How Educational Inequities Begin the Moment a Child Is Born

Created: 16 November, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
11 min read

This is the first in a two-part series. Check back with IVN San Diego next week for the next column

More than 50 years have passed since the groundbreaking Equality of Educational Opportunity Coleman Report was published, yet it remains relevant today.

The 750-page Coleman Report, led by James Coleman, was mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and – although not without controversy – is still the go-to document for evidence-based education policy.

Before the Coleman Report was released, schools were defined by their “inputs” – details such as per-pupil expenditures, school size, libraries, science labs, facilities and other resources, according to Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

After Coleman, a shift occurred and schools became defined more by their outcomes or “outputs” – gains in student learning, educational progress, long-term employment and earnings. 

What many researchers have taken away from the Coleman Report is that a student’s background, home life, neighborhood and peer environment contribute more to a child’s educational outcome than the influence a school can provide. 

For many, the report suggests that schools do not matter as much as thought and that impoverished family environments that offer limited educational opportunities are a significant factor in low student achievement. 

“Analysts who claim that poverty explains the problems of the American school readily refer to Coleman as proof,” Hanushek wrote in a 2016 Education Next article. “Indeed, no analysis of school performance that neglects differences in family background can be taken seriously.”

More money may not necessarily contribute to student success because school resources, he wrote, “were only weakly associated with student achievement” and “variations in per-pupil expenditure had little correlation with student outcomes.” 

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Family background as a critical component in a child’s educational success points to inequity for low-income families that often starts at birth. 

The Value of Preschool

It takes more than a good teacher to overcome social barriers that too many poor children experience, beginning from birth through toddlerhood. 

Wendy Wardlow, former Del Mar Heights Elementary School principal with decades of experience teaching young children, said she worries about the social injustice that’s prevalent in the education system, particularly as it affects youngsters before they even enter kindergarten. 

“I am very concerned about the period between ages 0 and 5, when often minority children are very disadvantaged if parents are not able to create an environment in which the children are able to have experiences to help develop their neural connections to things that would foster future learning,” said the grandmother of five children who attend public schools in fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th grades.   

In her role as a commissioner for First 5 California, San Diegan Shana Hazan agrees that science has found that the solid development of neural pathways in the brain early in life is critical to future learning. 

First 5 California focuses on early childhood learning and positive parenting to help babies and toddlers establish strong brain development in the early months and years. 

“Sadly, many minority children are moved between homes and families according to financial and other circumstances."

“For kids who are experiencing toxic stress, those pathways are interrupted,” said Hazan, who has a daughter at Franklin Elementary School in the San Diego Unified School District. “If you are constantly experiencing stress, you can’t think straight and you can’t learn.” 

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It becomes challenging, she said, to succeed in the classroom for children who lack stable housing, move frequently, don’t have access to nutritious food, are subject to abuse, lack physical and emotional connections, are homeless, or are experiencing any of a range of other deprivations that cause significant distress in a young child’s life.

“These are social determinants that contribute to learning outcomes,” Hazan said.  “Schools are designed to help children, but if parents are struggling, kids are going to struggle too.”

Wardlow agreed that “having a safe, secure environment is at the core of all learning potential.

“Being safe is the platform upon which everything is built,” she said. “Sadly, many minority children are moved between homes and families according to financial and other circumstances. When I was an administrator in North Carolina, many of our students would talk about where they stayed rather than where they lived. Quite a significant distinction.”

Universal preschool of some type, Wardlow said, can lift up families experiencing poverty, often multi-generational poverty, and can support parents to help create a stable learning environment. 

Hazan said kids don’t need a formal, academic-based preschool; family day care and other informal learning settings contribute as well to success in school. 

“A play-based setting teaches kids valuable skills other than early academics – such as how to interact with each other, how to follow the rules, how to sit and listen and share,” she said. “It’s learning about how we operate in the world.” 

Preschool is important, both for the academics and the social and emotional component, but what’s best for young children is a healthy, loving relationship, plus preschool, she said. 

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“That social and emotional health and well-being is really what sets them up for success,” Hazan said. “That is what we want for every child.”

The First Five Years

Despite studies showing that children with early childhood education are less likely to need remedial education and are more likely to graduate high school and attend college, in 2006 California voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 82, the Preschool for All initiative

Proposition 82 was heavily supported by the First 5 California Commission, which was established in 1998 and funded by voter-approved Proposition 10, the tobacco tax.   

First 5 California’s mission today continues to address how to stop gaps in learning and opportunity before they start.

The approach is two-fold: early childhood education for children from birth to 5 years of age, and helping parents understand that they are their children’s first and most important teachers, especially in the early months and years. 

“Ninety percent of a child’s brain development happens in the first five years,” said Alethea Arguilez, executive director of First 5 San Diego.

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Neuroscience research suggests that a child’s early development of social skills, emotional and physical health, good nutrition and linguistic capabilities are critical for success in school and later in life, according to First 5 San Diego.

By targeting families that can’t afford preschool or don’t see its value, First 5 tries to address ways to close the persistent achievement gap, which affects mostly Black and Brown students and those whose first language is not English.

Because data consistently show that low-income students fare poorly compared to middle- and upper-class students, attention for decades has focused on how to close this gap in learning.

