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What we get wrong about the poverty gap in education

July 2, 2018
Mical Raz
The Washington Post

If you have young children, chances are you’ve been to a pediatrician’s office and have left with a new book in hand. This is often part of a program, recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics, designed to promote literacy by providing families with age-appropriate books.

Although such programs are uncontroversial and popular, the reasoning behind them — a focus on what poor children and families lack — is misguided.

Over the past 60 years, this emphasis has derailed policies meant to advance early-childhood education. Even more important, it has substituted unfounded critiques of parenting for more significant— and difficult — discussions about how to combat poverty and channel meaningful investments in anti-poverty programs and early education.

Since the 1960s, policymakers, educators and researchers have shared a perception that poor families, often from minority backgrounds, were fundamentally different from middle-class families. While rejecting racist theories of biological difference, researchers in the 1960s focused on the home environment of poor families, particularly families of color, to map out what led to their children’s academic struggles.

The result was a theory of “cultural deprivation,” which holds that poor families lack the norms, values and skills to succeed within mainstream society. Poor families — and in particular, mothers — were viewed as lacking the skills necessary to instill a love of language and learning in their children.

This theory produced a gulf between what poor families needed and what policymakers believed they needed. Although poor families often lacked food, decent jobs, housing and health care, many programs focused on a perceived lack of motivation, work ethic or love of reading. This gap fueled long-standing stereotypes that blamed poor families for their misfortunes.

The result: public policies that perpetuated stereotypes of low-income families and minorities. These policies often led to ineffective programs.

Consider, for example, Head Start, a program started in 1965 to counter the effects of poverty by providing a stimulating educational environment conducive to child development. One psychologist earnestly wrote that in these compensatory preschools, the teachers’ role was to do the “kind of things a ‘good’ mother does” with her infant. Preschool was touted as beneficial to families from inadequate homes, essentially intending to provide the children with an experience similar to that of having a middle-class mother.

But this approach was a double-edged sword. If preschool was useful only as a remedial step for “deprived” children, it was difficult to argue that it was beneficial for children from all backgrounds. This sacrificed an opportunity to build consensus behind the need for universal early-childhood education.

Ultimately, it undermined burgeoning bipartisan support for early-childhood education. In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act. He acknowledged the benefits of preschool for poor families, but argued that Project Head Start already met this need. Middle-class families, Nixon argued, did not need such educational interventions, and accordingly could make their own private arrangements for child care as necessary.