It starts with preschool
The achievement gap between America’s rich kids and poor kids is getting worse—the latter need preschool, too.
This year at Stanford, a professor in the Graduate school of education discovered something startling: Contrary to the assumption that America’s youth, rich or poor, have increasingly egalitarian access to good education, Sean Reardon found education in America is actually becoming more unequal. The achievement gap on standardized test scores between wealthy students and poor ones increased by 40 percent over the last 30 years. This gap continues — or grows even more pronounced —when it comes to college. Reardon found that 15 percent of upper-income American high school graduates in 2004 went on to a ‘highly selective’ four-year college, whereas only 5 percent of middle-income graduates, and 2 percent of low-income graduates did.
A natural reaction by policymakers to this fact is to look for ways to get these qualified, lower-income high school graduates to apply to and enroll in college at higher rates (story on that coming next week). But it turns out this sort of approach is merely patchwork: “The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students,” discovered Reardon.
Students who don’t attend preschool tend to remain forever behind their peers in terms of academic achievement. That’s why the unprecedented $75 billion early childhood education program proposed by Obama in his 2014 budget is so important: By making preschool universal, we can dramatically reduce disparities between children rich and poor and raise achievement levels for the entire education system as well.
Obama’s Preschool For All plan is to give 4-year-olds across the country universal access to preschool. A 2012 study by researcher Elliot Tucker-Drob of the University of Texas found that “the very children who would benefit most from preschools are the least likely to be enrolled in them.”
Today, 40 percent of the nation’s three and four year olds are not enrolled in a preschool program. This varies by state and also by race, with Hispanic children being severely underrepresented in preschool: a decade ago, only 23 percent of Hispanic 3-year-old were enrolled, compared with 49 percent of blacks and 43 percent of whites. Although black children are more likely to be enrolled, the quality of their care is often worse.
This is precisely what the Obama administration hopes to change through its universal preschool program, which will provide funding to states based upon the condition that they set up monitoring mechanisms to ensure that their preschooling centers meet federal standards for quality. Ninety percent of funding for the program would initially come from the federal budget through an increased tax on cigarettes, but the intention is for states to pay 25 percent of the bill by the end of the decade. Securing funding through a cigarette tax will be difficult for a Congress heavily lobbied by the tobacco industry.
But it’s something that even conservatives who claim to believe in equal opportunity for all Americans should get behind. More than any other factor, curbing education inequalities in America requires equal access to education for all children at the age where disparities begin. Congress should embrace the provision in Obama’s Fiscal year 2014 budget proposal to fund universal preschool— a significant first step toward reversing the growing achievement gap between America’s rich students and it’s poor ones.