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Early learning programs are crucial [Commentary]

When David Andrews was asked to testify in Annapolis earlier this year, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education told assembled legislators that providing quality early learning opportunities to low-income children is critically important and playing catch up is a losing game.

For poor children, catching up is indeed a losing proposition. Stubbornly high poverty rates and increasing income inequality have turned upside-down the long-held belief of education being a pathway to the middle class.

The truth is, as evidenced in at least two national studies published this year, if you're born poor, chances are you will stay poor. In its report to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Commission on Equity and Excellence said, "10 million students in American's poorest communities are having their lives unjustly and irredeemably blighted by a system that consigns them to lowest performing teachers, the most run-down facilities, and academic expectations and opportunities considerably lower than what we expect of other students."

Both reports take issue with the administration for not doing more to overcome the effects of poverty on educating children. Instead the Obama administration's emphasis has been on instituting Common Core standards, more testing of students, accountability measures for teachers and expanded school choice options (i.e. more charter schools). In Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward, Helen Ladd, a Duke researcher, said, " Because these policy initiatives do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, they contribute little — and are not likely to contribute much in the future — to raising achievement or reducing educational gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Moreover such policies could do serious harm."

The United States has one of the highest poverty rates of all developed countries — 22 percent for school-aged children — and income inequality, the disparity between society's richest and poorest, is now greater in the U.S. than all developed countries. Since the 1970s, income inequality has risen drastically, leading to levels not seen for the past century. For example the top 1 percent of households saw their real income rise by 275 percent from 1979 to 2007; the middle three quintiles experienced a 37percent increase; and the bottom fifth recorded an 18 percent gain.

This has led to what Stanford researcher Sean Reardon calls the income achievement gap, where family income is now a much stronger predictor of school success than the black-white gap.

No one should be surprised. This importance of family and environment was first established almost 50 years ago when a national study, Equality of Educational Opportunity by researcher James Coleman, found that academic achievement was less related to what goes on in the classroom and more related to the child's family characteristics such as income, education and the social composition of the student's school and neighborhood.

New research is finding learning deficits can start as early as 18 months. Previously, a ground-breaking study by two Kansas psychologists found that by age four there was a gap of some 32 million words between what middle class children heard or were exposed to compared to low income children. E.D. Hirsch, noted author and professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia, has said "that increasing general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success. Schools have an enormously hard time pushing through the deficiencies with which many children arrive."

Support is growing for effective early learning programs as one of the most important tools to provide a better start for low-income children. In addition to the backing of leading educators and economists, a bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress last month to improve learning opportunities for children from birth to age five. While the prospects for passage are mixed, the legislation includes a number of important provisions such as expansion of high quality pre-kindergarten programs that have achieved impressive results in Maryland and other states. With the necessity to prepare a workforce that can compete in the global economy and with almost half of our students living in or near the poverty level, hopefully, we will find the resources to insure that catching up is no longer a losing proposition.

A former member of the Baltimore City School Board and the Maryland House of Delegates, James Campbell is a senior communications manager at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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