What Kind of Education Will Ex-Offenders Come Home With?

August 14, 2014

“Everybody comes back from prison with an education,” said the Urban Institute’s Jesse Jannetta at a recent briefing. The issue is what s/he’s learned. It could be that society doesn’t care or how to stay safe by linking up with a gang. New ways to get drugs perhaps.

On the other hand, it could be employment-related skills, including basic literacy. Educating inmates pays off, according to a RAND corporation meta-analysis of findings from previously-published studies.

Correctional education, as the researchers call it, isn’t a silver bullet. But it’s worth the investment — not only, as they conclude, because it reduces the extraordinary costs we collectively pay for putting so many people in prison, but because it can mean a genuine second chance for those who are released.

Basic Facts and Figures

About 2.2 million people are in our country’s prisons and jails. More than 70,000 return to their communities each year. And more than 40% of those released from state prisons, which house the vast majority, are back behind bars within three years.

There are various reasons so many ex-felons go back through the revolving door. Inability to get a steady, legal job is a big one.

Much has rightly been made of employers’ refusal to even consider hiring people with a criminal record. But it’s also the case that a large number of returning citizens lack even the minimal qualifications employers commonly look for.

Education and Basic Skills

The figures RAND had to work with are quite old — as are the figures cited above. The most comprehensive I’ve found reflect the results of a 2003 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Well over a third of the adults assessed lacked a high school diploma or the equivalent. Some weren’t even close. Nine percent had dropped out before starting high school.

Larger percents lacked full competency in the basic literacy skills one needs to cope with everyday tasks, e.g., reading instructions, understanding and filling out a job application, balancing a checkbook.

Below basic scores on these ranged from 16% for “prose literacy,” i.e. understanding a piece of written text, to 39% for quantitative literacy. On the other hand, considerably larger percents scored in the intermediate range for the two non-quantitative types of literacy NCES tested. So we see both opportunities and challenges here.

What’s missing, however, are skills needed to perform everyday tasks on a computer — and as of this year, to take the GED exams. Former prisoners return “digitally illiterate,” the director of the District of Columbia’s Office on Returning Citizens said at the briefing.

Also missing are skills required for certain types of jobs, e.g., auto repairs, construction, food preparation. We do, however know, that about 56% of state prisons and all but 6% of federal prisons offered some type(s) of vocational training when NCES did its study. And RAND’s analysis folds them in.

Correctional Education Pay-Offs

The numerous studies RAND reviewed indicate that former inmates who’d participated in a correctional education program were 13% more likely to get a job than those who hadn’t.

The odds seem considerably higher for those who’d had vocational training than for those who’d had only academic education — 28%, as compared to 8%. But there weren’t enough vocational training-only studies to make this difference statistically reliable.

There were, however, enough studies to make reliable conclusions about the effects of correctional education programs on recidivism.

The good news is that inmates who’d participated in such programs had a 13% lower risk of winding up back behind bars than those who hadn’t. The not-so-good news is that their risk was 30%.

One can chalk this up in part to employers’ reluctance to hire people with criminal records, qualifications notwithstanding. Participants at the briefing mentioned other factors as well, e.g., relapses into substance abuse, trauma, the need to generate an immediate cash flow in order to meet family obligations.

Homelessness is probably also a factor. One in five released prisoners becomes homeless immediately or shortly after returning to the community, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. They face additional obstacles to employment, e.g., no fixed address, no way perhaps to take a daily shower, limited, if any access to a computer.

RAND nevertheless finds that correctional education programs yield cost-savings. Comparing the highest estimated per participant cost to the lowest cost of his/her incarceration, it concludes that the reduced recidivism rate saves $5 for every $1 spent.

This, as the report notes, is overly conservative because it doesn’t include the financial and other costs to the victims of crime or any costs to the criminal justice system, except the jails and prisons.

Nor, as the report doesn’t note, does it include the human costs to returning citizens who go back through the revolving door — and to their families, including children, who are likely to have already suffered harms due to the prior prison term.

Similar arguments can be made for community-based programs that provide education and training for returning citizens who missed out while they were imprisoned — either because they couldn’t get into a program or because they didn’t care to at the time.

Another topic for another day.

 

 


Congress Moves Toward a Better Workforce Development System

June 23, 2014

Congress may soon do a remarkable thing — pass a significant, non-urgent bill on a bipartisan basis. We can’t be sure, of course. But advocates are justifiably hopeful.

The bill I’m referring to would reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act — the single largest source of federal funds for a broad range of programs and services that help people prepare for and find work. Or looked at another way, that provide employers with workers whose skills match their needs.

WIA hasn’t been reauthorized since it was created in 1998. Needless to say, the labor market has changed since then, as have the needs of people who want to enter it, re-enter it or move up from dead-end, low-wage jobs.

That’s not all that’s changed. State and local agencies have gained experience — not altogether happy — with the administrative complexities the current law imposes.

And experts have noted some perverse incentives, created partly — but not entirely — but funding cuts that predate the Budget Control Act caps and across-the-board cuts. Those, of course, have only made matters worse.

Most importantly perhaps, thinking about how workforce development programs should be structured has evolved. So have views on how public agencies and their contractors should be held accountable — and for what.

All of which brings us to the proposed Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act — proclaimed by key Republicans and Democrats both as a “bicameral, bipartisan … deal to improve the nation’s workforce development system.”

Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Last year, House Republicans crafted — and with scant help from Democrats, passed — a bill that would have eliminated 35 WIA programs and effectively rolled the rest into a block grant, with funds frozen for seven years at the Fiscal Year 2014 level.

The effect, as the White House said, would have been to shortchange the needs of “vulnerable populations” who face “significant barriers to employment.”

So one of the best things we can say about the new bill is that the block grant is dead. The basic WIA structure remains the same, ensuring that each top-level component — job training, employment services, adult basic education and vocational rehabilitation for people with disabilities — gets funding.

At the same time — and here’s where things get interesting — states must develop a single, comprehensive plan for all “core” programs for both eligible youth and adults, including those with disabilities and those who are “dislocated,” e.g., have been laid off or soon will be.

Local Workforce Investments Boards — also sometimes known as Workforce Investment Councils — must then develop plans that align with what their state has produced.

What we see here isn’t just administrative streamlining. The unified plan requirement will tend to break down silos, e.g., between the agency that administers the one-stop employment services centers and the agency that administers adult education.

Beyond this, the bill establishes a clear preference for a career pathway approach to workforce development.

Basically, this approach involves a continuous, interlocking series of programs and services that enable participants to move from wherever they are to successively higher levels of education and employment in a particular industry or occupation that offers significant opportunities in the area where they live.

Services here may include various “needs-related payments” that enable recipients to get — and stay — on their pathways, e.g., transportation subsidies, child care. Also included are diverse hands-on work experiences, paid as well as unpaid.

More generally, the bill eliminates the current sequence of services for adults — an approach that reserves “intensive services” like job counseling for those who haven’t gotten jobs through basic, limited services and training only for those who are still unemployed, despite the intensive services.

The bill requires not only a single, unified plan, but a single set of accountability measures for all core programs serving adults and another set for youth-specific programs.

For adults, this will mean tracking participants according to various success measures. How many secure — and retain — unsubsidized employment, for example, plus their earnings. How many gain additional credentials and/or marketable skills.

Somewhat similar measures for disadvantaged youth — a category that will be broadened to include young adults up to 25 years old.

And, very importantly, results for subpopulations must be reported separately, including each group the bill defines as having a barrier (or barriers) to employment, e.g. homeless people, recipients of major safety net benefits, ex-offenders, single parents, individuals with disabilities.

