For the past several decades, education has served as an equalizer for American society. Pursuit of a higher education created opportunities for class mobility and career success.
After all, the American dream represents societal ideals including equality, democracy and opportunity to obtain material prosperity and success. The American dream represents the constitutional notion that “all mean are created equal.” It means that hard work could defy the restrictions of social class.
What if this ideal was no longer attainable for future generations due to lack of opportunities for the poor? What does that mean for the American education system, the U.S. economy and, most importantly, the future of children born into low-income families?
In the past, racial divides in education was the focus of educational reformists. However, the increasing income divide in the U.S. has shifted the attention to the difference in educational opportunities between low-income and high-income children.
Inequality in educational opportunities and resources threatens to diminish education’s leveling effect.
The Income Gap
Disparities in distribution of resources are directly correlated with the growing income gap in the U.S.
In an article published in The Boston Review, Sean F. Reardon, professor of sociology at Stanford University, focused his studies on the stringent residential divides between high-income, middle-class and low-income neighborhoods.
Reardon stated, “Perhaps most troubling is the possibility that these residential patterns are producing a nation of two societies, parallel and unequal, in which both adults and children have only a limited understanding of the complex nature of our country’s social fabric.”
Although the term poverty cycle may seem cliché, it is an unfortunate truth. With limited resources low-income students receive in their home and local schools, it is difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, for students to break the cycle.
The American Psychological Association defines socioeconomic status (SES) as the social standing or class of an individual or group. It is often measured as a combination of education, income and occupation. In a social class scope, SES reveals disparities in resources and class difference in privilege, power and control.
Addressing gaps in resource distribution will not only benefit members of low SES, but society as a whole.
Children that are provided the opportunity of a quality education that equips them with academic and social progression skills are more likely to achieve higher levels of education.
Logically, there is a clear correlation between the successes of a country’s economy and the amount of education its citizens obtain.
A push to improve the U.S. education system can lead to fewer citizens collecting unemployment, lower crime and incarceration rates and an increase in qualified candidates entering the work force.
Low SES and Education
Because American society exhibits gaps in nearly every aspect of society, education is not an exception to social divides.
Recent studies have indicated a strong correlation between family resources and academic success of their children.
Low SES correlates with poverty, poor health and lower education. Children raised in low-income homes often develop academic skills at a lower rate than children from high-income and middle class families. This is due to low-literacy levels and poor health.
George B. Kaiser, Chairman of BOK Financial Corporation and one of the top 50 American philanthropists, invested in early childhood education because he believed it provided the highest return for society.
Not only did Kaiser see the investment as economically beneficial, but he also expressed the notion of depriving poor children of opportunities as a moral issue.
In an article in the opinion pages of The New York Times, Kaiser said, “Maybe the reason that rich, smart parents had rich, smart children wasn’t genetics, but that those rich, smart parents also held their kids, read to them, spent a lot of time with them.”
Solutions to the Opportunity Gap
Educators and sociologists have identified several solutions that would decrease the severity of the opportunity gap in the American education system.
“Closing the Opportunity Gap,” a recently published book, identifies various solutions to progress toward equal opportunities in American education.
Proposed solutions vary in costs, degree of involvement, target publics and the timeline of completion. Extensively researched solutions to the opportunity gap include:
- High-quality early childhood education;
- End segregation in housing, schools and classrooms;
- Extending learning time that is not limited to the classroom;
- Focus on childhood health; improve teacher experience and support;
- Provide access to libraries and the internet; provide tutoring;
- Create safe and well-maintained school environments;
- Improve policies on student discipline;
- Understand student cultures and how it relates to their schooling;
- Change the focus of testing and accountability;
- Address the needs of increasing language minorities.
In a Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education press release, Prudence Carter, Stanford University Professor and co-editor of “Closing the Opportunity Gap,” said:
“Quite simply children learn when they are supported with high expectations, quality teaching and deep engagement, and made to feel that they are entitled to good schooling; the richer those opportunities, the greater the learning. When those opportunities are denied or diminished, lower achievement is the dire and foreseeable result.”
Dr. Robert Lowe, a professor of American Education at the University of Marquette and one of the many contributors to “Closing the Opportunity Gap,” studies the evolution of education policy in the U.S.
Lowe has strived to understand the history of educational policy in the broader scope of U.S. social policy.
Lowe feels one flawed area in American education that can be improved with little monetary funding or extensive resources is cultural sensitivity in academic institutions. Children who enter school systems speaking little English are often regimented to learn the prominent language.
It is important that students in America can speak English; however, this notion does not warrant the obliteration of an individual’s culture to conform to the commonly used language.
