Poverty Not Parents

Just last week I wrote critically about research attempting to link the inferior school performance of poor children to parents not talking to them enough in the first three years of life.  I made the point that we seem always to be looking to explain or blame social problems on parents and teachers.  So it was with great interest that I read a story in The New York Times titled, “No Rich Child Left Behind.”

Author Sean F. Reardon, professor of education and sociology at Stanford, starts with the point that over the last few decades the differences in educational success between high-and lower-income students have grown substantially.  Looking at the scores of rich and poor students on standardized math and reading tests over the last 50 years, he found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was thirty years ago.  He writes that “family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race.”

Reardon points out that the same pattern is evident in other measures of educational success, like college completion, and enrollment in selective colleges and universities, as well as in participation in sports, extracurricular activities and volunteer work.  He points out that we are still asking if schools can provide a way out of poverty despite decades of school reform.  But, “Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, it hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper-and lower-income families.”

The author wisely makes the point that in order to know what to do about these  educational disparities we need first to understand why they are growing.  To do this he dispels some myths.  The first is that the income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline.  Average test scores have been rising in math, less so in reading, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group. 

Neither is the widening income disparity in academic achievement a result of widening racial gaps in achievement.  The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites, have been narrowing over the last two decades.  Also, schools aren’t producing much of the disparity in test scores between high-and low-income students.  This can be seen in the fact that the scores on school  readiness tests of children from rich and poor families are already different when they enter kindergarten, and the gap grows by less than 10 percent between then and high school.   

Both these points certainly differ from commonly held beliefs.  It appears that the academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students or poor students.  Part of the explanation offered is rising income inequality.  Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children.  But according to Reardon, it is not just that the rich have more money than they used to, it is that they are increasingly focusing their resources on their children’s cognitive development and educational success.  While middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time and money they invest in their children, they are obviously unable to do it to the same degree as the rich.

What is clear is that educational success is much more important than it used to be, and there is a “growing perception that early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.”  Most impressive is Reardon’s conclusion “that much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits:  we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.”

Reardon is not being critical of the rich.  On the contrary, he is saying that maybe we should follow their lead and invest much more heavily in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born. That means investing in child care and preschool.  “We have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.”

It is rewarding to hear from someone whose research does not lead in the direction of blaming parents and school, but instead focuses on attainable societal solutions to a recognized problem.  Clearly, early childhood enrichment plays an important role in later academic success.  But enrichment does not, and should not, have to mean earlier and earlier exposure to letters and numbers.  Young children are creative and need an opportunity to use of all of their senses.  They are enriched by exploring materials like sand, water, clay and paint, as well as by exposure to music, art, and the physical use of their bodies.

The social and creative, as well as academic potential, need to be part of early childhood experience.  Apparently, Kindergarten is now too late to learn everything children need to know.


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