Start Early to Close the Achievement Gap

By age 3, children in low-income families have smaller vocabularies than middle-class kids of the same age. This “achievement gap” persists throughout school and culminates in lower graduation rates for children growing up in poverty. I’m not offering a magic bullet to close the achievement gap. Complex problems, unfortunately, tend to require complex solutions. But I can think of two key elements to any effort to address the gap: We need to start early and we need to think broadly.

Remember, we’re seeing language deficits by age 3. We also know that those first three years are spent forming trillions of synapses — 90 percent of the brain development we’ll experience in our lifetimes. So the question is: Can a baby living in poverty have the rich experiences that encourage healthy development? We know that great early childhood education helps. Kids who participate in early childhood education are more likely to graduate high school and 2.5 times more likely go on to higher education.

People in my line of work are fond of referring to social programs as “investments.” It’s hard to think of any area were the term is more apt than early childhood. Kids in good early childhood programs achieve higher, contribute more in taxes and require less in public services. One study found that the return on investment in early childhood education is $17 for every $1 spent.

As I said, we need to think broadly and deliver services to poor families where and how they need them. For example, my community reserved some spots in high quality early childhood programs for low-income families, but we found the families that needed them most didn’t know about the program. So we used non-traditional marketing, like lawn signs, to get the word out.

Once families knew about the slots, there were still needs to be met. Most child care programs require parents to supply disposable diapers for their children. The neediest families simply couldn’t afford them. It took an entire non-profit organization to address that.

Hats off to the community in Lafayette, La., that is crafting a broad-based strategy to close the achievement gap, including:

… the creation of health and wellness teams (to) help address issues as they happen, rather than just letting students move through the school system without any intervention.

I believe Lafayette is able to be smart about boosting achievement, because it isn’t getting stuck in the “blame the victim” trap that so often accompanies discussions about poverty. In an interview with The Advertiser, United Way of Acadiana Executive Director Margaret Trahan said: “The stereotype that poor parents don’t care, I know, is a myth.” The Advertiser reports, “She said many parents in poverty struggle with multiple jobs, odd shifts, problems getting adequate childcare and a lack of reliable transportation.”

Every family faces challenges. In poor communities, those challenges form a long and daunting list. If we want kids of all income levels to succeed, we need to find ways to scratch things off that list.

Follow Joanne Goldblum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jgoldblum

 

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on November 27, 2012.

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The High Cost of Poverty–Education Edition

The effect of being poor is more than not being able to buy things.  It fundamentally affects how you are able to function in life.  This is particularly true for students in poor families, who often come to school hungry, without enough sleep, and without having done their homework because they lack the supplies and the space necessary to do it.  As Brock Cohen, a teacher in the Los Angeles County Unified District writes in a blog for the Washington Post,

What had grown increasingly clear to me was that my students’ academic struggles did not simply stem from inaction, ineffective parenting, drug use, or neglect. While these elements were usually present in various forms, or to greater or lesser degrees, they weren’t the root causes of their failure; they were the effects of poverty. What I’d learned in less than a semester of teaching was that poverty wasn’t merely a temporary, though unpleasant, condition — like a hangover or the sniffles. It was a debilitating, often generational, epidemic.

And students in low-income districts are often taught by inexperienced teachers who are paid less well than their counterparts in more affluent districts.  Because most educational districts are funded on the local level, the property taxes in a given district have a great deal to do with how much the district has to spend on the school and the students who attend it.  So students in poor families, most often living in poor neighborhoods, get shortchanged, not only by their family’s debilitating economic situation, but also by school districts without the means to make up the difference.   Cohen notes, they become “apartheid” schools, where testing is substituted for learning.

Education expert Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University has observed that the U.S.’s famously poor showing in educational achievement among the world’s industrialized nations is directly attributable to the U.S.’s increased population of poor children.

There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns.

In high-achieving countries like Finland and Singapore, strong social safety nets ensure that virtually all schools have fewer than 10 percent of their students living in poverty. Although the poverty-test score association is similar across 14 wealthy nations (with the average scores of the poorest 5 percent of students just over half those of their wealthiest peers), our poverty rate for children is much higher than others: 22 percent of all U.S. children and 25 percent of young children live in poverty.

The link between poverty and low academic achievement is well documented.  So if we are counting on education as the primary means for helping poor children escape poverty, but do not address the poverty that robs children of their ability to obtain academic success, we have simply turned public schools into the scapegoats for erosion of the American dream, and abandoned our future in the process.

Why are we writing about this?  Because diapers (and other hygiene products) are part of the long list of things people who don’t have enough money cannot buy.  Why do diapers matter?  Because people ( young and old)  must have their basic needs met and cannot develop optimally without that.  As we observed in June, the EU measures child deprivation by measuring children’s access to items that go beyond the bare minimum to sustain life, but include modest comforts that improve the quality of life.  As we said then, if children are our nation’s future, shouldn’t we give them not just the bare minimum to survive, but the basics they need to thrive?   Without these things, we are impoverishing not only our children’s opportunity to grow but also our nation’s future.

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