This is one, though not the only way that the bill seeks to ensure sufficient attention to people for whom a job listing and perhaps some short-shot training won’t be enough for them to gain employment — let alone prospects for advancement.

Well, there’s a lot more in the bill — all 811 pages of it. And a lot of it, including what I’ve tried to summarize is very complex. So I’ll note just one other feature.

WIA authorizes Congress to spend “such sums as are necessary” — in other words, however much (or little) it chooses in any given year. Mostly how little. Funding, in real dollars, was more than 30% lower last year than in 2002.

The Workforce Opportunity and Investment Act specifies authorized, i.e., permissible, funding levels for each major component and for each of the six years it covers. These would generally bring funding back to Fiscal Year 2010 levels by Fiscal Year 2017, according to a National Skills Coalition brief.

But, as NSC also says, it’s very unlikely that programs will be funded at the authorized levels if Congress lets the caps and related cuts continue as currently mandated.

So a bipartisan, bicameral bill that’s a whole lot better than what we’ve got now, but not enough money to appropriately serve the many millions who could benefit — unless Congress does something even more remarkable.

 


Mayor’s Budget Shortchanges Under-Educated DC Adults … and Their Kids

April 24, 2014

“We have jobs and we have people,” says DC Appleseed’s Deputy Director. “But the education people have doesn’t fit the jobs available.” The real problem, however, as she goes on to suggest, is the education that many people don’t have.

This isn’t a rerun of the oft-debunked skills gap myth — at least so far as the District of Columbia is concerned. The extraordinarily high high unemployment rates in the poorer parts of the city apparently reflect a lack of minimal education credentials — and skills they’re supposed to indicate.

About 60,000 residents 18 years and older lack a high school diploma or the equivalent. An even larger number “likely lack the basic … skills needed to succeed in training, postsecondary education and the workforce,” according to a new DC Appleseed report.

Of the deplorably few adults in programs supported by funds the Office of the State Superintendent of Education administers, more than half who weren’t learning English as a second language have consistently tested below 6th grade level.

This means they’re ineligible for any of the programs the Department of Employment Services makes available through an Individual Training Account and also for most of the programs offered by our local community college.

Even residents who test higher often fail the GED exams. Their pass rate in 2012 was 55.2% — the third lowest in the country. And the exams got tougher this year.

Yet more than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require some postsecondary education by 2020, according to the latest projections by experts at Georgetown University.

In short, as things stand now, we’re looking at a very large number of working-age residents whose chances of full-time, living-wage jobs are dismal.

And as if that weren’t enough, we’ve research indicating links between parents’ education (or lack of same) and their children’s success in school. On the downside, children whose parents are functionally illiterate are twice as likely to be illiterate themselves.

This isn’t only because poverty rates are highest among adults without a high school diploma or GED — well over 33% in the District for those 25 and older. But all the daily impacts of poverty, e.g., hunger, homelessness, stress, obviously play a part.

Plowing more money into the rest of the education system, as the Mayor proposes, won’t deliver the hoped-for bang for the buck if the basic education needs of parents are neglected, as DC Learns warned several years ago.

DC Appleseed’s report identifies a range of problems in the District’s approach to adult education — including, but not limited to inadequate funding.

It outlines steps toward a long-range solution — essentially, an integrated system that connects basic skills development to career pathways. The DC Council could lay the groundwork with the initial $2.5 million the report recommends.

But the Council should also increase funding for the adult education programs we have now — both to serve more residents and to support better results.

I wish I could tell you what the Mayor’s budget proposes. But it’s characteristically opaque — partly, but not entirely because of the fragmentation DC Appleseed documents.

This much I’ve been able to parse.

The handful of charter schools that provide adult education would get more per pupil, as would the two regular public schools that do.

They’d still get less per pupil than what schools would get for any other type of student. And the new extra weight that’s supposed to boost funds for schools with students who’ve been designated “at risk” won’t apply, though some of the adults surely meet the same criteria, e.g., eligibility for SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

OSSE would get less for the adult education grants it provides. The proposed budget indicates a cut of about $3.8 million. This apparently reflects the fact that the Department of Employment Services won’t be transferring funds, as it did this fiscal year.

