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Racial and Economic Segregation Starts in Preschool, Study Finds

Policymakers haven't paid attention to troubling racial and economic disparities in preschool, leading to a segregated system where low-income and minority children are often attending low-quality and non-diverse early-childhood programs, according to a new report from researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York. 

A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity in Preschool Matters says that access to preschool has increased, and that the population of children attending preschool has become more diverse. But that diversity in the child population overall has not translated into diversity in individual preschool classrooms, the study asserts. The A_Better_Start.jpgreport's main authors were Jeanne L. Reid and Sharon Lynn Kagan, both of whom are with the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College. It was supported by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank in Washington, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, a civil rights organization also in Washington.

Specifically, the researchers found: 

  • Children from low-income families and Hispanic children are less likely than children from higher-income families and non-Hispanic families to be enrolled in center-based early-childhood programs.
  • Children from low-income families are more likely to attend low-quality preschool programs.
  • Most children in public preschool programs attend economically segregated programs that are often effectively segregated by race and ethnicity.

Many public preschool programs, such as Head Start, specifically target children from low-income families, so those programs don't have much economic diversity among the children enrolled, the report notes. (Head Start does allow some flexibility in income levels, but nationwide, only 2.5 percent of enrollees came from families making more than 130 percent of the poverty line, about $31,000 for a family of four.)

Segregation Within 'Mixed' Programs

State-run prekindergarten programs have a more economically diverse student population compared to Head Start. Still, in state programs, low-income minority children mostly end up in classrooms with other children just like them, the researchers found.

Drawing from a sample of about 3,000 children enrolled in state-run preschool in 11 states in 2001-03, the researchers found that about half of the children came from families earning under $25,000 annually, a quarter came from families earning $25,001 to $45,000, and another quarter came from families earning over $45,000. About 59 percent of the children were ethnic or racial minorities

But only about 17 percent of the children in that state pre-K sample were in classrooms that were both racially diverse and had included a mix of family incomes. Nearly half of the children were in classrooms that were almost all low-income and almost all minority.

Why does diversity in preschool classrooms matter? The researchers point to studies on "peer effects" which show that children from low-income backgrounds make larger academic gains when they are attending school with higher-income children. Peer diversity may also offer important social benefits to higher-income children as well, the study asserts. 

Early-childhood advocacy groups have generally not taken on the issue of preschool classroom diversity explicitly, Reid and Kagan write. 

Recommended Steps

The report includes examples of preschools around the country that are taking steps to increase diversity, and offers a number of suggestions. In an interview, Reid said that policymakers need to ensure that low-income families have the same access to high-quality programs as more-affluent families.

Policymakers should also consider the placement of preschools by locating them in neighborhoods that are equally accessible to families of all income levels, Reid said. She also suggested that programs could be located in or near corporate offices, universities, and hospitals, which employ people of different economic backgrounds. 

"Obviously, there are parents who prefer local neighborhood programs," Reid said, and because of housing segregation, those programs would often reflect the race of the surrounding neighboroods. "But if parents have choices, it's plausible that some might choose high-quality programs outside their communities."

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