Schools are being asked to fight a problem that has been developing over the past 30 to 40 years in our society. Sean F. Reardon is a professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Education, California. In his recent Educational Leadership article, he describes "the income achievement gap", a challenge that is ours to address in which we are not the sole holders of the solution. But what is the solution?
We have faced and dealt with the challenge of the difference between the children who come to us from low-income families and high-income families always. Reardon points out, however, that in the last three decades the achievement gap between low-income and high-income students has grown substantially and "...economic inequality now exceeds racial inequality in education outcomes." He discusses the change in the economy resulting in income inequality, the difficulty attaining upward mobility, the growth in the income gap, the change in the family structure, and the fact that "...popular notions of what constitutes education success have changed. In the last few decades, test scores have become increasingly central to our idea of what schools are supposed to produce." There it is again! Those darned standardized tests!
Early Childhood Education: Possibly Too Simplistic a Solution
So let's step away from this well researched and well written capture of our current challenge and think about what we know. We know that students reach our kindergartens with a wide variety of skills and abilities. We wrote in our April 30th post on Early Childhood Education that Child Trends Databank reported over half of our children between the ages of 3 and 6 who are not in kindergarten are in preschool. They also reported that more of them attending center based programs come from affluent families than from families in poverty. When they come to us, there is a "readiness gap." A teacher from an inner city school told us that some of her kindergartners had a penchant for hitting each other and the computer screens, they didn't know the alphabet, nor their numbers. Her school was getting ready to administer their new on-line test that was designed to measure the knowledge of her students.
Research tells us that students who come from low-income families in which the parents have a limited education themselves (even if they have a high value for education) do not have the advantage of an environment in which children can mimic learning behaviors. Put these children in classrooms where their peers watch their parents read books, have either spent time going to the library or museum with them, have surrounded them with books and technology of their own, or have read to them since they were infants and the problem begins. We have been charged with leveling the playing field. It is no small task and we have not yet made the difference. One thing is certain and needs repeating. "Our schools cannot be expected to solve this problem on their own, but they must be part of the solution." Thank you, Professor Reardon!
During an interview of a president and CEO of a large hospital in New York State, the topic of pediatric medicine arose. A pediatrician by training, he spoke about the differences in the challenges he had when he began practicing and those faced by his daughter, now a practicing pediatrician. His challenges were curing illnesses like polio, measles, mumps, chicken pox, and rubella. Hers are autism, mental illness, poor health and nutrition and helping parents deal with all of this. His solution? Educators, obstetricians, and pediatricians need to come together and create an informed relationship that begins the education of the parents, if not before, minimally, at birth.
How might it look if as part of the pre-natal care, a course called "Your Children's Growth" was included? This course would offer an education about the parent's role in the development of the whole child, including nutrition, behavior, and learning. How might it look if, at each hospital birth, the principal of the local elementary school arrived at the hospital with a gift of books, a congratulatory message, and a welcome into the neighborhood school? How might it look if the school offered programs that gave new parents an opportunity to take part in programs that are focused on pre-school programs and use the library? How might the principal and the pediatrician become partners, working with parents in order to improve the quality of those first five crucial years?
Geoffrey Canada was doing this in 2008 in the Harlem Children's Zone. "The first step on the conveyor belt is Baby College, a nine-week program that delivers child-rearing advice to expectant mothers and parents of children from birth to age 3. The Three-Year-Old Journey, which incorporates science-based explanations of what promotes brain development as well as preparation for pre-k, is open to parents of 3-year-olds." An effort of this size cannot truly be measured until we see the results as these students graduate from high school. And whether the HCZ is successful at it or not is not the question. It is an activist's idea. Does it make any sense? Might it help in some small way if we considered reaching out to the prospective students at birth and joined with other professionals already involved in their lives to help educate their parents and welcome the children into our schools years before they reached our kindergartens?
Adding to an Already Stressed System Probably Isn't the Answer
How we, as leaders, make decisions about solutions to this, and other problems, is paramount. In this case, what we do know is there is an achievement gap. It is related to income and the socio-economic gap between classes is widening. We have no control over the world beyond the walls of our school but we do have influence. We need to teach all children to the same standards and prepare them to be college and career ready. Putting pre-kindergarten in place will help. But no single measure will be the solution. It is far more complicated than that. So, we need ideas and partners. Granted our focus on tests and accountability and evaluations is consuming, but we cannot lose sight of the big picture problem. Low income children come to us behind. We are the professionals in education. Reaching out beyond our boundaries to offer what we know may not be the job of the moment but it is in our long-term best interest. And leaders must think long term.
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