Inequality between children from low-income families and those from high-income families starts early – and creates a daunting achievement gap.
“…children’s earliest learning experiences and outcomes” vary considerably “based on their parents’ incomes and education,” Sara Mead writes in “Education Inequality Starts Early,” a U.S. News and World Report article.
Mead focuses on children’s earliest years, a topic she says is missing from recent debates about inequality.
The seeds of educational inequality are sadly familiar. Middle class children are more likely to be read to, and according to the well-known Hart-Risley study, they hear 30 million more words than their lower-income peers.
“As a result, by the time they enter kindergarten, children from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds are already far behind their peers in the highest quartile of socioeconomic status on measures of early reading and math skills,” Mead writes.
The good news:
“High-quality early childhood education programs can prevent or mitigate these disparities.”
“Paying for care is a big challenge for low-income families: Census data indicates that poor families who pay for childcare spend 30 percent of their incomes on care, compared to 8 percent for families not in poverty.”
“The upshot is that children who most need quality early learning are the least likely to get it: Nearly 90 percent of 4-year-olds from families making over $100,000 attend preschool, compared to less than two-thirds of children in poverty.”
The problem Mead says is that “our country lacks systems of support for parents across the income spectrum to raise their children.”
“We are also unique among developed countries in that our public policies and systems for early childhood education are not built on an expectation of universal access to preschool for all children ages 3-5. And we spend a smaller percentage of GDP on supporting young children and their families than most developed countries.”
“To be clear, parents, not government, are responsible for raising young children. But public policies can support parents to fulfill their responsibilities by helping them balance family and work responsibilities, cultivating a stable and thriving child care market, and helping lower and moderate-income families pay for the costs of child care and early education.”
Other nations, Mead notes, are getting it right: They have built “systems that make preschool universally accessible and support all families, while also targeting increased support to the most at-risk children, thereby mitigating inequities. And these systems seem to work better in addressing inequality than the patchwork of means-tested early learning programs that exists in the United States today.”
So while inequality starts early, it can, with the right policies, also be stopped early.