Racial segregation can start in preschool, according to a new report from Columbia University’s Teachers College that spotlights this disturbing trend.
The report — “A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education” — points to “racial, ethnic, and economic disparities in preschool classrooms across America,” according to a press release, “prompting calls for policymakers to focus on the value of diversity in early education classrooms as a means to increase equity and quality for America’s youngest learners.”
“If every child could be in a high-quality program, we could all go home and not worry about it,” Jeanne Reid told the Washington Post. Reid is a co-author of the report, which was funded by The Century Foundation and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. “But a lot of programs are not high quality, and low-income children are most likely to be in low-quality programs.”
Instead of letting children from low-income families congregate in inadequate programs, the country should promote equal access to high-quality, research-backed early education programs, the report says.
Unfortunately, equal access is lacking. In fact, “the demographic data on early childhood education programs reveal three troubling trends,” the report notes:
(1) “children from low-SES [socioeconomic status] families and Hispanic children are less likely than high-SES and non-Hispanic children to be enrolled in center-based early childhood programs”
(2) “low-income children are most likely to attend low-quality preschool programs,” and,
(3) “most children in public preschool programs attend economically segregated programs that are often segregated by race/ethnicity as well.”
“We argue that quality and equity are inextricably linked, that programs that are segregated by race/ethnicity and income are rarely of equal quality, and that efforts to make early childhood investments sustainable must take this into account,” the report says.
The Impact of Diverse Preschool Programs
“In preschool, peers may have a particularly strong impact on language skills. One study found that language-rich preschool settings promote children’s receptive language skills, especially among children who come from home environments with lower levels of language stimulation,” the report says.
There are also two examples of pre-K programs that stand out for their approach to diversity.
“The Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans, Louisiana, was started by a socioeconomically and racially diverse coalition of parents because they sought a school as diverse as their neighborhoods. To create an integrated pre-K program, Morris Jeff’s founders took advantage of a seldom-used option in Louisiana’s LA4 Early Childhood Program, which supports pre-K enrollment for low-income four-year-olds, to enroll tuition-paying students alongside children who receive state funding. This enrollment model has created a socioeconomically and racially diverse pre-K program in the school and its classrooms, which creates a foundation for diversity in subsequent grades.”
Funding is a challenge for the program, however:
“Morris Jeff assesses its children’s mathematics and language skills to gauge their developmental progress and readiness for kindergarten. In 2013–14, using the Developing Skills Checklist, a standardized assessment used by Louisiana pre-K programs, only about one quarter of Morris Jeff’s pre-K children began the year demonstrating ‘mastery’ (a minimum score chosen by program administrators) in math, and only one tenth demonstrated mastery in language skills,” the report explains.
But by the end of the year, “more than 80 percent of students demonstrated mastery in each subject. While these results may be attributable to many elements of children’s lives, they suggest that the Morris Jeff model is producing positive results.”
The report also looks at the Hartford Region Magnet Schools in Connecticut.
“In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in Sheff v. O’Neill that the racial isolation of Hartford students was unconstitutional, and a 2003 settlement created a regional system of voluntary school choice that includes inter-district magnet schools. Today, all but one of the elementary magnet schools offer pre-K programs. The state Department of Education strives to achieve racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within the Hartford Region Magnet School system by balancing enrollment of Hartford and suburban students in an admissions lottery.”
Transportation costs are a challenge for this program, the report says:
“While a system-wide assessment of pre-K results is not available, individual programs report positive outcomes. For example, in 2014, at the CREC Reggio Magnet School of the Arts, 91 percent of pre-K students scored ‘proficient’ on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. While we do not know how much these results reflect skill development attributable to the pre-K program, they are encouraging.”
In addition, “diverse programs create social connections that families might not otherwise find. One principal reflected that some of his school’s biggest successes ‘come on Monday morning, when . . . we hear that kids from Glastonbury attended a birthday party for a Hartford student. That would not have happened unless we existed.’”
The report makes a number of recommendations to foster greater diversity in pre-K programs.
• build public and professional knowledge
One strategy is to make data on diversity more readily available to the public. Governments, foundations, researchers, professional organizations, and early childhood advocates can all play a role in this work.
• increase funding
Two strategies here are to “create incentives for programs to reserve slots for both publicly funded and privately funded children.” And to increase “fiscal allocations for Head Start considerably to allow Head Start providers to use the existing option of enrolling up to 10 percent of their children from families with incomes above the poverty line without jeopardizing services to low-income children.”
• strengthen professional development
“States should support professional development that systematically shares the research on socioeconomic and racial/ethnic diversity to prepare teachers for programming in integrated settings,” the report says.
In addition: “Higher education and postgraduate education schools should implement curricular reforms that address these challenges when preparing teachers for the classroom. One option would be to promote enrollment for all prospective teachers in a course on diversity in ECE. Such a course should address all aspects of diversity, including the issues related to classroom composition examined in this report.”
As the report concludes: “In the short term, such diversity supports the development of important cognitive skills in young children; in the long run, it can foster far greater social understanding and social equity. Taking a stand on quality for all children commits our society to the kinds of classroom-level integration that are long overdue, especially for our youngest learners. Without such diversity, public investments in early childhood education are on fragile ground in the quest for excellence, sustainability, and equity.”