Our country should applaud the Obama administration’s efforts to look educational inequality squarely in the eye and acknowledge that it does not start in 1st grade, kindergarten, or even pre-K. Educational inequality begins the minute a child is born and leaves the hospital to go home with unemployed, undereducated parents or, as is often the case, with an unprepared single mother.
I see children from these families every day. For many years, I have volunteered in New York City as a tutor both for struggling 1st graders and for high school seniors laboring to pass the state Regents exams. I also volunteer as a doula—a support person—at my local hospital for women who are alone when they give birth. The women and children I work with are at the bottom of our society’s ladder. Observing them, I have found it increasingly clear that we must begin to provide our youngest at-risk children with early-onset care that mimics the care middle-class children receive as their birthright. Education initiatives like the No Child Left Behind Act start too late. The damage is already done.
Very young children have the greatest ability to learn. They are like sponges, soaking up whatever their environment offers."
Leticia, the young girl I tutor, entered 1st grade without a solid grasp of letters or numbers and cannot identify a picture of a zebra or a giraffe. She shares a bed with her grandmother and often comes to school yawning. When there is a school holiday and I ask her what she did, she says, “Nothing.” Even though she spends an hour a day with me, she will repeat 1st grade.
Jamilla, the senior I work with, lives in a poor section of Brooklyn, and, unless she passes her Regents exams this month, she will not graduate. Her reading skills are poor, her vocabulary abysmal. Although she is 18 years old, she had not heard of the Holocaust.
And then there are the women for whom I am a doula. Destiny, a recent client, is a 24-year-old single mother with a 7-year-old by the same man who fathered her newborn. He has fathered four additional children with other women. Destiny doesn’t see anything terribly strange about this situation, since her friends live similar lives.
Leticia, Jamilla, and Destiny represent a particularly troubling underclass in our society. What they have in common is a home life that is mired in poverty and bereft of mental stimulation. In the natural course of things, Leticia will take Jamilla’s place by age 18, Jamilla will take Destiny’s place by 24, and Destiny’s baby daughter will in 6 years be like Leticia. An endless cycle.
The education portion of President Barack Obama’s economic-stimulus package offers a way to break this cycle. The legislation allots $5 billion over the next two years for early-childhood initiatives, including Early Head Start and Head Start. These programs focus on our youngest disadvantaged children from birth through age 5, as well as provide support for their parents.
The naysayers are already predictably fuming. A recent op-ed in The Washington Times cites previous arguments that “early institutional schooling can harm children emotionally, intellectually, and socially” [the Southwest Policy Institute] and that “when we instruct children in academic subjects … at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage” [David Elkind].
Such thinking totally misses the point of what education is. What a good education provides is an opportunity for all five senses to be activated. A 9-month-old baby will delight in patting the fur in Pat the Bunny. A toddler will be soothed and enchanted with the old lady whispering “hush” in Goodnight Moon. And 3- and 4-year-olds will laugh at the ducklings trailing after Mrs. Mallard in Make Way for Ducklings. There will be opportunities to run around with other children in the play yard, to color and paint, and take walks around the neighborhood. Although these children will not be force-fed their ABCs, their minds will be stretched, and by kindergarten and 1st grade, they will be able to take their place with confidence next to their middle-class peers.
Very young children have the greatest ability to learn. They are like sponges, soaking up whatever their environment offers. The Obama administration deserves much credit for focusing on this underserved population so that, going forward, fewer young people will have the challenges facing Leticia, Jamilla, and Destiny.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as Educational Inequality Begins at Birth