Millions of poor and middle-income American parents are now getting monthly checks tied to the number of children they have. The infusion of cash is important, but unless we fundamentally change how and what we teach, it won’t significantly reduce education inequities.
Starting today—July 15th, 2021—the U.S. Treasury Department is sending cash payments to households representing about 60 million children: $300 a month for each child under age six, and $250 for those who are older, with benefits reduced or eliminated as family income increases. Enacted as part of the stimulus package passed by Congress in March, the initiative is being called the largest anti-poverty program in more than fifty years. Some are predicting it will lead to improvements not only in children’s nutrition and mental health but also in their education outcomes, which have long lagged behind those of their more affluent peers.
Unfortunately, though, giving families more money is unlikely to significantly narrow the education-outcome gap. Yes, family income and wealth is highly correlated with educational achievement. And the stresses caused by poverty—housing instability, hunger, and other kinds of trauma—can interfere with children’s ability to learn. But poverty itself isn’t primarily responsible for so-called achievement gaps. It’s lack of parental education—and the failure of our education system to provide access to academic knowledge to kids who need it to succeed.
Consider a study done by the Brookings Institute in 2012, which I was reminded of earlier this week when I attended a powerful talk by Dr. Tracy Weeden, president and CEO of the Neuhaus Education Institute. It found that only 48% of children from poor families were ready for school at age five, as compared to 75% of those from moderate and high-income families.
That in itself isn’t surprising, and more recent studies have found the same kind of disparity. But the Brookings study included a striking statistic: poor children whose mothers had at least a BA degree were actually more likely to be ready for kindergarten than kids in the same category from more affluent families. Specifically, 91% of the poor children with highly educated mothers were prepared, compared to only 84% of their more affluent peers. The study sliced and diced the data to take account of several factors—race, preschool attendance, mother’s marital status—and maternal level of education was the only one that gave poor kids an advantage over wealthy ones.
Why would that be? Most likely, because parents with more education expose their children to more sophisticated concepts and vocabulary, providing them with the kind of knowledge that enables academic success. Unfortunately, in our society, parents living in poverty are disproportionately likely to have low levels of education. In the Brookings study, 42% of low-income mothers had less than a high school education; among those with higher incomes, the figure was only 4%.
The study’s main recommendation was to expand preschool programs, another factor that boosts kindergarten readiness. That’s certainly more feasible than trying to provide college degrees to millions of poor mothers. But the positive effects of preschool aren’t nearly as powerful or long-lasting as having educated parents, who can continue to equip children with sophisticated knowledge and vocabulary as they progress through school. And there’s no reason to believe that cash payments, important as they may be for struggling families, will be enough to compensate for lack of parental education either.
Virtually all equity-focused policy prescriptions are overlooking what goes on in classrooms between kindergarten and twelfth grade, perhaps because previous attempts to improve the system haven’t worked. That’s a huge mistake.
Schools can’t entirely compensate for differences in parents’ levels of education. But they can do a lot more than they’re doing now. And it wouldn’t necessarily require spending any more than the $700 billion we currently devote to K-12 education. It would however, require us to recognize that our standard approach to literacy, and schooling in general, has the unintended effect of further advantaging students who are already advantaged.
One big part of the problem is our failure to teach foundational reading skills like phonics in a way that ensures all children will acquire them. Educators often believe they’re teaching phonics, but their approach is so unsystematic that many kids end up guessing at words rather than sounding them out—and those kids are disproportionately from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. This problem, which was the focus of Dr. Weeden’s talk, stems from deficiencies in the way we train teachers. Fortunately, more and more policymakers and educators are becoming aware of the issue, and they’re taking steps to address it.
A better hidden part of the problem—one that is equally significant and more widespread—is the way schools approach reading comprehension. Throughout elementary school and often beyond, students spend many hours every week practicing supposed skills like “finding the main idea” on books that are easy for them to read on their own. Subjects that could build academic knowledge and vocabulary, like social studies and science, have been marginalized or eliminated from the curriculum, especially where scores are low. Students often arrive at high school with tremendous gaps in their academic knowledge—especially if they come from less educated families—and yet are held accountable for the very information and vocabulary to which the system has denied them access.
By all means, we should provide financial aid to low-income families. It’s shocking that in the wealthiest nation in the world, there are nearly 12 million children living in poverty. But we shouldn’t expect money alone to compensate for lack of parental education, or break the cycle of multi-generational poverty. For that, we need to provide better teacher training and the kind of curriculum that focuses on building academic knowledge, beginning in kindergarten.