Here’s a mostly filler piece from Julia Lawrence over at EducationNews. I use it merely as a launching point for a slightly different inquiry.
During his State of the Union speech last year, President Barack Obama called for the federal and state lawmakers to work together to offer early pre-school to every child. Once the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, “every” turned out to mean more like everyone from families making 200% of the federal poverty line or less.
Some critics say that sending children to school at the age of four does not work. The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, on March 20th new results were announced from a study of nine-to-11-year-olds in New Jersey. This report found that disadvantaged children who had attended pre-school had better literacy, language, maths and science skills. And two years of pre-kindergarten were better than one.
Starting schooling early doesn’t just have academic benefits, but social ones as well. Those who begin learning at an earlier age are less likely to commit crimes and end up in prison later in life.
Let’s first remind ourselves, then remind ourselves again, that what we are talking about is earlier kindergarten for “disadvantaged” children. (And let’s also remind ourselves that when we say “disadvantaged”, what at least some of us really mean is “Black and Hispanic”.) 49% of students will always be below average, and people could be fine with that. But what drives a lot of people crazy is the fact that what passes for academic performance (as measured by the NAEP, mostly) seems in startlingly short supply in student “populations” defined in terms of their race or income. It’s especially, I think, the race thing that gets people in their gut, but as a practical matter we often focus more on the socioeconomic issues because that’s a less politically charged terrain.
So here’s what we’ve got: Student group A has crappy test scores. Student group B has good test scores. There’s a gap, and we want to close it.
What do we know? Well, we know that the typical member of Student group B gets read to at home, has access to books, has school pushed on them by their parents, has parents who themselves have at least some sort of academic disposition and training, and grows up around other students who are similarly situated. They tend not to be shot at by their classmates on a regular basis, and oftentimes it seems that their family situation is somewhat stable. There may even be a father around. They have interesting toys, and go on trips to places like museums and factories and orchards. They have a quiet place to study, and they tend to get three or four balanced meals a day.
These seem to be the relevant differences. We can call them “advantages” because they seem to give children a leg up on doing well in school, and their absence tends to hurt school performance. Typical members of Student Group A, on the other hand, don’t get these “advantages” — that’s why they’re called “disadvantaged”. A headline that says something like “disadvantaged kids do worse in school” is actually something of a truism: the reason they are called disadvantaged is because they happen to have the characteristics that we have statistically correlated with doing poorly in school, and lack the ones that we think benefit academic achievement.
By way of analogy, if it turned out that 100% of low-performing students grew up in blue-, green-, and red-painted bedrooms, while 100% of high performers grew up in yellow-painted bedrooms, growing up in a yellow bedroom would be an advantage. And those “children of darker colors” who grew up in blue, green, and red rooms would be “disadvantaged”. And it shouldn’t surprise us that, when we go looking for disadvantages in this way, that the disadvantaged don’t do as well.
Now, I’m just musing here, but it seems like the VERY FIRST thing to do if you wanted to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged kids is give the disadvantaged kids some advantages. Then they wouldn’t be disadvantaged, and if they weren’t disadvantaged, well… then at least in theory there would be no achievement gap. So how to do that? Well, “advantages” seem to track with growing up in a certain sort of family. So the most obvious way is to take the kids away from “disadvantaged” families at birth and give them to “advantaged” families to raise. No raising kids for you if you’re statistically suspect: there’s social good to promote. Trust me, that’s the way to fix the achievement gap.
That probably won’t go over so well, though. (For some reason I’m imagining cries of “cultural genocide”, although it seems pretty clear that the “advantages” we wish to promote and the “disadvantages” we wish to eradicate are profoundly cultural.) So let’s look for a less drastic solution that accomplishes more or less the same thing.
Howsabout this: If we can’t take the A-kids kids completely away from their families at birth, we just take the kids away, at an incredibly early age, and have those kids “raised” in an environment which simulates the “advantagedness” of Student Group B? In the A-Group’s cognitively formative years, we’ll give them a bright, busy, happy linguistically-charged environment that sort of will be like the environment that the B-Group already grows up in. We can call it “early kindergarten” at first, and then after that, we’ll just call it “school”. Eventually, we’ll call the whole thing “school”. And we won’t take the kids out of their homes completely — just for most of the day. Their disadvantaged parents will still be (mostly) responsible for clothing and feeding and the like, and for providing a place to sleep. This also reduces expenses.
Will that close, or at least narrow the achievement gap?
Sure. I don’t see why it wouldn’t.