Behind from the Start:
Black kids begin school disadvantaged





Slavery 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 effects.

"These 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 at all."

This fall, 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:

[T]he 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.

This report 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?

Burkam: 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.

Burkam: 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.

No matter 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.

The quest for equality

: 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?

Burkam: 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.

My colleagues 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.

Burkam: 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.

Keep in 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.

These are the skill measures that we have at the beginning of kindergarten.

In terms 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.

Culture bias

: How concerned are you about cultural bias in the testing process?

Burkam: 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?

Burkam: 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.

Call me 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.

The study 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?

Burkam: 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.

Another 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.

Possibility number three is that differences get wider. That obviously has troubling implications for schools; they aren't the Great Equalizer.

There are 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?

Burkam: 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 class.

Sorting out race and class

Burkam: 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.

From there 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.

This is 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.

There is 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?

Burkam: 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.

We found 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.

Now, be careful about what that means. That doesn't mean that children you meet in the classroom don't exhibit differences.

The way 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.

Social class 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

: 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.

Burkam: Single parent households were not a major part of our study. Let me talk about the two different ways it comes up in the book.

We looked 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 homes.)

This is 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.

Burkam: 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.

Coming from 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.

Looking for change

Burkam: 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.

Even if 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.

There are 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.

Caution on testing

: 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?

Burkam: 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.

It does 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.

Here is 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.

Instead, 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.

A 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.

Some conclusions of the EPI study:

  • There 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.
  • Race 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.
  • Family 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.
  • Socioeconomic 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.
  • Low-SES 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.

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Issue Number 29
February 13, 2003

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Other commentaries in this issue:

Osama is Calling…

Toward a Black Democratic primary... More faith-based foolery... A benediction for

The Issues
Blacks favor peace, whites opt for war... Affirmative action's heavy-hitter allies... Shoving vouchers down DC's throat

Commentaries in Issue 28 February 6, 2003:

Send in the Clowns: The GOP’s two-ring Black "outreach" circus

Condoleezza: Appointee-in-Chief... Shock, awe and revulsion... Plain language on Blacks and Hispanics

The Issues
Desegregating U.S. African policy... Haitian poor ignore capital "strike"... A more colorful anti-war movement

Guest Commentary 1
"Shrub" Bush's Pathological Focus On Saddam Hussein by Alvin Wyman Walker, PhD, PD, PC

Guest Commentary 2
...AND THE LAST SHALL BE FIRST: Shunned DC Demands Full Voting Rights, First Primary By Sean Tenner

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