Several initiatives offered by First 5 are in place for parents of all backgrounds and income levels. 

A Kit for New Parents helps prepare new parents to support their child’s learning and development at the earliest ages, and the First 5 First Steps Home Visiting Program helps parents strengthen relationship-building with their children.

The home visiting program, now in its eighth year, also targets pregnant women to teach about healthy pregnancies, in order to have a healthy birth outcome. 

“We’ve served over 600 women, and the unique part of our prenatal program is they start with us in their prenatal stage and stay with us until their little ones are 3 years of age,” Arguilez said.  

Helping educate parents and caregivers is a priority, she said, emphasizing the importance of reading, singing and playing with their children.

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“Literacy is at the core of brain development,” she said. 

Interaction, she said, has to be one-on-one because that essential brain development doesn’t happen with kids on a tablet, phone, computer or in front of a television. 

The Working Poor 

When Meliina Cheng and her family were living in San Diego, they expected their young children to continue at their preschool and on to kindergarten at the local public school. 

But her husband was furloughed from work due to the pandemic, and the family found they could no longer afford to live at their residence. They moved out of pricey San Diego just a couple months ago.

“We moved to Murrieta because it was more affordable versus staying in San Diego,” said the mother of two toddlers, ages 3 and 4.  

Cheng said preschool is important for her and her children, “because it gives them a head start on learning independence, social interaction outside the home, and learning about themselves as individuals. They learn better with other kids around them and are more observant of their surroundings.”

She said they have chosen to send their kids to preschool “because of all the benefits that preschool has to offer,” even though it’s a financial strain for the family.

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“My kids love going to school, they ask to go every day, but at the moment we can only afford three days a week,” she said. “We make enough to make ends meet and that is pretty much it.

"I wish that preschool would be more affordable or accessible to all income levels."

“I wish that preschool would be more affordable or accessible to all income levels because all kids deserve better and they deserve an opportunity to learn and thrive. It also helps parents out because when they are working, they know their kids are in a fun, interactive and positive environment.”

Miren Algorri is a licensed family childcare provider who has been working in the field for 23 years. She runs her program out of her home in Chula Vista, and takes care of children, primarily ages 0 to 5, from low-income families, most of whom are dual language learners. All but one of Algorri’s students are children of color.

The parents, she said, work hard to provide for their kids, but they struggle financially. “They are the working poor,” she said.

Algorri is a member of the Child Care Providers Union, California Family Child Care Network and National Association for Family Child Care. The funding to cover the subsidized childcare program comes from the state through the California Department of Education, and several other sources.

“Early childhood education provides a child with the proper foundation so they can succeed not only in kindergarten but in life itself,” Algorri said. “Children's early childhood education experiences get them ready to positively engage with their peers, their teachers and the community at large. 

“It is through these experiences that children learn how to work cooperatively, practice self-regulation and build meaningful relationships.”

Children who do not interact with other young children, engage in educational activities or participate in individual and group projects as they would in an early childhood setting have a harder time adjusting to a kindergarten routine and often find it more difficult to catch up to peers who have been exposed to these routines and activities, she said.  

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A Racist System

Federally-funded programs for early childhood education go back to the Great Society in 1964, with the War on Poverty, and started in Health and Human Services, said Cathy McDonald, an education and disabilities consultant who formerly worked for the San Diego County Office of Education. 

McDonald has been involved in state preschool and First 5 early education programs for the past 30 years and currently works with Head Start, a preschool program begun in 1965 to serve poor children. 

She said the system of preschool options, sometimes described as a dizzying array of alternatives, is complicated.

It’s a system made more confusing after the charge of racism was leveled against California’s Quality Rating and Improvement System.

The QRIS was created as a consumer education tool to help families determine the quality of available preschool care and help them understand why early childhood education is important.

The QRIS also assists local and regional agencies to enhance support and improve quality for early learning and care providers.

Quality Counts California, a statewide, locally-implemented QRIS, is a collaboration between First 5 California and the California Department of Education’s Early Learning and Care Division.

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Despite good intentions, the system was called racist by Keisha Nzewi, the director of Public Policy for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network.

In an August 14, 2020 letter to a number of state officials, Nzewi and two co-signers – Mary Ignatius from Parent Voices and Kim Kruckle of the Child Care Law Center – said a revised system is needed that includes participation from childcare providers themselves.

The current system, they said, was designed by high-paid administrators who are removed from actual classroom settings and without input from the people it was meant to support. It was something “done to them, not with them.” 

QRIS dismisses parents’ expertise on what they view as quality, they also said, calling for an equity analysis. 

The system “unfairly harms primarily Black owned and operated centers,” they said in the letter, citing the Rand Corp. which found that the “QRIS does not necessarily capture differences in program quality that are predictive of gains in key developmental domains.”

A new system, they wrote, “must include and be led by childcare providers who actually care for children … providers who are in the classrooms of childcare centers and in their own homes caring for children.”

A rating system that’s biased against Black-owned childcare facilities shows how racism finds its insidious way into far too many aspects of childhood education, starting from birth. 

Check back with IVN San Diego next week for the next column, “How early childhood education can make a difference in kindergarten and beyond.”

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