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The Achievement Gap & What We Can Do About It — Jane Waldfogel

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Jane Waldfogel is a Professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on the impact of public policies on poverty, inequality, and child and family well-being.  Her books include: Too Many Children Left Behind: The U.S. Achievement Gap in Comparative Perspective; Britain’s War on PovertySteady Gains and Stalled Progress: Inequality and the Black-White Test Score GapWhat Children NeedSecuring the Future: Investing in Children from Birth to College; and The Future of Child Protection. She is also the author of over 100 articles and book chapters. Her current research includes studies of paid parental leave, improving the measurement of poverty, and inequality in school readiness and achievement.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stewart Friedman: Why should businesspeople care about early childhood education and about the achievement gap, and what’s the connection to work and working families?

Jane Waldfogel: Jane WaldfogelThere are two important connections for businesspeople. One immediate connection is that this is the workforce of the future.   The children we’re talking about, who have the achievement gap, are lagging behind their peers more so than children in other countries, are going to be their employees five, 10, 15 years from now.

SF: Before you get to the second reason, just define what we mean by achievement gap.

JW: In the work that I’m doing, I’m focusing on the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children; children whose families have high levels of socio-economic resources and children whose families have low levels of resources. There are different ways of measuring that. I’m focusing on the difference between those whose parents have a college degree or more and those whose parents have a high school degree or sometimes less.  We think of those as being highly-educated and low-educated, but there’s a big group in the middle that has something beyond high school, some kind of college education but not a full college degree. The achievement gap is the gap in school readiness or the gap in school achievement between those whose parents have a college degree and those whose parents have high school or less.

SF: Thank you for that.  Yes, it’s about future employees and their readiness to contribute to society’s economic growth.    And the other important rationale for businesspeople to be mindful of your research?

JW:  The other reason for businesspeople to be aware of and concerned about it is they’re not independent of this, they’re parties to this. The way that our safety net works in the United States is that a lot of the safety net benefits that families rely on, especially when they’re working, come from their employers.    A lot of their employers offer some help with parental leave, sick leave, even help with child healthcare and eldercare.   But not all employers do.   And, unfortunately, there’s also a gap in the provision of those kinds of benefits.  The best-off employees who are most educated, have the most resources, are also the most likely to have employer benefits.  While the businesses that are employing low-income workers, low-educated workers, are the least likely to provide those benefits.

SF: What’s the implication of that for businesspeople listening to our show right now? Why is the increasing gap relevant to the small-business owner, for example?

JW: I think a small-business owner would be entitled to say, “Why is this my responsibility and why should I be paying for expensive benefits?  I think the small-business owner actually has a point there, and this is why we’re seeing in several states’ paid family leave benefits being provided through employee contribution into a public insurance fund.  This is the model in California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. It is a very innovative kind of model and one of the prime beneficiaries of these new benefits, it’s not parents, it’s small businesses, because small businesses would like to be able to give people some time off when they have a baby. These people are human beings, they’re decent employers, and in fact they have been giving people time off, this is not a new thing.

SF: The point that you’re making here is such a critical one, that these are employee-funded initiatives.

JW: These are 100% funded through employee contribution and the state pays a few pennies a week into these funds. And then how many children do these people have? They don’t have that many children.   So, on the one or two or three occasions that somebody has a child, then mothers and fathers, they both get some paid leave. It might be four weeks, it might be five weeks, it might be six weeks.  And it’s funded through this public insurance fund that’s funded by contributions from all the employees in the state.

SF: So it gets spread out and it’s administered by the Social Security Administration already in place to manage these funds.  The private sector can say, “It’s not really up to us.”  And to that you would say, You’re right. We need a national policy to support families and children, and that’s good for all of us, as the research has shown.”

JW: Yes.  These social insurance programs were set up to insure workers against the kind of eventualities that might strike any of us. Things like death, disability, unemployment, illness.  And virtually every advanced industrialized country has some form of paid maternity leave because it’s that kind of an event —  giving birth is that kind of an event. It’s an extraordinary event, it’s not a recurring, frequent event, so it’s the perfect thing for these kinds of social insurance funds to cover.

SF: One of the things that you’ve focused on in the great treatise that you’ve published, Too Many Children Left Behind: The U.S. Achievement Gap in Comparative Perspective, is how we fare compared to other nations. What were the big ideas in the insights that you drew from that comparative study?

JW: It’s probably no surprise to any of your listeners that children whose parents are more highly educated themselves are going to come to school more ready to learn than children whose parents are not highly educated. But it’s not obvious why that kind of a gap should differ across countries. If, in the United States children whose parents are less educated are coming into school a full standard deviation behind in their test scores than children whose parents are more highly educated, then we would expect to find similar gaps in other countries when we compare similar families, families with college education and families whose parents have just a high school degree or less.

SF: So the effect of parental education ought to be universal and not country-specific.

JW: Yes.  More educated parents are reading to their children, they’re buying books and toys, they have a computer, and they have a love of learning they’re passing it on to their children. There’s lots of reasons why you might expect the children of more educated parents to come to school more ready.  But in fact, the gap at school entry is twice as big in the United States as it is in Canada or Australia.  When we compare the United States to Canada, Australia, and the U.K., that gap is significantly larger in the United States than in the other countries. There must be something going on in the United States that’s peculiar.

SF: Something that exaggerates the achievement gap that’s caused by differences in parental education.

