Occupy the Classroom
A strong op ed in yesterday's NYT by Nick Kristof calling for greater investment in early ed:
Occupy Wall Street is shining a useful spotlight on one of America's central challenges, the inequality that leaves the richest 1 percent of Americans with a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
Most of the proposed remedies involve changes in taxes and regulations, and they would help. But the single step that would do the most to reduce inequality has nothing to do with finance at all. It's an expansion of early childhood education.
Huh? That will seem naïve and bizarre to many who chafe at inequities and who think the first step is to throw a few bankers into prison. But although part of the problem is billionaires being taxed at lower rates than those with more modest incomes, a bigger source of structural inequity is that many young people never get the skills to compete. They're just left behind.
"This is where inequality starts," said Kathleen McCartney, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as she showed me a chart demonstrating that even before kindergarten there are significant performance gaps between rich and poor students. Those gaps then widen further in school.
"The reason early education is important is that you build a foundation for school success," she added. "And success breeds success."
One common thread, whether I'm reporting on poverty in New York City or in Sierra Leone, is that a good education tends to be the most reliable escalator out of poverty. Another common thread: whether in America or Africa, disadvantaged kids often don't get a chance to board that escalator.
Maybe it seems absurd to propose expansion of early childhood education at a time when budgets are being slashed. Yet James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has shown that investments in early childhood education pay for themselves. Indeed, he argues that they pay a return of 7 percent or more — better than many investments on Wall Street.
"Schooling after the second grade plays only a minor role in creating or reducing gaps," Heckman argues in an important article this year in American Educator. "It is imperative to change the way we look at education. We should invest in the foundation of school readiness from birth to age 5."
October 19, 2011