The Fair Budget Coalition had recommended that the baseline budget for adult education, i.e., the estimated costs of preserving current services, include these funds — a $5.5 million addition, according to FBC.

Hard to believe that the Mayor and his people couldn’t have found the money. They’ve instead put $3 million for adult literacy on the list of items to be funded if revenues prove higher than projected.

Let’s just say this is a mere gesture, since it would take $59.8 million to fund the priorities ranked higher. Setting this pie-in-the-sky aside, the total requested for all the programs that, in one way or the other, address the adult basic skills deficit might serve more residents than in Fiscal 2013.

But they then served at most about 8,000, according to DC Appleseed. That’s a far cry from meeting the need.

 


What Could Cut the Poverty Rate Right Now

February 20, 2014

A nice, short video from the Half in Ten campaign tells us five things we can do to cut poverty today. They’re actually four things Congress can do — and one that it shouldn’t.

They’re all modest, middle-of-the-road proposals, reflecting both pending legislation and priorities identified in the President’s latest State of the Union address. That alone should tell you that they won’t have an easy time getting through Congress, though polls indicate bipartisan support from voters.

Here they are, with supporting details from the video and others I’ve added.

Create Jobs. What Half in Ten has in mind here are investments in renewable energy, other “growth sectors” and infrastructure projects, e.g., repairing our pot-holed roads and crumbling bridges, improving public transport.

We’re still 7.7 million jobs shy of the number needed to bring the unemployment rate down to its pre-recession level — 600,000 fewer than when the video was created, but still a daunting number. The recommended investments would help close the gap — as might the next thing, according to many economists.

Raise the Minimum Wage. In other words, Congress should pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which has been awaiting a vote for about a year and a half now.

As I’ve written before, the bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 and then link it to a commonly-used consumer price index so that it wouldn’t again lose purchasing power due to inflation.

The bill would also, over a longer period of time, raise the federal tip credit wage — now and since 1991 stuck at $2.13 an hour — to 70% of the regular minimum wage and then link it to preserve this ratio.

In the late 1960s, Half in Ten says, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty. A full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage now pays less than the federal poverty line for a two-person family.

Expand Access to High-Quality Pre-K and Childcare. This, as you probably know, is a high priority for the President and a broad spectrum of advocacy organizations. They’re focused especially on children in low-income families, more than half of whom start school at a disadvantage — and never catch up.

A bill reflecting the Obama administration’s proposal — the Strong Start for America’s Children Act — would make pre-K available for more low-income four-year-olds and, at the same time, establish quality standards. It also seeks to raise quality in programs for younger kids.

The Half in Ten video, however, focuses on the immediate pocketbook issue. Low-income families, it says, spend, on average, 40% of their income on childcare. More money for publicly-funded programs and/or subsidies to help pay the rates other programs charge would obviously leave more leftover for other needs.

Make the Workplace Family Friendly. Three priorities here. One is mandatory paid sick leave for the more than 40% of private-sector workers whose employers don’t see fit to grant it voluntarily. The percent in roughly double for low-wage workers, who can least afford to take unpaid leave.

A second priority is paid family leave so that workers can take time off for a broader range of compelling reasons, e.g., childbirth, a sick family member in need of care. Only 212% of workers have this benefit now.

And of the 59% who have an unpaid family leave guarantee under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, about two million need, but can’t afford to take it, according to a recent survey.

A bill now pending in Congress would take care of both these issues — and without adding a penny to the federal debt, says one of the cosponsors.

The third priority is legislation to further strengthen the Equal Pay Act. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Various reasons for this, but an estimated quarter to a third of the gap may reflect discrimination.