JW: Exactly. So partly it’s that when parents are low-educated in the United States, not only are they low-educated but they also have low levels of other resources. They’re younger, they’re less likely to be in stable families.  Some of it’s about family structure, but some of it is because they have lower incomes relative to the rest of the population than low-income families in other countries. And unfortunately, you then add in the government resources, and that just augments the differences across the countries.

SF: What do you mean?

JW:  It turns out that the reason that we have a much higher child poverty rate than Canada, the U.K., Australia, is not because of our demographic makeup or our labor market situation. When you look just at families’ market earnings, the child poverty rate is about the same across the four countries. Once you take into account government taxes and transfers, that’s where you see the big difference. In the U.K., in Canada, in Australia, those government programs are cutting child poverty in half.

SF: Our government tax policies exaggerate the achievement gap that kids experience as a result of whether or not their parents are college-educated.

JW:  It’s the government tax and transfer programs; what we call the safety net. Those programs are cutting child poverty in half in the other countries. That’s a really important element. And then there’s the whole work/life/family arena.  Virtually all advanced countries, all of our peers, now have universal preschool that covers children in the year or two before they start school. You can see how that would be tremendously equalizing if all the children were going to preschool before they’re going on to school.

SF: That’s going to cut into the achievement gap?

JW: Yes, and it’s going to be equalizing, whereas in the United States, because we don’t have universal preschool, we don’t have universal pre-kindergarten in most places, the kind of preschool or whether or not your child even gets preschool.  And then, the kind of preschool is going to be very dependent on family resources. At the top end, we have some of the best nursery schools in the world, and we know which families get to access those, and at the bottom end, we have families who if they’re lucky, maybe they’ll get a childcare voucher or they’ll get a spot in a subsidized childcare program, and then you’ll get the families in the middle who can’t afford the price of high-quality preschool, so they’re making do with family daycare or informal care, such as kids being with relatives. At some point, those kids are losing out compared to other kids who are having more educational programming.

SF:  This exaggerates the achievement gap which just grows over time.

JW: It does grow over time.  Although one of the surprising findings in the book was that if you had asked me before we started the book, I would have said probably about half of the achievement gap that we see in high school was already there at school entry, and the other half of it emerges as that gap widens during the school years. And that actually would have been wrong. We estimated this very carefully in the book and it turns out actually about two-thirds of the achievement gap, 60 or 70 percent, is already there at school entry. That’s a ‘wow!’

SF: So universal Pre-K and tax policies and transfers that enable kids to be better ready, when they start, that could solve most of the achievement gap problem that we see later in people’s lives and in their school careers?

JW: Exactly.   And if we’d at least give teachers a fighting chance. You can’t have kids coming in so unequally prepared at kindergarten. I mean, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a kindergarten teacher facing that range of abilities. Either you’re going to teach to the children that are very ill-prepared, and then the better-prepared children are really missing out and everybody’s level is dragged down. If they’re going to teach the children who are well-prepared, those who are behind at the start are going to fall further behind.

SF: What can we do to help solve this problem, because it really is a tragic set of circumstances in a nation that prides itself on being the most resourceful in world history?

JW: I think it’s not rocket science. You start from birth: paid parental leave.  We all know it’s a good thing but it’s taken us a while to figure it out. We now have these three states that have programs in place, so we’re getting there. Look at all these companies that are implementing 16 weeks of paid parental leave; all the tech companies, the Navy, I think this is a sea change, I think we’re getting there. We also have a much better evidence base on parenting programs for parents of infants and toddlers than we’ve ever had before. The Nurse Family Partnership is the best known of them, but there are now several. This is an example of a very well-studied, well-evaluated parenting program that works with young first-time mothers starting prenatally and into the first year or two of life.  Nurses work with the mothers to help strengthen their parenting skills. So the children get better care before they start preschool because, honestly, we’ve been talking about universal preschool or Pre-K at age four, but that comes pretty late in the life of a child. There’s an earlier foundation of paid parental leave and then the evidence-based, high-quality parenting programs for parents who may not have received very good parenting themselves and especially young, first-time, disadvantaged moms.

SF: Does your comparative study help to propel interest by American lawmakers to take this issue more seriously?

JW: I think it should in two different respects. One, that wow factor of 60-70 percent of the achievement gap being there already at school entry, is such a smoking gun in terms of pointing to early childhood as the point of intervention. The second big wow is that achievement gap being so much larger in the United States than our nearest peers, Canada, the U.K., and Australia. There’s no reason we should have so much of a bigger gap than those other countries, and we know it’s happening in early childhood.

SF:  Not only should there not be that gap, but we should be leading. What can listeners do, a number of our listeners are going to be thinking, What can I do to try to make a change with respect to how children will be affected by policy?” What would you recommend?

JW: I think there’s a lot to be done at the local and state level. A lot of these programs are being funded and rolled out by the states.  These early home-visiting programs, these parenting programs, paid parental leave is happening at the state level, universal Pre-K is happening at the state level, so I think finding out what’s going on in my city or state and getting on board and supporting these things with funding and candidates who support these initiatives.  At the local level, finding out what are the good programs in my area and what do they need? Do they need some volunteers, some help? I know a lot of businesses are involved locally in having folks volunteer and help out, so find a strong program in your area and find out what they need.

SF: What has this research meant to you personally in terms of your sense of the impact that you’re having?

JW: I just feel very strongly committed to doing what we can to make the living situation of children in our country more equal, and raising the level for everybody, and it’s dawned on me that the school system is one really important place to make that happen. That’s really driven my interest in these achievement gaps, but it turns out that we have to start a lot earlier than the school system and so I think there’s an awful lot for all of us to do.

About the Author

Jacob Adler , W’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, andFake Teams.


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