My question may sound socialistic to some of my fellow conservatives; nonetheless it is a question that must be addressed. American high school graduation rates are at an all-time high, but the education gap between rich and poor continues to grow. Noble and expensive attempts to close this gap—including subsidized preschool and the controversial implementation of the Common Core State Standards—have largely failed. In the case of Common Core, where wealthy and middle class parents are hiring tutors to compensate for its weaknesses, the “reform” aimed at equalizing the playing field may actually be making the problem worse.
Why is it so difficult to elevate the academic performance of low income children? A growing body of research indicates that part of the answer may lie in the tremendous amount of brain development that takes place during the first three years of life. Babies are born to learn, and we now know many neural networks in the brain are significantly strengthened or weakened long before a child has entered formal schooling.
According to a 1995 University of Kansas study (Hart and Risley), children of educated parents hear 2,100 words an hour. In contrast, those with working class parents hear 1,200 words, and children whose parents are on public assistance hear only 600. The vocabulary and attentiveness of the primary caregiver—whether it is a parent, a nanny or a daycare worker—plays a central role in the cognitive skills children will demonstrate later in life.
Yet we know that some children from low income families are able to become highly successful adults. We read their stories—from Tyler Perry to Dr. Ben Carson—and we are inspired and provoked not only by what they have accomplished but also by what they have overcome. What almost all of these individuals have in common is an inward determination to overcome adversity, a quality psychologists call resilience.
Although much research indicates that the most important factor in developing resilience is the quality of the parent-child bond (again, developed largely in the first three years of life), a 2005 Time Magazine article, The Importance of Resilience, sought to discover if resilience could also be leaned:
Can kids learn particular skills to help them overcome adversity? The answer is a qualified yes. You can't teach resilience, but researchers have identified some skill—such as developing a sense of autonomy or being a good reader—that increase the chances that a child will become a productive member of society. Belief systems--whether something as straightforward as believing you have a future or as nuanced as practicing a religious faith--also play a critical role.
Can schools help students develop resilience in addition strengthening their cognitive reasoning skills? KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Schools—public charters which serve low-income children—believe they can. They call it “grit,” and it is one of the primary qualities teachers monitor in students and work to help them improve. KIPP schools emphasize a “no-excuses,” high expectation approach to education, even though almost all their students have faced very challenging obstacles in their short lives.
Since 1994, KIPP schools have gone from serving 47 students in a single school to 58,000 in 162 schools across the country. Student who complete eighth grade in a KIPP school have a 93 percent high school graduation rate, and 82% go on to college. And although the character development component is sometimes criticized for being too harsh, it is hard to argue with its effectiveness.
The need for resilience is particularly important for low income children because of the number of obstacles they are likely to face on their path to success. Unfortunately, many interventions designed to help low-income students try to offer support without giving them the tools to overcome their challenges. But more privileged children, who are coddled through childhood, receiving trophies for mediocrity and never being allowed to skin their knees; face challenges adjusting to the real world as well. The difference is that they have a much broader support base; most can simply depend on their parents until they figure things out.
This statement should not be taken to imply that lower income parents do not care about their children or their education. The fact that charter schools like KIPP schools and Urban Prep in Chicago (which in 2014 boasted a 100 percent college acceptance rate for every senior class for five years in a row) always have extensive waiting lists is evidence to the contrary.
We must make sure all parents know how vital the first three years of their children’s lives are to their long term success. We must also take steps to ensure that all parents can send their children to the school of their choice.