Published: April 24, 2018
The year is 1965. “The Sound of Music” hits the big screen, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” special graces televisions everywhere, and educational reform sweeps across the country. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty has been waging for a year now, and in its throes a new series of programs have been enacted to address economic inequality.
One of these programs is Head Start, an early childhood education program for low-income children, birth to age 5, that ensures student readiness for children of any background. Pacific Oaks College, already having a reputation for its early childhood education programs, is one of the colleges tasked with training new Head Start instructors.
Fifty-three years later, the achievement gap between low- and high-income students continues to exist. Research has proven that children with access to high-quality early childhood education exhibit higher levels of proficiency in math and reading. Low-income students, however, participate in these programs at much lower rates. It is often up to teachers in public school classrooms to facilitate the “catch-up” process that occurs when varying degrees of student readiness collide in elementary school classrooms.
What tools must a teacher have to be able to not only teach the assigned curriculum, but teach it 12 different ways to account for the varying degrees of student understanding and preparedness?
The income achievement gap has been a persistent problem in the U.S. for generations. A 2014 study showed that the gap had grown approximately 40 percent between the early 1940s and the early 2000s. In 2006, less than 50 percent of poor children entered kindergarten “school ready,” as opposed to 75 percent of children from moderate- or high-income families.
The readiness gap is further complicated by the correlation between socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity. In the U.S., 39 percent of African-American children and adolescents and 33 percent of Latino children and adolescents live in poverty (compared to only 14 percent of non-Latino, Caucasian, and Asian children and adolescents).
And the issue doesn’t pertain to students alone. In California, the number of unprepared teachers has also more than doubled since 2014. Because the majority of unprepared public school teachers are assigned to high-minority and high-poverty schools, the problem is compounded. Not only are minority and low-income children more at risk of being unprepared come school time, they are then taught by teachers who may or may not be ready themselves.
The solution seems simple: Give all children access to early childhood education because that’s what will propel them toward future success. Yet deep-rooted systemic and political hindrances make the struggle for equity in education very challenging.
Lisa Cain-Chang, an alumna of Pacific Oaks’ Human Development program and the program director at the Child Educational Center, references the “trilemma of child care” when discussing the accessibility of early childhood education programs. It’s the struggle to balance affordability for families, program quality, and staff compensation.
“It’s this incredibly tense relationship because, for example, either parents can get an affordable tuition, but then children may not get the quality of program they deserve, or staff won’t get the pay they deserve,” Cain-Chang says. “If we put more money from our nonprofit budget into tuition assistance, where do we not spend that money? Do we eliminate aspects of the program that are necessary and essential to quality?”
Accessibility of ECE programs goes deeper than just affordability. The quality of these programs varies across the country as well, with many having their own prescribed pedagogy. What even makes an early childhood education program a “quality” one— and why does it make such a difference in a child’s school readiness?
“In the preschool years, our foundation pyramid rests on social and emotional development,” says Jayanti Tambe, a Pacific Oaks alumna and previous interim executive director of the Pacific Oaks Children’s School. “The next level we look at is self-help skills. And then the third level we look at is preacademic. So we spend a lot of our time in making sure that child has a healthy, well-formed identity. That social foundation that we give to a child is of paramount importance.”
For Tambe, the social-emotional gap is more troubling than the academic one. A 2015 study showed statistically significant associations between social-emotional skills in kindergarten and key young adult outcomes. It isn’t enough for educators to focus only on academics. The whole child must be nurtured in the process, including the child’s environment and the supporting cast of characters in it.
“You can’t do this work unless you are developing deep, abiding relationships with the children you serve, with the families that you’re working with, and with your co-workers,” says Ellen Veselack, the preschool director at the Child Educational Center. “In order to really develop the whole child, you have to develop the relationship because you don’t know what that child needs in every area of their development if you don’t know them intimately.”
ECE programs provide children their first vital opportunity to develop social-emotional skills alongside peers—working through challenges and learning to problem solve and regulate emotions. For children unable to access these programs, it can be challenging for them to enter into a school system that focuses only on academic development. Add to that the potential that their racial or cultural identity could be ignored—if for nothing more than lack of human resources in the age of growing class sizes— and the results can be incredibly damaging.
“I think the way that most elementary schools are set up don’t help children in that way,” Veselack says. “They’re not thinking about the child’s social-emotional development. They’re not considering a child’s sensitivity or what they might bring to the table.”
With poverty, race, ethnicity, and education so correlated, it is necessary for teachers to have a multicultural awareness in order to connect to any student and make a difference in those first few years of school.
“When you look at the last census and you know that more than 50 percent of the children born in this country today are considered a minority, I think the onus is on educators to be equipped to understand how to engage diversity,” Tambe says. “I think we need to be so cognizant of what racial identity means, what cultural identity means, and how we meet the needs of all of those diverse populations in the best manner possible.”
By engaging with identity, teachers are able to validate the child as a student and as a person. Learning environments where children feel heard, respected, and have opportunities to “self-direct” can instill confidence in their capabilities as young learners.
According to Elizabeth Chamberlain, the associate dean of Pacific Oaks’ School of Education, it is a student’s confidence that has the potential to close the readiness gap. And Pacific Oaks emphasizes these aspects in its curriculum to provide teachers with this crucial skill set.
“We really teach our teachers how to be inclusive practitioners,” Chamberlain says. “Whatever that learner brings to the classroom is valued. It’s not seen as a barrier, it’s seen as a benefit.”
Pacific Oaks’ values of social justice and inclusivity are the backbone of a teacher ready to traverse a diverse learning environment, and to help any kind of student realize their full capacity.
“When you have good quality teachers who really know how to help all children learn, then everybody benefits,” Dr. Chamberlain says.
Read articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Voices: