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Can Education Create a Level Playing Field for Children Born in Poverty

September 23, 2015

The title of Eduardo Porter’s column in today’s NYTimes states a blunt truth: “The Education Gap Between Rich and Poor is Growing Wider”. The article draws on findings from various economic studies and particularly on  a new book titled “Too Many Children Left Behind” (Russell Sage) by Columbia sociology professor Jane Waldfogel and colleagues from Australia, Canada and Britain. The book “…traces the story of America’s educational disparities across the life cycle of its children, from the day they enter kindergarten to eighth grade“, and it doesn’t paint a pretty or hopeful picture. As Porter writes:

Their story goes sour very early, and it gets worse as it goes along. On the day they start kindergarten, children from families of low socioeconomic status are already more than a year behind the children of college graduates in their grasp of both reading and math.

Porter offers a litany of statistics that illustrate the extraordinary obstacle that children born in poverty face. He concludes his listing with the one obstacle that prevents schools from being an effective means of intervention, the reliance on property taxes to fund public education and the zoning practices that reinforce the housing patterns:

Financed mainly by real estate taxes that are more plentiful in neighborhoods with expensive homes, public education is becoming increasingly compartmentalized. Well-funded schools where the children of the affluent can play and learn with each other are cordoned off from the shabbier schools teaching the poor, who are still disproportionally from black or Hispanic backgrounds.

Porter sees the need for a comprehensive approach, one that goes beyond what schools can provide by themselves:

The policy prescriptions go beyond improving teachers and curriculums, or investing in bringing struggling students up to speed. They include helping parents, too: teaching them best practices in parenting, raising their pay and helping them with the overlapping demands of work and family.

As noted in previous posts, it is unrealistic to expect a single parent with a high school diploma working two low wage part-time jobs with on-demand scheduling to provide the same level of nurturance as a stay-at-home mom with a college degree… and yet that’s what is implicit in the belief that schools alone can close the learning gaps that children bring with them to school.

Porter opened his article with evidence that schools have succeeded in narrowing the performance gap between black and white students over the past fifty years… but his concluding paragraphs are more sobering:

Fifty years ago, the black-white proficiency gap was one and a half to two times as large as the gap between a child from a family at the top 90th percentile of the income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile, according to Professor Reardon at Stanford. Today, the proficiency gap between the poor and the rich is nearly twice as large as that between black and white children.

In other words, even as one achievement gap narrowed, another opened wide. That kind of progress could dash one’s hope in the leveling power of education.

My hopes remain alive… but only because I believe some act on the disparities described in this article and conclude that we need to provide more of a helping hand to parents if we want our country to have the kind of economic system that enables a child born into poverty to improve their economic standing and that of their children.


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