Don’t Make Poverty Worse. In other words, Congress is to refrain from further cuts to programs that provide cash or near-cash benefits to people in need.

Half in Ten flags SNAP (the food stamp program), which, as you know, was recently cut. It lifted nearly five million people above the poverty threshold in 2012, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

Also flagged are unemployment insurance benefits, which lifted more than 2.4 million above the poverty threshold.

So Congress will surely make poverty worse if it doesn’t renew the recently-expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation program — or does, but trims it back again. The former seems more likely than the latter, unless Republicans rethink their position.

This is, in a way, a sad agenda because it’s largely based on pending legislation, which is largely based on what stands at least a remove chance of passing in this highly-divided, deficit-obsessed Congress. Sad also because chances seem pretty remote for much of it.

But one never can tell. So the thing we can do right now is to weigh in with our elected representatives on these five things — unless, of course, we’re disenfranchised District of Columbia residents. Sigh.


Low-Income Men in Prime Years Face Multiple Barriers

January 23, 2014

“Over 15 million men between the ages of 18 and 44 cannot afford to support a family,” writes Margaret Simms, one of the coauthors of a series of studies the Urban Institute has conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These are men who had no college degree and lived in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line during 2008-10. The total number of low-income men “in their prime years,” so defined, was 16.5 million.

This is about 3 million more than in 2000. And it represents a somewhat larger share of men in the age group. They are, as one of the Institute’s studies says, “disconnected” or at risk of becoming so.

Figures in another of the studies bear this out. For example:

  • Only 61% of the men were employed during the three-year period and only 45% full-time, year round.
  • Of those who worked, 37% made less than $10,000 a year — below the poverty line for a single person.
  • A mind-boggling 85% made less than $25,000.

Yet 77% of the men were counted as part of the labor force, meaning they were either working or looking for work at the time the Census Bureau conducted the surveys the Institute used.

So there seem to have been far more at risk of disconnection than actually disconnected — at least, so far as work is concerned. Disconnection from family is another matter.

Fewer than half had ever been married. And only 32% were during the 2008-10 period. But one gathers from what Simms says and from discussion at a symposium the Institute conducted that a far larger portion are fathers.

Most would like to be breadwinners and involved in their children’s lives, according to the experts who participated. But, as we know from other research, they’re hindered by low earnings and poor prospects.

Belonging to this disadvantaged group is not an equal opportunity. The men are disproportionately black and Hispanic — 48% of the Institute’s target group when counted together.

Simms cites two critical factors that help explain this — though we shouldn’t altogether discount plain old race discrimination in the labor market.

For the group as a whole, one reason for the dismal employment and earnings figures is insufficient education. Nearly a third had no more than a high school diploma or the equivalent. And 29% didn’t even have that. But the latter was true for half the Hispanics.

With or without the formal education credentials that could qualify them for ongoing, decent-paying jobs, many can’t get a foot in the door because they’ve spent time in prison.

Though the incarceration rate for young non-Hispanic white men has risen somewhat since 1980, it’s risen more for Hispanic young men — and soared for those who are black.

In 2008, 11.4% of all black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were behind bars. This is well over six times the rate for non-Hispanic white men in the same age range and about three times the rate for their Hispanic counterparts.

Simms concludes that “another door must open.” Both public and private-sector policies must change to lower the employment barriers for ex-offenders.

As important as this is, I think, as do many others, that we also need to change our incarceration policies — and to eliminate what looks for all the world like race discrimination in both sentencing and the way some local law enforcement authorities go about their business.

The Institute’s findings also cry out for reforms in our education system — from pre-K through college. These obviously must include opportunities for adults to make up for what they didn’t learn, whether because they dropped out, were pushed out or graduated with only minimal basic skills.

Even this agenda is, I think, too narrow. Perhaps the Institute’s studies will culminate in something more satisfactory.


Early Investments Can Give Low-Income Kids a Better Chance for a Better Life

June 5, 2013

The research I recently wrote about makes a persuasive case for lifetime income inequalities that begin when children are very, very young.

But, as the title of this post suggests, we can choose to mitigate the disadvantages low-income children are born to. President Obama has proposed a multi-part initiative that would give a boost to some programs that do.

Rich and Poor Beginnings

Unequal life opportunities begin even before children are born. Studies tell us that poor mothers are less likely to get good prenatal care or enough of the right kinds of foods.

For these and other reasons, e.g., high levels of stress, they’re more likely to give birth to babies who weigh very little. These babies are at high risk for physical and learning disabilities — and ultimately chronic illnesses.

Other seeds for long-term economic disadvantage are also health-related, as the Academic Pediatrician Association’s summary of the “life-altering effects” of child poverty shows.

Still others have to do with how parents raise their kids — how much time they spend talking to them, answering their questions, playing with them, reading to them, etc. Or if not they, then other caregivers.

Highly-educated parents — mainly mothers — make a greater investment of time in such activities than mothers with less than a high school degree, even though they’re more likely to be employed.

One pay-off, according to an oft-cited study, is that young children of well-off parents hear about three and a half times as many words per hour as those of poor parents.

The more words the children heard, the better their performance when they got to the fourth grade.

A Better Start for Low-Income Kids, But Not Enough of Them

Early childhood education programs — for both parents and their kids — can help compensate for some of the disadvantages that cause poor children to get left behind, even before they start first grade.

Voluntary home visiting programs, for example, help low-income parents raise children who will enter kindergarten healthy and with the skills their well-off peers usually have.

A recent Washington Post article focuses on a fine example of one of these. “Preschool in its earliest form,” the writer calls them.

High-quality child care can make an important difference as well. But it’s inordinately costly for low-income parents who don’t have vouchers to subsidize it, as most apparently don’t.

And even if they could get a voucher, they might not find a suitable slot. In the District of Columbia, for example we’ve got waiting lists because providers don’t get reimbursed for their costs.

The Early Head Start program offers an alternative for low-income children under three. And like regular Head Start, it addresses their health and nutrition needs, as well as their social and intellectual development.

But in 2010, it served fewer than 4% of eligible children. And this was a year when the program had an infusion of money from the Recovery Act.

Head Start itself reached only about two-fifths of the children eligible, according to the National Women’s Law Center’s estimate.

In fact, only 65% of four year olds in the lowest income bracket go to preschool at all, as the Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education recently reported. And it’s often low quality, the Commission adds.

The participation rate is even lower for the poorest three year olds — about 42%.

But states are spending less on pre-K. Total funding dropped by more than $548 million in the 2011-12 school year alone.

And, as you’ve undoubtedly read, an estimated 70,000 low-income preschoolers will get fewer — and in some cases, no — services from Head Start, thanks to sequestration.

President’s Early Childhood Initiative

President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget includes an initiative billed as an Early Education for All Americans plan.

As CLASP reports:

  • Most of the money — $75 billion over 10 years — would go to states that agree to expand preschool slots for four year olds whose families are at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.
  • A $1.4 billion investment would expand child care slots for infants and toddlers. These would provide full-day care in programs that agree to meet the quality standards set for Early Head Start.
  • Another $750 million would fund competitive grants aimed at giving states incentives — and some help — to expand their preschool programs and, if needed, beef up quality.
  • And $15 billion would expand home visiting programs for at-risk children.

To fund the preschool part, the President wants Congress to increase the federal tax on tobacco products.

You can imagine the pushback — from the tobacco companies, corner stores and, of course, Republicans in Congress who oppose all tax increases (except for low-income families).

So the President’s proposals face an uphill battle, as they would even if the funding source were different.

They’re no magic bullet. But they’d do a good bit to help ensure that, in his words, “none of our children start the race of life already behind,” as so many poor kids do now.


Why Are Poor Children Still Getting Left Behind?

May 23, 2013

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.


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