“To reduce inequality, we have to do more in early childhood”

Jane Waldfogel, Chair Professor of Social Work and Public Affairs,
Columbia University School

Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work and public affairs at the Columbia University School of Social Work, sat down in New York City recently to talk about her new book ‘Too Many Children Left Behind’, which examines the question: Is the American Dream actually a reality? The authors analyzed educational data from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia in attempting to answer three questions: How large is the achievement gap among children in the United States? When does this gap emerge as children move through the school system? And what can the United States learn from other nations? Below are excerpts from a conversation on the book:

What led you and your co-authors to examine these questions?

We had been looking at the gaps in early childhood. We had been looking at gaps in school readiness and we also knew from published literature, from studies like PISA, that there is also tremendous inequality among children, in say adolescence, and also tremendous inequality among adults. What we didn’t know was how inequality in early childhood relates to the inequality in adolescence and in adulthood. Are children starting out somewhat unequal before school, and are those gaps widening as they move through school? That might be reasonable to expect. Or is much of the inequality already present before they even start school? There really had not been an answer to that question before and we felt we were in a good position to work on that.

Can you start out our discussion by talking about the methodology used for this book?

We wanted to try to trace inequalities from early childhood through the school years, and we needed to follow the same sample of children over time.

We decided to use parental education because it was measured in the most comparable way across countries and also because a parent’s level of education is a pretty good marker for their position in society and the kind of resources they are going to have.

We chose the U.S., UK, Canada and Australia. We learned subsequently that this is called a ‘most similar cases’ design, so we are really comparing like to like. We thought they are a good comparison because they have similar welfare states, similar labor markets, and similar cultural norms.

One of the most surprising findings in this book was that the majority -60 to 70 percent- of the SES (socio-economic status) gap in achievement for children at age fourteen in the United States can already be attributed to differences present when students enter the school system. Can you talk about these findings?

If you would have asked me before we started the project, I would have said that I would have expected about half of the gap to be present already at school entry and another half would develop during the school years. But as you said, that was not the case; about 60 to 70 percent of the gap is already present at school entry. This has huge implications in terms of policy remedies.

We absolutely want to hold schools accountable, and we expect schools to reduce inequalities and to do their job, but if we are going to give schools a fighting chance, we have to do more in early childhood. However, because the bulk of the gap is already there at school entry, you can't lay all of the blame on schools in the United States.

Can you talk a bit about the policy solutions that are necessary to lessen the skills gaps when children enter schools?

There is one set of policies around supporting early learning and that would be evidence-based parenting programs and universal pre-school programs. These things are relevant in the U.S. context because we don’t yet have universal pre-school –we are working on universal pre-kindergarten, which now serves about 25-28 percent of children, but we are in the minority of advanced countries that don’t yet have universal pre-school, so this is still a pending issue for us. There is also a role for income supports. Income supports are not just a problem for early childhood, but right through the school years. 

Policies supporting early learning (evidence-based parenting and universal pre-school programs) are relevant.

If families are worrying about money almost all the time,  it’s going to affect children’s ability to concentrate and do well when they get to school.

Even if most of the achievement gap can be traced back to differences prior to school entry, a substantial proportion -30 to 40 percent- of the gap emerges during the school years. Can the school be said to produce inequalities?

The same kind of family factors that are leading to inequality in early childhood could also be leading to more inequality during the school years.

But you have to look at the role of the schools as well. We learned that in most countries the children with the greatest needs are assigned the most capable, the most experienced teachers. That’s not the case in the United States. We also learned that on average we have a pretty poorly-qualified teaching workforce.

In the UK, Canada and Australia, teachers are paid on average about 100 percent, 95 percent and 102 percent, respectively, of the salary received by other university-educated professionals. In the United States it’s about two-thirds; teachers are paid about two-thirds of the salary of other similarly educated professionals.

Can you talk a bit about why there might be lower expectations for students in the U.S. than in other countries?

I think many countries separate children based on ability and then have different expectations for the children, and expect them to arrive at different end points. I think all countries have a history of that, but I think many countries are now moving towards a more comprehensive or more integrated model. Finland is really the poster child in this regard. In Finland, not only are the teachers highly qualified and highly trained, but all the children are expected to learn the same material, regardless of their starting ability, and it’s understood that some children will need more help than others.

In the United States, I think we are more in the sorting business, sorting children based on which ones may be capable of the higher level math and which ones should be learning the lower levels of math. Once you do that, you are consigning some children to a lower level of achievement.

In the book, you discuss the idea of an ‘arms race’ in out-of-school spending on extracurricular activities. Can you explain what you mean by this?

It’s another thing I hadn’t realized before we started the book, how much this is a U.S. phenomenon. What we have seen in the U.S. is that economic inequality has grown, and social inequality has grown; parents have become more concerned about the future outcomes for their children, and also their ability to invest in their children has become more unequal. You put those two things together, and the result is this ‘arms race’ of investments in children. It used to be the case that how much parents spent on pre-school or how much they spent on books and toys or enrichment activities didn’t differ a lot by SES, but there is now this widening gap in those kinds of investments. This is a big part of why children are arriving at school so much more unequal.

Can you talk about the policy solutions that are important to lessen achievement gaps?  

A significant portion of inequality arises during schooling, so we also look at certain policies for the school years. Some of those would be having a more consistent curriculum, which would help support more uniform expectations for all children.

The pay-off is potentially huge in addressing inequalities in children; it’s not just helping those children, it’s going to help all of society

We’ve talked about raising the standards of the teaching workforce, recruiting and retaining a high quality teaching workforce, as well as more individualized attention, higher expectations for individual children. There is a lot to do.

In your comparisons, Canada stands out in terms of devoting more resources to children, having less inequality among students, and also more educated parents. What is it about Canada?  

Canada was a big surprise in this study. We knew that Canada had high levels of educational achievement and relatively high levels of equity, but I don’t think we were aware of how culturally different Canada is compared to the other countries. It has the most educated parents. Even within education groups, they seem to have the most educationally-oriented parents. There is a stunning graph in the book that shows that the lowest educated parents in Canada – those who’ve only completed high school or less – read as much to their children as college-educated parents in the United States.

The book notes that low-SES children in the U.S. are not achieving their full potential and that the talent of these children is being partially wasted. Can you talk about the broader economic implications that result from these inefficiencies in learning?

It’s a major concern that not only are these children leaving school with fewer skills and lower levels of achievement, but this is also going to have lifelong consequences in terms of both their economic well-being and their contribution to society. We are really dooming ourselves to continuing inequality and continuing low achievement because these are going to be the parents of the next generation of children.

That’s why the pay-off is potentially so huge in addressing inequalities in the current generation of children; because it's not just helping those children, it’s going to help all of us in society by having more productive, more highly-skilled workers. But also a more highly-skilled and better prepared next generation of parents.

What lessons should political leaders learn from this book?

In the United States, and also in other countries, too many children are being left behind. And this does not have to be so; measures can be taken that encourage more equal performance: support policies for pre-school education, to complement the income of families of a lower socioeconomic level and to improve the quality of teaching and of learning at schools.

Interview by Sara Jerving 

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