Friday, July 11, 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

“Difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week” Jay-Z 

As some have heard me say, I’m not a big fan of “impossible.”  I do not believe anything is impossible.  OK, maybe at 46 it might be impossible for me to ever dunk a basketball, but few things fall into that category.  When we discuss the achievement gap, I sense impossibility in what I read more than I sense what may be possible.  I hear experts talking about how it’s impossible to close the achievement gap.  I understand.  It seems daunting.  However, I have great disrespect for impossible and know for certain that closing the achievement gap is possible.  We just have to decide to do it.  Things aren’t going to get better on their own.  In fact, through inaction, they will continue to get worse.

A few months ago I read a intriguing article in the New York Times by David Brooks (The Opportunity Gap) about some major differences between how rich kids and poor kids are being raised.  At one point in the not so distant past, the differences weren’t as stark as they are today.  What I took away from the article is if we are serious about providing opportunities to children growing up in poverty, we are going to need a surge of early education solutions for both pre and after school programs in disadvantaged communities.  It is possible.

Just a few decades ago, there wasn’t a significant difference between how parents with college degrees and parents with high school degrees raised their children.  Today however, college educated parents are investing a lot more in their children’s education, especially in the early years, and of course, parents with high school degrees haven’t been able to keep up.  

I’m old enough to remember the concept that working class parents were more “fortunate” than white-collar parents when it came to family life because they were able to spend more time with their children.  I remember the notion that parents who were “blue collar” or “working class” had a family advantage.  In other words, they might not be rich, but they were able to spend more time with their kids. On the other hand, “white-collar” jobs came with a widely understood assumption that the responsibilities of those roles meant you would be sacrificing family time.  In fact, the data shows working class parents spent more time with their kids than those white-collar parents. 

Today, this concept is not only no longer true, it’s been dramatically reversed.  Today, college educated parents spend an hour more with their children than working class parents do, especially in the first three years of life, when it counts the most. 

Rich parents are not only spending more time with their kids, they are spending more money.  According to the Times article, over the last 40 years high income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curricular activities, by $5,300 a year (adjusted for inflation.)  Low income parents, who obviously have a problem investing at the same level in their children, have been only been able to increase their extra expenditures by just $480 a year and if my own personal experience is an example, even that $480 is a immense sacrifice.  It usually means something else isn’t being purchased or paid for.

There is also evidence that in the early 70’s, kids from the bottom income bracket participated in almost the same number of activities as kids from the upper income bracket.  Today, it’s not even in the same ball park.  Rich kids are twice as likely to play sports after school.  They are much more likely to participate in non sport activities like theater, social clubs, yearbook team, volunteer programs, etc.  They are also more likely to attend religious services and participate in religious programs. 

The disadvantage can literally be heard.  Children in middle and upper class families hear an average of 15 million more words than children in working class families.  Children of families on welfare hear 30 million less words.  By the time a child is 4 years old, there is an 18-month to two year academic gap between a poor kid and a rich kid.

What we invest in early education will say a lot about how serious we are in trying to close the achievement gap.  I believe in education’s power to provide opportunities to our children living in poverty.  However, it gets a lot harder to make this a reality if children are coming into our schools so far behind.  

In order to make sure education disrupts poverty, we need a surge of services and programs to unlevel the playing field when and where it counts the most.  We need to start early in a child’s life.  We need to make sure kids aren’t coming to school already at a disadvantage.  This is a solvable problem, one which we must and can take action against.  It is possible to close the achievement gap.  We just have to decide if we are going to close it or not, and then own up to the decision we make.  Impossible is just justification for not taking the right action.