In high-income education institutions, speaking multiple languages is considered a valuable and marketable skill for students when they enter the workforce.
However, in low-income schools where test scores and accountability are viewed more important than the value of student diversity, students are often separated from their cultural backgrounds.
“This is the exact opposite sort of education that should be going on,” Lowe says about the schools negligence toward cultural sensitivities, “a really good education is going to build on the strengths people bring.”
Lowe says in a country that is language deficient, bilingual students should experience educations that will maintain and encourage knowledge of multiple languages.
High-quality Early Education
In a State of Union address, President Barack Obama said:
“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”
Academic jumpstart programs have indicated significant gains in prereading, prewriting and prearithmatic skill development.
Educators and psychologists who have analyzed the effects of high-quality early education say the social developments are just as important as academic gains in young children.
According to research conducted by Zero to Three, national center for infants, toddlers and families, the human brain grows to about 90 percent of adult size by age five. This statistic demonstrates the significance of prelearning skills in determining a child’s academic success for the rest of his or her life.
Progressive social development enables children to self-regulate and productively interact with adults and peers.
Lowe cited the Perry Preschool Project as an exemplary study that demonstrates the lasting effects of a high-quality early education.
The Perry Preschool Project experiment was conducted between 1962 and 1967 in Ypsilanti, Mich. The experimental group included three- and four-year old African-American children in low-income residential areas that were considered at high- risk of academic failure.
The experimental group received an exceptional, high-quality education from certified public school teachers that had obtained at least a bachelor’s degree. Sessions were conducted each weekday morning in 2.5-hour increments.
Because the child-teacher ratio was 6:1, students received ample attention and one-on-one time with instructors. The curriculum focused on topics that required active, engaging learning exercises that promoted involved decision making and problem solving. It was planned, executed and reviewed by the children with guidance from educators.
One of the most revolutionary aspects of this study was its focus on the effects of family structure and environment on academic development.
The Perry Project required teachers to visit student’s homes once a week for approximately two hours. Home visits ensured parent, or guardian, involvement in the education of their children.
It also equipped guardians with various methods of interaction with their children that will implement their child’s school education during after-school hours.
Experiment follow-up indicated substantial differences in educational progression, criminal activity and economic earning outcomes between the intervention group and the control group.
The graph below was derived from data the HighScope Educational Research Foundation collected after a comparative analysis of the control and intervention groups in the Perry Preschool Project.
Two significant differences between the control group and intervention group are students that achieved an IQ on 90 or higher by the age of 5 and the number of students that attained basic achievement by age 14.
The intervention group had 67 percent of children attain an IQ of 90 or above by the age of 5, whereas, 28 percent of the control group was able to achieve the bench mark.
This result indicates the immediate result of Perry Preschool academic and problem-solving preparation.
At the age of 14, nearly half of the intervention group attained basic achievement. Only 15 percent of the control group was able to accomplish basic achievement. This outcome reflects the lasting effects of a high-quality early education.
Results also indicated the economic impact of early education intervention. Sixty percent of the intervention group earned more than $20,000 by the age of 40. A mere 40 percent of the control group earned this amount by age 40.
Despite the program’s vast success, it was unlikely to be implemented in the U.S. because of the extensive funding it required. For one school year, the program costs $11,300 per child.
The Oklahoma Project
The Oklahoma school system has instated a modern day Perry Preschool, referred to as “The Oklahoma Project.” In 1998, the state passed an education policy that allows every 4-year old to receive one year of free, high-quality prekindergarten.
In the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journal, William T. Gormley, co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. (CROCUS), said that Oklahoma’s Pre-K program has received attention for three reasons: it is universal, it is based within the state school system and it reaches a higher percentage of 4-year-olds than any other state pre-K program.
Not only does this program entail full-day, year-round nursery school, but it also offers home visits to families to teach parents methods of educating children in the home environment.
Home visits are conducted to provide parents with the coping mechanisms for stress, or to simply provide homes with basic learning tools such as children’s books.
Parents are taught the importance of frequent reading and explaining the meaning of various objects and actions to their children.
Educators and instructors that participate in the Oklahoma initiative believe children that receive high-quality early education end up almost a whole year more advanced in their knowledge than they would have been had they received a normal pre-K education.
The main goal of the Oklahoma Project is to eliminate the gap that exists between low-income and high-income students when children enter elementary school.
Education & Family Resources
Many low-income parents do not realize the significance of interaction with their children. They believe that if they are putting food on the table for dinner and roof over their children’s head, they are fulfilling their parental duties.
Frequent chatter and explanation of simple processes and objects can inhibit the mental development of their children.
