by Prudence Carter and Kevin Welner
Parents in New York City who compete for coveted slots in the most sought-after preschools and kindergartens are often met with ridicule. But what these parents are doing is logical. They recognize something that many leaders — including Mayor Bloomberg — have largely ignored for years: Children learn when they have opportunities to learn, and the richer those opportunities from the very earliest age, the greater the learning.
If you want the right outcome, you need the right inputs.
By the time young children enter kindergarten, education researchers already see a fully developed test-score gap. The children at the top are those most advantaged by their parents’ wealth, having begun their academic development at very early ages. They board an elevator that speeds them to academic success.
Children in middle-class families benefit from some of these resources, but their parents must struggle to try to keep up. Effectively, their parents are able to put them on smoothly operating escalators toward academic attainment goals; but theirs is no express elevator.
Meanwhile, children who are born into poor or lower-income families face enormous disadvantages. They stare up at a steep stairwell, often with broken steps and no hand rails. Although their test scores have increased some over two decades, the relative gap between them and the other groups is still startling high. Nearly two-thirds of black and Latino youth under the age of 18 fall into this group, and, though there are, of course, many exceptions, their talent is being wasted year after year, generation after generation.
This all leads to the predictable, oft-lamented achievement gap — which is powerfully present in New York City, home of some of the richest and some of the poorest people in America, along with plenty in between.
Lower-income children perform less well on high-stakes accountability tests; they then graduate from high school and attend college at significantly lower rates than children of the wealthy and the middle class. Achievement and opportunity are intricately connected. Without one, you cannot have the other.
Politicians have responded to the markedly different educational outcomes among different groups by raising expectations and demands through high-stakes accountability systems. This is exactly the wrong response.
The No Child Left Behind law, New York’s new teacher evaluation law and other policies implicitly, if not explicitly, insist that all three of these groups of children can reach the metaphorical top floor. “No excuses,” they insist. The Common Core standards, while sound, are an articulation of this same basic idea.
What is still missing, years after the education reform movement began, is sufficient supports, capacity or resources — at the earliest age, which is when assistance is most critical — to close the initial and enduring opportunity gap.
The undeniable fact of life in America, indeed the world, is that higher-income families are fortunate to have the resources to supplement their children’s education with arts, science, history and engaging, expansive learning. Children in lower-income families are usually denied such opportunities. And as their schools become more test-focused, they have few places to turn for this sort of vital enrichment.
The New York City parents mentioned at the outset — and parents throughout the United States — know the truth: Policymakers cheat our children when they seek out magic beans and silver bullets instead of the quieter but much more meaningful investments in the sort of deeply engaging teaching and learning that will produce vibrant, intellectually curious young people in all communities.
If we as a nation hope to narrow glaring achievement gaps among children of different social classes, we must step up to provide low-income youth with a fair start. We need to think much more seriously about the inputs.
Every American will not go to college. But all our children should be given an equitable chance to be prepared for college.
For those now facing the steep stairwell, our leaders have a choice. They can continue the breathless push for achievement now, regardless of where kids start. Or they can turn to solid research about opportunities to learn. They can increase access to high-quality preschools, well-trained and culturally sensitive teachers, childhood nutrition, learning enrichment programs and other inputs. We know how and why some students thrive while others falter. It’s the opportunity gap, and we can close it.
Carter is professor of education and sociology at Stanford University, and Welner is professor of education policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder. They are the co-editors of “Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give All Children an Even Chance.”