Childhood Poverty is at the Root of the Nation’s Education Inequality

Inequality is a hot topic at the moment, and rightly so. Decades of wage stagnation, job loss, and most recently a housing crisis have hollowed out the middle class. Meanwhile, incomes at the top are accumulating like helium balloons on the ceiling. The chance of living the American Dream and doing better than one’s parents is fading.

But often overlooked in this litany is another, more damaging form of inequality: education inequality. The 2013 KIDSCount, an invaluable resource for anyone concerned about our nation’s children, underscores a subtle point that most pundits miss about education:

“[O]ur nation’s overall achievement levels are limited by the performance of our lowest-income students. Controlling for poverty, American students rank much higher [on international comparisons].  In 2009, students at US schools with fewer than 10 percent of students in poverty ranked number one in reading.”

In other words, we’ve begun to close the education gap between black, Latino, and white children, but the gap is getting wider between poor and higher income children. In fact, as KIDSCount reports, the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students in the United States has grown about 40 percent since the 1960s.

Poverty is not just an “inner city” problem. In Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where the Rogers Center is located, approximately one in seven residents lives below the official poverty line. That’s about 1,250 families. In Westmoreland County as a whole, the poverty rate for families with kids is 10 percent, or about 36,000 people.

Preparing children to succeed in school is one of the most important and beneficial investments a society can make.

As the report notes, closing the learning gap starts even before school. As early as 9 months, the gap in cognitive development is evident between babies in low-income and higher-income families. By age 2, that gap has tripled, and the consequences linger. As one report notes, students at and above grade level for reading in grade 3 graduate from high school at higher rates than students reading below grade level.

So what can we do? While working to create an economy with enough jobs at living wages is an obvious place to start tackling the crippling poverty that confines too many to a life of struggle, it’s a daunting, and slow, task. More immediately—since education is so intricately tied to later income—we can better support high-poverty schools and families, and we can get more kids into high-quality preschools. We can also support low-income parents at home.

Research has long documented the stark “word gap” in young children from poor homes. We’ve written about this kind of interaction in several posts, including this one that explores whether technology has the potential to help create more family conversation, particularly in early childhood and in low-income families, where kids need to be talked to more.

And Michael Levine and Lisa Guernsey wrote on this blog several months back about new efforts to harness digital media to support parents, educators, and children in building early literacy skills.

Toward that end, the Obama Administration has created several initiatives focused on early learning, including expanding Head Start (which was recently cut severely, unfortunately), providing preschool for all children, and improving the quality of child care services, among other things.

These efforts are clearly needed. As KIDSCount puts it:

“Comprehensive early childhood programs and high-quality preschool can help improve school readiness among low-income children, but nationally, fewer than half (46 percent) of 3- and 4-year-olds attended preschool. Only a small percentage of poor children participated in programs of sufficient quality and intensity to overcome the developmental deficits associated with chronic economic hardship and low levels of parental education. Clearly, we are far from ensuring that all children have the opportunity to enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

Preparing children to succeed in school is one of the most important and beneficial investments a society can make. The Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman has argued convincingly that the payoff from that early investment is sizable, mainly in savings from later costs of lost earnings potential, corrections, greater dependence on public benefits, and other challenges that arise from a lack of education.

And more recently Hillary Clinton has joined forces with Next Generation and others to launch the Too Small to Fail initiative. Many others, including the Fred Rogers Center, are working on this important goal as well.

Fred Rogers was a leader in early childhood education, using media to help children be ready to learn throughout life. In numerous ways he was ahead of his time. We’ve extended his legacy to the digital world, with our Framework for Quality in Digital Media for Young Children because, as we write in the introduction, “Today, the ubiquity of digital media in homes, schools and centers, and community sites for informal learning provides both the opportunity and the responsibility to use these new and rapidly developing tools with care.”

As many of the posts in this blog attest, digital media, when used to help build the health, well-being, and overall development of young children, can be a wonderful tool among many in fostering curious, creative children who are ready to learn.

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