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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.
are the skill measures that we have at the beginning of kindergarten.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
be careful about what that means. That doesn't mean that children
you meet in the classroom don't exhibit differences.
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.
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 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 book.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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"
comments are welcome. Visit the Contact
Us page for E-mail or Feedback.
here to return to the home page