Professor Sean Reardon tells us some things we may not have known about something we thought we did.
We all probably knew that children with rich parents do better in school than children from poor and near-poor families.
We find evidence in standardized test score differences between schools in wealthy and poor neighborhoods.
Here in the District of Columbia, for example, math and reading proficiency rates have generally risen at schools in the wealthiest wards and dropped in the rest, especially the very poorest.
We see the same income-based disparities in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which are broken out to let us compare those for students whose families are poor enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school meals with those for the rest.
And, Reardon adds, in scores on SAT-type tests.
Well, the school reform movement is supposed to do something about this — hence the decision to name the law that’s brought us our high-stakes testing regime “No Child Left Behind.”
It obviously hasn’t closed the education gap between poor children and the rest. But Reardon’s analyses show this isn’t because poor children aren’t scoring higher on the achievement tests we use to measure classroom learning.
It’s because rich children are scoring a whole lot higher than they did in the 1980s — so much so that there’s now as big a gap between their scores and those of middle-class children as between the scores of the latter and those of the poor.
Reardon traces the gap back to children’s earliest years. Rich children, he says, are starting kindergarten better prepared to learn — thus ahead of the rest when they get to first grade.
Children from poor families start school at a disadvantage, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.
Fewer than half have the “pre-academic skills,” e.g., the ability to recognize letters and numbers, and the sorts of learning-related behaviors that make them ready for kindergarten, e.g., the ability to pay attention and not act out.
By fourth grade, 83% of them test below proficient in reading — in other words, don’t demonstrate the competency they’re supposed to have. Nearly half test below basic, i.e., don’t have even a partial mastery of the requisite grade-level skills.
Fourth grade is when children are supposed to begin reading to learn, rather than learning to read. If they can’t read, they fall further and further behind.
They get frustrated, of course — whether held back, as they may be in 14 states, or passed on to a higher grade, where they can’t do the work. Needless to say, they’re likely to drop out and become part of the next generation of poor parents.
Like others, including the Brookings expert, Reardon attributes school readiness in part to what parents spend on “cognitively stimulating experiences.”
Wealthy parents, he says, are now choosing to spend much more on those experiences because “educational success is more important than it used to be, even for the rich.”
The spending he’s talking about isn’t just money for things like top-notch child care and pre-school education. It’s time taking kids to interesting places, reading to them, talking with them, etc.
Poor and middle-class parents are spending more on these than they used to, he says, but not nearly as much more as the rich.
So we need a multi-pronged strategy to “move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background.”
Reardon is altogether on board with making high-quality child care and pre-school available to poor and middle-class children, as the President’s proposed budget seeks to do.
Reardon also recommends expanding programs that help low-income parents learn how to “become better teachers,” e.g., through home visits by professionals or trained peers who help them understand their children’s developmental needs and how to meet them.
Some money in the President’s proposed budget for this also.
And Reardon would like to see “greater business and government support for maternal and paternal leave” — this, I trust, means paid leave parents can use to tend to their children’s needs.
All these things would undoubtedly help, though many poor parents would still be hard put to make the investments Reardon rightly thinks would help level the playing field for their kids.
It’s one thing to know you should read to your children and talk to them, even before they’re old enough to understand what you’re saying. Quite another to do this when you’re working multiple jobs because one doesn’t pay enough.
When you’re trying to figure out where the next meal will come from, now that you’ve run through your family’s food stamp allotment — or where your family will sleep now that you’ve gotten an eviction notice.
When you yourself don’t know how to read, as approximately 32 million adults in this country don’t.
This isn’t to say that all poor children will struggle in school. Some will do extremely well, as others have in the past.
But the growing body of research tells us that far more will be left behind if we wait till they’re six — and then focus mainly on getting them up to speed for the standardized tests that No Child has made so inordinately important.