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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

High Quality Preschool Isn’t an Option for Children in Poverty

By Peter DeWitt — May 05, 2013 4 min read
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Social and economic disadvantage--not only poverty, but also a host of associated conditions--depresses student performance. Concentrating students with these disadvantages in racially and economically homogenous schools depresses it even further.” Richard Rothstein

Educators debate back and forth whether pre-school is necessary. Unfortunately, for those children who need it most, preschool is typically a far-fetched dream that will never become a reality. Their option is mediocre at best and does not provide them with the resources they need. Those are the 22% of children living in poverty (Scherer. Educational Leadership).

Social and economic disadvantage contributes in important ways to poor student achievement. Children in poor health attend quality schools less regularly. Those with inadequate housing change schools frequently, disrupting not only their own educations but those of their classmates. Children whose parents are less literate and whose homes have less rich intellectual environments enter school already so far behind that they rarely can catch up” (Rothstein, “A Nation At Risk” Twenty-Five Years Later, 2008).

The preschool debate should be less about whether it’s worthwhile and more about the impact it has on children. However, most affluent and middle-class homes prepare their children naturally for their school experience through the experiences they provide them and the conversations they engage with them. Through research we know that not all lower income households offer the same language rich environments that other households do.

Rothstein says, “On average, professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50% greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children” (Class and Schools 2004).

High quality preschools could potentially help narrow the achievement gap. There’s just one problem...

High Quality = Expensive
In How Preschool Fights Poverty (Education Week), Cynthia Lamy writes, “We know that preschool can provide the developmentally stimulating experiences that many children growing up in poverty lack. The evidence is incontrovertible.” Those high quality experiences can help narrow the gap between these students and their peers who live in a language-enriched home.

Lamy goes on to say,
To fight poverty, preschool must provide an enormous early boost that changes the academic trajectory of a child forever. Only a high-quality preschool program will do the job. Lower-quality programs do not have a significant impact on poverty because they do not make that life-changing difference. How do we know this? A mature body of research on preschool provides guidance.”

The only issue is the fact that the high quality preschool programs that do exist happen to be expensive and parents cannot find a plethora of those high quality preschool programs in high poverty areas. And there are some very sad reasons why that happens.

Why It May Never End
Educators understand that children who do not grow up in language-rich environments enter kindergarten way behind their peers. Why wouldn’t they? They lack experiences such as going to museums, movies, and have not been consistently read to at home. Even worse, based on research, we know that these children have not been spoken with...they have been spoken to and some do not have any books at home.

Poverty is not an excuse for why students are not learning; it is a reality. There are some great examples of schools who are beating the poverty issue (Fern Creek, Fern Creek Video). Unfortunately these schools showing success in the face of poverty are the exception and not the rule. Poverty is a very deep issues that has a long history.

In Why Our Schools Are Segregated(Educational Leadership) Richard Rothstein writes, “Residential segregation is actually the result of racially motivated law, public policy, and government-sponsored discrimination. The result of state action, residential segregation reflects an ongoing and blatant constitutional violation that calls for explicit remedy.”

Rothstein goes on to say, “The federal government led the development of policies contributing to segregation. From its New Deal inception, federal public housing policy respected existing “neighborhood composition” by placing projects for low-income blacks in black ghettos and those for middle-income whites in white neighborhoods. As suburbs grew, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA) financed the movement of working and lower-middle-class whites (including those living in public housing) out of cities, but denied mortgage insurance to blacks.”

In the End
High quality preschool to narrow the achievement gap is just one part of the equation. We need to get state and local governments to direct funds for high quality preschools to our high poverty areas, and prepare preschool teachers to work with high poverty children. Just like in the example with Fern Creek, we need strong leaders who will stay in those situations and work to make them better. However, there are other things that need to be done as well.

Rothstein ends by saying, “Narrowing the achievement gap will require housing desegregation, which history also teaches cannot be a voluntary matter but is a constitutional necessity--that is, voiding exclusionary zoning laws, placing low- and moderate-income housing in predominantly white suburbs, and ending federal subsidies for communities that fail to reverse policies that led to racial exclusion.” Unfortunately much of this will never happen because too many people in society want the separation.

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Educational Leadership.(2013). Faces of Poverty. May 2013 | Volume 70 | Number 8. ASCD. Arlington, VA.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.