Changing the Contexts of Learning, Not Just Low-Income Children

In another interesting shift from blaming poor children and their families alone when children lag behind middle class peers in school, this op-ed in the New York Times suggests that low-income preschool children will learn more if they simply are not isolated from middle-class peers in the classroom.  No extra tests, no reduction of learning to chants of direct instruction, no public shaming of teachers as a motivational strategy.

A 2007 Connecticut study found that poor children who attended economically mixed prekindergarten classes progressed from well below the national average in crucial language skills to just above it during the course of the school year, while those in low-income-only classes remained below the norm. A new evaluation of Boston’s heralded preschools reaches the same conclusion — peers matter. “Vocabulary and background knowledge play a major role in student learning,” says Jason Sachs, who runs the Boston program, “and interacting with mixed-income students allows for richer discussions among students.” (In achievement and other measures, well-off kids in integrated settings do neither better nor worse.)

The author tries to make his case for integrating Head Start students with those attending high quality preschools by making an argument that is compelling on the surface:

Imagine the outrage if a school district created pauper classes for first graders. Why should preschoolers be treated differently?

Yet.  Districts do create pauper classes for first graders, in how they draw attendance boundaries, in aligning attendance with the neighborhood socioeconomics in any segregated U.S. city.  And in places even like liberal Seattle where I live, a large proportion of upper middle class parents enroll their children in private schools.

Imagine the outrage if these choices were framed as anything other than personal choice about buying  homes in any neighborhood one wishes or paying tuition for schools that are “right” for their children.

Imagine the outrage if we talked about the power these parents have over the well-being of other peoples’ children.

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