participating families are equipped with a small “word pedometer” that counts the number of words and conversations their child is exposed to over the course of a day.  A home visitor shares this information with families and offers specific tools and strategies to boost their child’s vocabulary development. The devices are smart enough to filter out background noise such as TV or radio, and can determine how many words a child hears as well as how many times the conversation volleys back and forth from the child to an adult.  This is important because children learn through interactive conversation and by mimicking what they hear.   . 

The device is only used to generate quantitative data and reports, so families can use the device with the confidence that their neighbors won’t be able to pick it up and listen to their private conversations.  Families only participate voluntarily and can drop out at any time.  Families who participate pay no fee and are given books and other resource materials to support their child’s ongoing vocabulary development. 

 Providence Talks launched in February with an initial pilot phase that serves approximately 75 families. The program seeks to grow to approximately 500 families in 2014, 2,000 families by mid-2016, and will then grow to citywide scale, available to every low-income baby born in Providence.  Providence’s goal is to have every child arrive at kindergarten ready to learn and at grade level, launching them on a trajectory toward continuous learning, high-achievement academic careers, and eventual college attendance. 

Providence is launching the project through its existing rich network of home visitation providers, an advantage not available in all cities.  But every city has place-based and home-based services for low-income families.  While Providence is starting with its home visitation providers, the project will, within the first year, expand to a wide network of social service providers.  In addition, the project is undergoing a rigorous, third-party evaluation that, if the program is successful, will provide an evidence base for the intervention’s adoption nationwide.

Providence is creating a curriculum for teaching parents and caregivers to talk more with their children, and to talk in ways that improve the child’s vocabulary and learning skills.  This curriculum and related learning materials will be available to cities that wish to implement a similar project at no cost. Project documentation, including contracts and job descriptions, are all being cataloged for sharing with other interested cities. 

“Bloomberg Philanthropies has given Providence an incredible opportunity to pilot a never-before-tried intervention designed to close the thirty-million-word gap and ensure that all of our children enter kindergarten ready to learn,” said Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.  “We are excited about the launch of this project and look forward to sharing the lessons we learn along the way.”

Providence is leading the way for a new, technology-enabled era of city efforts that will close the achievement gap.

About the Author

Ash Center Mayors Challenge Research Team

The Ash Center is the Research Partner for the five Winners of the 2012 Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge. In that capacity, the Center is working with the cities during the implementation process to evaluate and record the process of innovation, develop a consistent body of learnings, promote replication, and provide the cities with research and documentation support.

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