Supporting All Young Learners, Taking on Inequality

In a major opinion piece in the New York Times this past Sunday, Stanford University professor — and 2013 CBP conference speaker — Sean Reardon discusses the growing academic achievement gap between children in the wealthiest families and other children. As Reardon explains, the achievement gap between high-income students (those from families at the 90th percentile of the US income distribution) and lower-income students (those from families at the 10th percentile) has widened substantially during the past few decades.

Reardon partly attributes this growing divide in academic achievement to increased income inequality in the US and, relatedly, to the fact that affluent families are spending more of their resources — financial and otherwise — on their children’s preparation for school, in light of the higher-than-ever stakes of educational success. One way to close the achievement gap between higher-income children and their peers, notes Reardon, is to level the playing field by ensuring that all young people enter school ready to learn:

Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born. Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.

Reardon’s piece underscores that broad access to child care and preschool programs among low-income families is one of the keys (though not the only key) to addressing the achievement gap between affluent children and their less-well-off peers and, in turn, reversing the trend toward greater income inequality. In light of the past generation of widening inequality in California, it is troubling that state policymakers have cut annual support for child care and preschool by about $1 billion — or almost one-third ­— in the past several years. As California’s fiscal picture improves, policymakers should seek to rebuild the state’s investment in high-quality child care and preschool programs that allow low-income parents to work and that also provide critical developmental opportunities for children from lower-income families.

— Steven Bliss