Occupy the Classroom: economic justice demands universal early childhood education

"Occupy the Classroom," Nicholas D. Kristof's NYT op-ed, argues that the fight for economic justice needs to include a demand for universal access to high quality early childhood education, as this is the key to social mobility.

“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.

(via Beth Pratt)

(Image: Preschool Songs, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from caseywest's photostream)


  1. There’s not been much correlation between early childhood education affecting academic success after 3rd grade.

    1. That’s debatable.  It may be that children subjected to mediocre schools following decent early childhood education do not have a guarantee of success.  The experiment of giving poor kids decent early childhood education and decent schools thereafter isn’t done enough.  There has been a correlation between having early childhood education and being less involved with criminal activity. 

  2. I think one of the major points of Occupy Wall Street (et al) is that education is NOT sufficient to get you a living wage any more.  Seems a poor choice of movements to try to co-opt into a piece on education reform.

    1. It quite arguably qualifies as ‘co-opting’; but it is actually a very good choice of movements to co-opt…

      There are(to be admittedly reductive about it) two big economic and social disparities(or disparity clusters) on the table:

      1. There’s the fact that ~1%  of the population holds a touch over 40% of the financial wealth, with the next 4% holding the next 30%, with an 93%/7% split between the top 20 and the bottom 80. A relatively tiny plutocratic sliver controls a steadily expanding slice of the pie with everybody else treading water or worse.

      2. Then there’s the somewhat murkier(because it tends to involve more issues of race, interaction with the criminal justice system, the wonderful world of subprime finance, etc.) divide between the economic low end of the middle class and the Just Plain Poor.

      Education reform has essentially nothing to do with #1(even a hypothetical 100% successful egalitarian meritocracy in education would almost exclusively modify the porosity of the barrier between the middle class and the poor); but is an important component of #2.

      I’d imagine that a fair percentage of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ would be in favor of educational reforms, since it is hard to deny that the low end of American education is pretty dire; but it(unlike what OWS also wants) is much more of a ‘respectable’ economic justice proposal: it aims at a problem with a visibly distressed human face; but also constitutes a relatively tiny change in the allocation of wealth…

      1. Fair enough.  What set me off in the article is that it suggests that preschool gives a 7% ROI.  I’m assuming to mean that, if someone is sent to preschool at a cost of $5000 (hypothetical number, I don’t know what it costs), that person, throughout the course of their life, would benefit to the tune of $5,350 from it.

        1) That’s not even a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of wealth disparities OWS is bitching about.  They could implement worldwide preschool and it would not change the situation in the slightest.

        2) I think it distracts from the issue.  “Getting into a good preschool so you get into a good elementary school so you get into a good high school so you get into a good college” is a popular obsession these days, and I’ve known plenty of 4.3GPA high school graduates who went on to drop out of their pre-med degrees to work random unrelated jobs.  Focusing on “preschool gives people a slight edge” will have little impact, even on #2.

        3) Education reform, yes.  But the system is far more broken, and the disparities far more deep and entrenched even between sorta-not-well-off and poverty-poor, than an extra year of school can even hope to remedy.  Give someone 5 years of quality schooling and they’ll be better off than with 10 years of shit.  Or 20.  I’d even argue that many people would be better off without mandatory schooling (much of which is run like a penitentiary in places like Los Angeles), giving them an opportunity to learn through experience, or to start apprenticeships.  Too many high school graduates aren’t qualified to do much more than inquire about the customer’s potato preferences.

        4) Even if you look at the (picked-out-of-my-ass) numbers, poverty plus $350 still equals poverty.  Heck, poverty plus a one-time payment of $5350 (if you assume it’s paid for without any cost to the impoverished) still equals poverty by years end, and spread that payment out over a lifetime of 75 years and you’re talking less that $80/yr, $7/mo (though I’m told you can feed a child in Africa for that money, so perhaps I’m off base).  And that 7% figure is probably an average, my wild guess being that the $5350 isn’t what the guy living on skid row benefitted from because he went to preschool.

        1. “2) I think it distracts from the issue.”

          Excellent. While the working class and working poor should absolutely have access to reduced fee educational day care programs, to think that the relatively minor investment in these programs should mollify the Occupy movement and the working class is absolutely wrong. 

          I think this as a smokescreen, a “let them eat cake,” an attempt by right-wing think tanks to cover themselves. The damage done to opportunity for working class and poverty class children happens long before the child is ever born. 

  3. It’s true that there are a lot of people with college degrees that can’t find work- but on the whole they’re still doing much better economically. Not that it will matter here in Louisiana anyway- we just turned down a grant of $100M for early childhood education.

  4. Early education or free day care? Guess either way it’s beneficial to the disadvantaged. But isn’t the real road to success how crucial and important education is considered by the adults in the home? How do we make that happen?  

    1. That’s exactly it.  The main problems that we see with children in schools is not their lack of exposure to early childhood education like HeadStart.  But rather children who are developmentally delayed because they were not made ready to read by the parents and child care providers.  You’ve got to start when the child is an infant singing songs, talking constantly, and reading books with complex words and rhymes.  So that when they get to the early childhood education phase that they’re coming in reading already or have a vocabulary, print awareness and exposure to how books function that they will be able to pick up reading very quickly.  The only way to do that is to train the parents and caregivers in the skills to make those children readers, and then education will just flow from there.

  5. While any level of education is not a /guarantee/ of a wage, every increase in educational achievement attained does strongly correlate with an increase in lifetime income.

    1. Possibly, but the whole gripe of OWS is that the wealth disparities have *outpaced* any such increases by orders of magnitude. 

      I might suggest a hypothetical two non-preschool employees at the local Piggly Wiggly.  Both might make $20,000/yr in 2005.  In 2012, consider two similar employees of a Piggly Wiggly, of which one went to preschool.  The one who went to preschool makes $20,200 and the one who didn’t makes $18,000.  You can correlate preschool with an increase in income in that situation, but the situation as a whole got assloads worse.

      Numbers and situation completely out of my ass, but it demonstrates that an increase in income may distract from a decrease in the vitality of the system at large, and that it’s only a valid benchmark if there are haves and have-nots.  If both out-of-my-ass employees had gone to preschool, would they both get $20,200, or would it be $19,100?

  6. Kristof has his causality backwards. Prevailing poverty causes poor education, poor education does not cause poverty – if it did, Dubya would never have made it to be President.

    Poor education certainly contributes to the perpetuation of poverty, but only within the scheme of poverty contributing to the perpetuation of poverty. Changing education only will solve nothing – the problem is systemic.

    1. Poverty can be overcome with education, encouragement and belief in oneself. The first is found at school; the last two at home. No one is doomed.

      1. Part of the problem is the assume that the first is found at school. Doing well in school requires enormous academic support from parents at home from birth. Parents are the child’s first teacher and successful students from any scoioeconimc level receive a huge amount of supplemental education at home.

        We need to stop assuming the government will do a great job teaching our kids. The rich don’t assume this. They pay for tutoring, music and art and dance classes, foreign language emersion at a young age, intensive summer programs and they supply their children with enormous libraries and access to technology along with private education.

        Children of the poor are disadvantaged because their parents don’t know about the need to teach at home and if they do they are oftne unable to devote the time due to economic, language or social barriers.

        As far as encouragemnt, schools increasingly reward mediocrity and unfund gifted programs (if they have them at all) and sadly nearlyt every parent thinks their kid is a godsend and doesn’t know the difference between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance.

        My eldest (14) attends a school where kids with a 2.0 are recognized the same way the 4.0 kids are. It disgusts me. I was 7 year veteran teacher before I chose to homeschool two of my kids (both gifted) becasue the government is failing.

      2. With sufficient luck, everything can be overcome on a specific individual level. The problem is that the solution is not scaleable as a poverty-fighting measure, not in the least because education, encouragement, and belief in oneself are all much, much more trivial to acquire when all of your material desires are met.

        Once again, it is not bad teachers and bad parents that encourage poverty, it is poverty that encourages bad teachers and bad parents.

    2. And in the end, what this says is: for the most part poor people do a terrible job emphasizing and valuing good education. That leaves only a couple of options. First, do “nothing”, i.e. let nature take its course. Those few who have parent(s) that care claw their way out. The rest stagnate and fall into the same traps that their parents did. The other alternative is to admit that these people cannot adequately raise their own children, so we’re going to more or less co-opt their (wasted) parental authority and let the State raise the kids.

      Are you comfortable with either? Is there a third option I’m missing?

  7. One of the problems with improving early education for low-income children is that there really are “best practices” for teaching young children and these practices “trickle up.”  If you can teach a disadvantaged 3 year old basic math and literacy skills using best practices, imagine what can be done for an “advantaged” three year old. 

    While young disadvantaged children of today wildly outstrip the skills of disadvantaged children in the past (and even advantaged children of the past), they same jump in skill level is seen in the advantaged group.  The only way this would really work is if you had disadvantaged  children attend preschool and forbade advantaged children from doing so or getting at-home schooling before age five.  Then kids would start kindergarten at the same level.

    Of course, I think Head Start should be funded 100% for every child in the country (regardless of their parents’ wages or wealth).  But we should not pretend it is some poverty smashing bullet.  It’s not.  Especially when there is less social mobility now than there has been since the 1920s.  Right now, if you’re born poor, you’re gonna die that way.

  8. Can’t help but think after 20+ years working in education, that our country’s view of early literacy as the mark of a well educated child is skewed. Skills such as self-regulation and cognitive processing auditory processing and social communication are being neglected in favor of book handling, phonemic awareness and letter recognition. Some kids are just not developmentally ready until 7 to handle reading skills, and its not a disorder.  Some kids learn to read early, yet its at the expense of early critical thinking skills.

    So mandated more of the same improper developmental approach? No thank you.

    Tack this on to OWS like it doesn’t merit reform in its own right? No thank you.

    Make sure middle and lower class folks, including teachers aren’t being run into relative poverty by the greed of sociopaths, so perhaps they can think straight about the state of education as opposed to living hand to mouth and frantically keeping up with education standards set by corporations? Yes I think that would be a significant start.

  9. Of course, just throwing money at the education system won’t help by itself.  You have to know how to allocate those funds, and one of the problems right now is that everyone “knows” where the money should go, but they don’t agree on it. More money generally translates to more of the same education rather than better education.

  10. I actually think it would be incredibly powerful if the energy of something like Occupy Wall St. was focused to a single civil rights issue like public education. I don’t think bringing this up is some kind of “smokescreen,” because it’s true: cutting budgets to states who then cut more and more teachers is where the rot of insurmountable inequality can start.

    If we let the one “level playing field” component remaining in this country to crumble, the American Dream is dead. Heck, just a chance for an okay life for millions — who have no control over who their parents or guardians are — is dead.

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