Several home-visit programs discovered that many low-income homes did not possess a single children’s book in the house.
Anne Fernald, Stanford University psychologist, conducted research that indicated the child of professionals hear 30 million more words by the age of four than a child of welfare.
Fernald says toddlers develop their vocabulary from hearing words in context. This means that habitual word use is essential to advance a child’s understanding of the world around them.
In an article in the Stanford Report, Fernald said, “It’s clear that SES is not destiny. The good news is that regardless of economic circumstances, parents who use more and richer language with their infants can help their child to learn more quickly.”
In “An uneven start: Indicators of inequality in school readiness,” R.J. Coley, a member of the Educational Testing Service, found that in a nationwide study of American children, 36 percent of parents in the lowest-income quintile read to their children on a daily basis, compared with 62 percent of parents from the highest-income quintile.
Education during school-day hours is limited. Therefore, programs that involve family and parent interaction are essential in addressing the barrier between a low-income and high-income child’s exposure to language.
Although the stress of poverty cannot be diminished, it cannot be ignored. Early parent-child relationships in which adults are responsive and attentive to the actions and needs of their children can buffer the damaging effects of stress in home environments.
Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, examined the physiological effect of stress on children’s health and development.
Shonkoff created the term ‘toxic stress’ to describe prolonged adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, domestic violence and family dysfunction that negatively affect neurological development and immune system functionality.
In normal circumstances, stress can be an opportunity for child growth. It can serve as a learning experience that equips children with coping mechanisms to overcome challenges in their futures. However, toxic stress is a result of lacking emotional and physical security from parents or guardians.
Several studies have indicated distinct connections between chronic stress in the home environment and slower academic progress.
How can a student gain the confidence and determination necessary to succeed academically in an environment poisoned with stress and lacking in basic resources?
Since the Perry Preschool Project, several initiatives and programs have been implemented to decrease the lack of opportunities for children at high-risk for academic failure. The goals of these programs are to create a level playing field for all children entering elementary school.
Strong Start for America’s Children Act
Strong Start for America’s Children Act is a 10-year initiative to expand early learning opportunities for children under five years old. The program funds prekindergarten for 4-year old children from families that earn below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
The program will require that teachers obtain bachelor’s degree. To entice qualified and motivated educators, teachers will receive salaries that compare with K-12 instructor salaries.
Each classroom will abide by a maximum class size limit and child-instructional staff ratio to ensure children are receiving adequate attention and supervision.
Not only will this initiative focus on the educational aspect of child development, but also the correlation between physical health and psychological growth.
It will offer comprehensive services that include: strong parent and family engagement, nutritious meals and health screening and referrals.
Currently, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., are leading the efforts to enhance funding in state and local communities to increase the presence of high-quality early education programs.
First Five Years
First Five Years focuses on the development children achieve in the first five years of their life. It specifically targets low-income, high-risk infants and toddlers.
The organization believes greater school success and a better-skilled workforce will result from a focus on children that are high-risk for academic failure at the youngest ages.
This program focuses on how home environment and parental interaction contribute to the social and academic growth of youth.
Child First began at Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut focusing on the challenges of children that receive social services. The creators’ main concentration was to improve child-parent psychotherapy and home-based parent guidance.
Child First was created to address language problems children experience in schools and to prevent aggressive and defiant behavior of children as they mature.
The main goal of this program is to stabilize the home environment. It is a preventative, home visitation program that that works on the creation, or maintenance, of parent-child relationships.
A mental health professional and care coordinator work together to equip parents with a ‘reflective capacity’ to understand their children’s behaviors and actions.
Those who intervene in the home recognize they cannot change family living conditions or exposure to resources, but they can equip parents with coping methods to counter the negative effects of stress on children.
Methods such as video recording parent-child daily interaction reinforced the crucial role that parents play in the psychological, social and emotional development of children.
High-Quality Education: A Moral Obligation?
Extensive research has indicated a clear, positive correlation between high-quality early education and likelihood for academic success.
Studies such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Oklahoma Project demonstrate the importance of academic readiness, social skill development and problem-solving abilities gained while enrolled in high-quality programs.
It is the responsibility of education policy-makers and government officials to instate programs that create equality in education as children enter school. It is the duty of those that represent the U.S. education system to provide American children the opportunity to utilize education as a mobility tool.
Low-income children become weary of trying to catch-up to peers throughout his or her entire elementary and high school education. Implementation of high-quality early childhood education gives children equal access to the academic starting line.
Providing children born into low-income families with an opportunity for mobility through education is not just smart economically, but it is a moral responsibility to provide all American children with an opportunity to fulfill their potential.