My last post, “Racism and Black Progress,” pointed out that, despite all of the racial tension in our society, especially bad at the present time, blacks have made much social and economic progress over the past half century. All Americans of good will want this progress to continue.
I live in Omaha NE and am personally involved in a very promising public initiative to improve educational outcomes in inner city schools. It is called the Learning Community and is an Omaha metro-wide effort to close the academic achievement gap between children from low-income families and those from the middle class. The above chart shows clearly what the problem is. Already in third grade FRL (free and reduced priced lunch) kids are behind on the NeSA (Nebraska State Assessment) reading test. The gap persists into middle school and then gets much worse in high school. A recent article in the Omaha World Herald reports that while black students make up 25% of Omaha Public Schools enrollment, they are responsible for 55% of disciplinary incidents. Obviously, disruptive students are not learning what they need to know to succeed in school and in life.
A promising solution to this very difficult problem of improving educational outcomes for inner city students is early childhood education to prepare these kids to succeed in Kindergarten and then stay in school until graduation. This is in fact the approach being taken by Omaha’s Learning Community. But it is clearly a long range program which will take many years to show success. Conclusion. A solid basic education is essential for success in today’s highly complex society. Blacks will never reach full social and economic equality with whites until they achieve better educational outcomes. Early childhood education has much promise in closing the academic achievement gap but will take many years to show significant progress.
My last post, “Why Racism Exists in America,” attempts to explain not only the reason for this huge social problem, but also how to look for a solution. It turns out that the city of Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, is doing exactly this in an amazingly progressive manner.
It is well known and widely deplored that children from low-income families perform more poorly in school than children from middle class families. The Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties was created by the Nebraska Legislature in 2007 to figure out how to close this so-called academic achievement gap in metro Omaha.
The LC has recently contracted with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska to implement the Superintendent’s Early Childhood Plan which will employ the latest national research findings to provide intensive preschool for three and four year olds at ten different Elementary School sites around the Omaha area. It turns out that Educare of Omaha has already been doing groundbreaking work in early childhood education for the past decade. A recent longitudinal study, conducted by the Munroe Meyer Institute (available upon request), has shown that children from low-income families, with two or more years of Educare training, perform well above state proficiency standards in both reading and mathematics all the way through the eighth grade (as far as has been measured to date).
As shown in the above chart, just one year in Educare is not enough to achieve this lasting proficiency. It takes two full years to get such a large boost in achievement. This is a hugely significant finding. It shows that early childhood education, if carried out in sufficient depth and for an adequate length of time, will produce long-lasting gains in academic achievement.
It is now up to the Learning Community, working with the Buffett Institute, to implement the Superintendent’s Plan, to show that the results achieved by Educare can be scaled up to a broader and more comprehensive level.
The First Unitarian Church of Omaha, to which I belong, has formed a sister church relationship with a predominantly black church in north Omaha, Clair Memorial Methodist Church. On Saturday we held a joint workshop, “Confronting Racism” at Clair. Several people said that we should “celebrate diversity, transcend race, and hope that things will be better in twenty or thirty years from now.”
I think the problem is much more fundamental and difficult than this. First of all, there are two main reasons why racism is so prevalent in America, one obvious and one perhaps less obvious:
The obvious reason is the very different colors of our skin.
The other reason, equally important, is that there are huge socio-economic differences between the two races. Whites are, by and large, better educated and more affluent than blacks. They also have a more stable family structure, with far fewer single parent families. People tend to live in homogeneous residential areas and associate with others of similar socio-economic background. All of these social factors serve to separate the races into largely non-interacting groups of people.
How do we confront and attack such deeply entrenched racism in our society? We need an approach which is more fundamental than programs like “welfare to work” or “residential integration.” Even equalizing educational opportunity is not enough. What we need is a long term effort to improve educational outcomes for blacks and other children from low-income families. As the above chart of Nebraska data shows, children from low-income families, who thus receive free or reduced price lunch (FRL), are already behind in reading proficiency by third grade and they just keep falling further and further behind in the later grades. This means that they need major intervention before they even get to kindergarten. In fact what they need is early childhood education, beginning no later than age 3. Conclusion: Racism is deeply embedded in American life and can only be eliminated with a long term fundamental effort to greatly improve educational outcomes for blacks. I will discuss proof that this can be done in my next post.
In my previous post, “The Link between Education and Prosperity”, I looked at data from Paul Peterson and Eric Hanushek which show a very close connection between high school academic achievement and rate of economic growth for various countries around the world. They point out, for example, that only 32% of U.S. high school students are proficient in mathematics, as compared to 49% in Canada, and that closing this achievement gap would boost our rate of GDP growth by almost 1%. But they also point out that the math proficiency rate for white students in the U.S. is 42% with much lower proficiency rates for both African American and Hispanic students. In other words, almost 2/3 of the American-Canadian math proficiency gap can be explained by poor performance of American minority students, many of whom grow up in poverty.
In yesterday’s New York Times, James Heckman, a Nobel prize winner in economics, has an article “Lifelines for Poor Children” which points out the importance of investing in effective early childhood development from birth to age 5. “High-quality early childhood programs are great economic and social equalizers – they supplement the family lives of disadvantaged children by teaching consistent parenting and by giving children the mentoring, encouragement and support available to functioning middle-class families.”
High quality early childhood education is expensive and it is very important for all levels of government, especially at the federal level, to operate more efficiently. How is it possible to expand early childhood education under such very tight financial constraints?
The key is to build it into our existing Head Start program on which we are currently spending over $8 billion per year. Many experts acknowledge that academic gains from Head Start are short lived, seldom persisting even into 3rd grade. But there are existing models for much more effective early childhood education, such as the program run by Educare in Omaha and other cities.
In short there is a cost effective way to provide “lifelines for poor children”, for their own good and also for the benefit of society as a whole, and we should expect our national leaders to move in this direction.