When kindergarteners begin their first day of school, they may have learned how to hold a pencil and write out the letters of the alphabet. But it is also likely that they do not understand what the alphabet is and cannot even count to 10. Students start their education at all different levels, even in kindergarten. Given that students come to the starting line unevenly prepared, is it really any surprise that achievement gaps exist?
Education occurs in two distinct areas: school and outside of school.
Students spend only about 14% of the year in school. The rest of their time is spent outside of the classroom, at home, and in their communities. Before starting school at age 5, most students (especially those without access to pre-K) spend their entire time outside of educational institutions.
Because schooling encompasses only a small portion of the average student’s life, it comes as no surprise that social class and parental influences are highly associated with differences in educational achievement. Beyond the basic materials needed to survive, students are more influenced by their parents, especially parental life choices and behavior, than any other societal force. Simply put, parents shape their children’s future.
But what about students whose parents live in poverty, work multiple jobs, lack a partner, are immigrants, experienced difficult childhoods, or are involved with drugs and crime? What about parents who cannot afford the time to go to parent-teacher conferences or follow up on their children’s homework because of more pressing concerns? And what about parents who don’t know what social services are available to aid themselves and their families? Their children are more likely to come to the starting line unprepared, simply because of their parents and socioeconomic status.
While parents and time spent out of school have distinct influences on student achievement, the U.S. public education system provides a unique public policy platform to help mitigate deficiencies that may result in the home. If the goal of education is to prepare all students for the future, in the workforce or in college, it is essential that schools step up to help disadvantaged students.
While there is no panacea to educational inequities derived from the differences in the role that parents play in education, certain programs have shown great promise. The expansion of public early childhood education programs and the development of community schools are essential policies that can help. While these programs are primarily based in schools, they also do include aspects of parental involvement.
Early childhood education: Intensive early-childhood education provides young learners with the opportunity to engage with others and develop academic skills before entering the Kindergarten classroom. Expanding access to high-quality pre-K opportunities is essential for closing achievement gaps and providing all students with the opportunity to live up to their potentials, as noted in a recent PEW study.
Community schools: While the expansion of pre-school is essential, support for disadvantaged students cannot end once they begin formal schooling. As previously noted, a student only spends 14% of their year in school. Community schools programs work to fill the extra time before and after school, on the weekends, and in the summers. Further, community schools provide social services and work to engage the entire community, parents included, in the education and support of the neighborhood’s children. The most highlighted example of this is the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). Not just a set of charter schools, the HCZ also works with the whole family, starting before birth to get the parents ready to teach and raise their children, and continuing through college. The HCZ model has been expanded through the Promise Neighborhood grant program of the U.S. Department of Education and additional community school programs are currently developing.
Providing disadvantaged students with the opportunity to succeed, despite inequities from the beginning, is essential for ensuring that every child has a right to a quality education. Parental and family influences are strongly related to student achievement, but in the event that parents are unavailable to aid in their child’s education, the impetus is on the schools and the community to educate and support these students.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons