was cradle to grave - without even the comfort of a cradle for
Black children. After Emancipation, Jim Crow systematically
perpetuated inferior Black status, relentlessly channeling Black
youth to the lowest rungs of the social ladder through de
jure and de facto school segregation.
In his classic
1991 book, "Savage
Inequalities: Children in America's Schools," Jonathan
Kozol detailed the devastation wrought by enforced racial isolation
of Black students, nationwide. Inequalities in funding of urban
education have created an "educational caste system"
that is all but indistinguishable from Jim Crow in its societal
are innocent children, after all. They have done nothing wrong,"
wrote Kozol, the activist-educator. "They have committed
no crime. They are too young to have offended us in any way
the Washington-based Economic
Policy Institute unveiled a study described as a "companion
piece" to Kozol's landmark work. "Inequality at the
Starting Gate: Social Background Differences in Achievement
as Children Begin School" illuminates the cumulative effects
of inequalities among children from cradle to kindergarten.
Co-authored by University of Michigan researchers Valerie E.
Lee and David T. Burkam, the book weighs the baggage that children
arrive with at the kindergarten door:
inequalities facing children before they enter school are
less publicized. We should expect schools to increase achievement
for all students, regardless of race, income, class, and prior
achievement. But it is unreasonable to expect schools to completely
eliminate any large pre-existing inequalities soon after children
first enter the education system, especially if those schools
are under-funded and over-challenged.
shows that the inequalities of children's cognitive ability
are substantial right from "the starting gate."
Disadvantaged children start kindergarten with significantly
lower cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts.
These same disadvantaged children are then placed in low-resource
schools, magnifying the initial inequality.
interviewed Dr. Burkam shortly after publication of the study.
Could you explain how your book and Kozol's 1991 study differ?
While Savage Inequalities is a book that focuses primarily on
differences in the schools and what goes on in the schools,
our book in a sense makes for an interesting companion volume
to it, in that our study is not directly about schools as much
as about the diversity of student backgrounds and abilities
when kids first go to school. It is another piece of
the educational puzzle.
Kozol talks about how racial isolation makes it easier to discriminate
against Black children.
One of the topics that we devote a whole chapter to in the book
is, which types of students go to which types of schools? We
have a number of measures of school quality - 15 or 16 measures
of school quality. Certainly, school quality is a controversial
issue in its own right, and if you put ten people in a room,
you'll probably get ten different ideas as to what constitutes
a high quality school. Our interest was not necessarily in defining
once and for all time what a high quality school is,
but to investigate whether or not across a wide array of schools
there is any evidence that minority students, disadvantaged
students, are systematically going to lower quality schools.
And of course, the answer is: Yes.
how you measure school quality, these young children who in
some ways need school the most, are systematically going to
the lower, least quality schools. Now why is that? Well, it's
very much the same issue that Jonathan Kozol brings up. Most
students go to school in their own neighborhood. Because of
the racial and class segregation in this country, schools are
better in some places than they are in others.
You say, "Inequality is one of the key factors preventing
education from serving this role as the Great Equalizer."
Is that what education in the U.S. is supposed to do?
While we have been talking about that for 100 years in this
country, I'm not sure that everyone is in agreement that that's
what schools should do. Certainly it is a belief of mine, and
a belief of many of my colleagues. The very fact that we have
used that phrase historically in this country - the Great Equalizer
- presupposes that there is something that needs to be equalized.
That is exactly what this book is all about: documenting
those great differences, the great disparities that exist even
before formal schooling begins.
and I are very quick to talk of the importance of holding schools
accountable for learning when schools are in session. But these
are not disparities that you can attribute to schools, because
the kids haven't even been to school, yet. So, if indeed schools
are to have any hope of being the Great Equalizer, these are
certainly the disparities, the differences, the gaps that schools
will need to accommodate, that they will need to work against.
You say that disadvantaged children start kindergarten with
"significantly lower cognitive skills." First, explain
what "cognitive skills" are.
This particular data set that we are using, the Early Childhood
Longitudinal Study of what they call the kindergarten cohort,
is a new national data set collected by the National Center
for Education Statistics. This is a national longitudinal data
set of children who were in kindergarten in 1998 - nearly 20,000
children. This same group of children have been and will continue
to be followed over the next number of years. They were looked
at in the beginning of kindergarten, at the end of kindergarten,
at the beginning of first grade, at the end of first grade,
and they'll be looked at again at the end of the third grade
and at the end of the fifth grade.
mind that these are kindergarteners. You don't just give a multiple-choice
survey to kindergarten kids if you want to get a sense of their
skills. You don't give a multiple-choice test to find out what
they know, and what they do not know. Instead the National Center
for Education Statistics invested a huge amount of money gathering
early childhood specialists to develop one-on-one, untimed tests
in mathematics, literacy and general knowledge. You can imagine
the sheer energy and clock hours that are required to do this
with 20,000 children around the country.
the skill measures that we have at the beginning of kindergarten.
of literacy, we mean early reading, letter recognition, sound
recognition skills. In mathematics, it's early skills having
to do with quantity and amount comparison. These are pretty
high quality tests.
How concerned are you about cultural bias in the testing process?
The people you want to talk to about that are the ETS [Education
Testing Service] developers, because the actual tests themselves
are not public domain. What little I have seen of them has been
very impressive, in terms of pulling together a small army of
early childhood experts to very carefully create developmentally
appropriate questions that were not going to be particularly
biased by culture, class and race differences. But that should
always be a concern with any kind of testing.
You write of schools sometimes "magnifying the initial
disparities" among children. What do you mean by that?
Chapter four of our book is all about looking at a wide array
of measures of school quality and whether or not there is any
evidence that minority children... are systematically going
to schools of lower quality.
again when we're done with the next study. This particular study
is about the differences in cognitive skills at the beginning
of kids' schooling, and the types of schools that those students
go to. We are currently working on a study with the Economic
Policy Institute (EPI) on these very questions. Many people
have argued that, because of the different schools that the
children go to, these differences [in cognitive skills at kindergarten]
get smaller, larger, etc., over time. And we are currently working
on a follow-up study with EPI on this very question: How do
these disparities change over time? Do they get smaller during
the school year? Do they get wider? That's part two. In that
sense, the jury is out.
on which our book is based is called Inequality at the Starting
Gate. We don't have a title for the next one, yet. Maybe something
like, "Inequality, Two Laps In."
It's one thing to evaluate the students at these intervals.
But how should school performance be measured?
There are at least three things that could happen during the
years kids spend in school. Differences could remain the same
throughout the schooling process, which would mean that schools
aren't equalizing things, but they also are not further stratifying
our young people.
possibility is that differences indeed shrink as children go
through school. That would mean that schools are, indeed, the
Great Equalizer. If that is the case, we have a lot to be thankful
for and a lot of praise that would be owing to our schools.
number three is that differences get wider. That obviously has
troubling implications for schools; they aren't the Great Equalizer.
certainly schools that are doing a very good job, and there
certainly are schools that have been shown to be particularly
effective at educating low income, minority students. Ultimately,
even if we say that on average, things get worse, or we find
that on average, things stay the same, that convenient phrase
"on average" hides a world of both sinners and saints.
There are schools that are doing very good things.
Will you be able to identify these schools?
That's our hope: to identify the characteristics of schools
that are doing a good job and... those that are not doing a
good job. As a researcher, that's my goal. I am interested in
understanding how schools can become the Great Equalizer. I
am interested in the conditions under which schools can be effective
at reducing these inequalities by race, by gender, by social
out race and class
The study begins by looking at race differences and at class
differences. Social class is measured by such things as parents'
education, family income, parents' occupation. So this is a
much broader class measure than simply poor versus rich.
we were interested in looking at the extent to which race and
class differences could be explained by - or could be attributed
to - other characteristics of the child's home environment,
home experiences, activities before schooling began.
why we were interested in looking at a very long list of additional
demographic information: age, whether or not English was spoken
in the home - a large number of family structure home demographic
issues; number of siblings, one-parent, two-parent households,
residential mobility, things like that. We wanted to know about
early childcare pre-school experiences, activities in the home,
literacy activities, frequency of reading activities, TV-watching,
etc. And whether or not any of these additional characteristics
help us to understand race and class differences.
a theory out there that says much of what we think of as race
and class differences are not really race and class per se.
The question is: can we "explain away" race differences
or class differences on the basis of these other characteristics,
activities, conditions in the home?
What did you find?
In many ways we found that class differences were far more persistent
and far more pervasive than race differences. In fact, to no
great surprise to those of us that do this kind of work, we
found that simple race differences - Black, white, Hispanic,
Asian, etc. - as soon as you take social class into consideration,
half of these differences often disappear. A substantial proportion
of the Black-white gap in this country is really not an issue
of race - it's an issue of the disparities that occur because
of class differences. And because race and class are so intertwined
in this country, it is easy to see differences of one form masking
as differences in the other.
One of the
big messages from this book is that, in many ways social class
is probably a bigger problem than race - or certainly social
class is a bigger problem than most of us are comfortable accepting.
that the moderately large Black-white differences in reading
skills, reading achievement, at the beginning of kindergarten
are completely gone, have been completely "explained away"
(as we say in social science research) once you've included
class, various child-at-home demographics, whether or not kids
had pre-school, day care, etc. Once you've controlled for all
those differences, there is no longer a Black-white difference
in reading achievement.
careful about what that means. That doesn't mean that children
you meet in the classroom don't exhibit differences.
we try to make sense of the world is to break the world up into
small little bits and pieces, and try to say which little piece
is important, considering which other little pieces we have
around here. We certainly aren't suggesting that there aren't
real differences that teachers face. Indeed, the reality of
the data are that young African American children are coming
in on average with lower skills than many of their white peers.
differences are in part explained by the fact that, yes, more
affluent homes read to their children more often, are far more
likely to have been involved in center-based care, etc.
Single parent households are disproportionately poor. But your
study seems to conclude that single parent households do not
seem to lead directly to Black-white disparities in early cognitive
skills - that it's the class factor that accounts.
Single parent households were not a major part of our study.
Let me talk about the two different ways it comes up in the
at the percentage of kindergarteners from single parent homes,
both by class and by race. What we found is very sobering. Fifteen
percent of America's kindergarteners who are white come from
a single parent home. However, approximately 54 percent of our
nation's Black kindergarteners come from a single parent home.
(About 27 percent of Hispanic children are from single parent
a shocking statistical disparity between Blacks and whites.
Your study also found that, quote, "48% of families in
the lowest SES (socioeconomic status) quintile are headed by
a single parent, compared to only 10% of families in the highest
quintile." This just seems to be saying that Black kids
from single households are clustered in the lower socio economic
echelons. This shouldn't be surprising.
Given that we define social class in this country by family
income, on average somebody who comes from a one parent or one
adult household is likely to encounter less household income
than someone who comes from a two parent household.
a single parent household does lead to lower achievement. That
said, the single parent phenomenon - although it is very prevalent
in the African American community - does not seem itself to
be tied directly to Black-white disparities. In other words,
the Black-white disparity isn't made any smaller by taking into
consideration the single parent status.
If you think
of parents as yet another resource that kids have access to,
this is another instance of young people who are disadvantaged
by class who are also disadvantaged in terms of adult resources.
As someone who is interested in changing the world through policy,
I'm particularly interested in understanding characteristics
and conditions that we can change, that we can make policy
about in order to have an influence in the world. We can't change
a person's gender and we can't change a person's race - truth
be told, in many ways it's very difficult to change a person's
social class. But we can change, for example, whether or not
young children have access to high quality, center-based care.
We can think carefully about other ways of promoting literacy
activities in the home and the community where, regardless of
race and class, children can benefit.
you discover that kids from single parent households don't learn
as much, we're not going to run out and assign everybody a partner
as a way of remedying that situation. If we discover, however,
that center-based care goes a long way towards increasing student
skills upon entering kindergarten, well, sign me up for universal
pre-school day care for our entire U.S. population.
things that one can change and things that one cannot. One clear
piece of evidence coming out of this, is that we have consistent
evidence that kids who went to center-based care are entering
kindergarten with much higher skill levels than kids who did
not. Access to center-based care is very much related to both
race and class.
Is there a danger that your study will be used as a kind of
crutch - that teachers, administrators and politicians will
say: Look, these kids came in here damaged. What are we supposed
to do about it?
In this day and age of school accountability, it is important
to keep in mind that simply looking at school average test scores
as a measure of a school's effectiveness misses the point, that
schools themselves have different student resources.
send up a red flag cautioning all of us to think long and hard
about what ways we can use school achievement as a measure of
school effectiveness - and what ways we cannot.
a perfect example: What if we decided which schools were effective
by testing their students on the first day of classes, like
in kindergarten? You couldn't hold schools accountable for any
differences at that age, because the schools haven't gotten
to them, yet.
they say: we're going to test them at the fourth grade. But
how much of the disparities that you see in the fourth grade
are based on what students originally came in with, four years
earlier? Have those original differences been added to or taken
away during the course of four years of school.
could have low test scores, but even these low scores might
be far higher than what they would have been had the schools
not been effective.
conclusions of the EPI study:
are substantial differences by race and ethnicity in children's
test scores as they begin kindergarten. Before even entering
kindergarten, the average cognitive score of grchildren in
the highest SES (socioeconomic status) group are 60% above
the scores of the lowest SES group. Moreover, average math
achievement is 21% lower for black than for whites, and 19%
lower for Hispanics.
and ethnicity are associated with SES. For example, 34% of
black children and 29% of Hispanic children are in the lowest
quintile of SES compared with only 9% of white children. Cognitive
skills are much less closely related to race/ethnicity after
accounting for SES. Even after taking race differences into
account, however, children from different SES groups achieve
at different levels.
structure and educational expectations have important associations
with SES, race/ethnicity, and with young children's test scores,
though their impacts on cognitive skills are much smaller
than either race or SES. Although 15% of white children live
with only one parent, 54% of black and 27% of Hispanic children
live in single-parent homes. Similarly, 48% of families in
the lowest SES quintile are headed by a single parent, compared
to only 10% of families in the highest quintile.
status is quite strongly related to cognitive skills. Of the
many categories of factors considered-including race/ethnicity,
family educational expectations, access to quality child care,
home reading, computer use, and television habits - SES accounts
for more of the unique variation in cognitive scores than
any other factor by far. Entering race/ethnic differences
are substantially explained by these other factors; SES differences
are reduced but remain sizeable.
children begin school at kindergarten in systematically lower-quality
elementary schools than their more advantaged counterparts.
However school quality is defined - in terms of higher student
achievement, more school resources, more qualified teachers,
more positive teacher attitudes, better neighborhood or school
conditions, private vs. public schools - the least advantaged
U.S. children begin their formal schooling in consistently
lower-quality schools. This reinforces the inequalities that
develop even before children reach school age.
here to purchase "Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social
Background Differences in Achievement as Children Begin School"
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