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Good News About Educational Inequality in NYTimes is Not THAT Good: More Work is Needed!

August 27, 2016

Today’s online NYTimes featured an article by three education professors— 

The enormous gap in academic performance between high- and low-income children has begun to narrow. Children entering kindergarten today are more equally prepared than they were in the late 1990s…From 1998 to 2010, the school readiness gap narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading. The gaps that remain are still vast. But even this modest improvement represents a sharp reversal of the trend over the preceding decades.

OK… that IS an improvement and a reversal of a trend, but, as the article acknowledges later implicitly and explicitly, the change is so small that it is impossible to know what caused it and so small it would take another four generations at least to close it completely. After listing a host of specific programs that might be making a difference in preparing disadvantaged children for Kindergarten, the researchers conclude that poorer parents are mimicking their affluent counterparts by  “…rapidly increasing their investment of both time and money in their children’s cognitive development” and this, combined “…with public investments in home-visiting programs and high-quality preschool programs” has narrowed the gap by the small marginal amount found in their study. While the article has an upbeat title, it ends on a sobering note:

As encouraging as this new evidence is, we have a long way to go. Poor children still enter kindergarten nearly a year behind their richer peers. Even if school readiness gaps continue to narrow at the rate they did between 1998 and 2010, it would take another 60 to 110 years for them to be completely eliminated.

Changes in parenting are not going to be sufficient to sustain or speed this progress, although more paid leave would help. Economic inequality still constrains poor children’s horizons. Low-income and middle-class parents still struggle to find affordable, high-quality preschools. The elementary, middle and high schools that rich and poor students attend differ markedly in resources and quality. And it isn’t clear that the recent reductions in school readiness gaps will automatically translate into greater equality in high school, college and beyond.

My concern is that those who want to avoid investing in public education to avoid higher taxes will seize on the headline and translate the findings of this research into a narrative that makes the acquisition of skills the sole responsibility of the parents… while simultaneously advocating less benefits for the parents and fewer resources for “government schools”. I’ll be on the lookout for such assertions in the future….

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