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The Keys to Helping Kids Overcome Poverty

New studies shed light on how low-income children can beat the odds that are against them in school and beyond.

Counselor giving a student a high five.
(TNS/Los Angeles Times)
Is it better to be born rich or smart? According to recent research on equity and education, for most kids, wealth trumps knowledge.

The so-called American Dream is the exception, not the rule, says Georgetown University’s Anthony P. Carnevale. He's the lead author of a new report with a sobering conclusion: Kids with low test scores from high-income families are more than twice as likely to achieve high-income status as adults than high-scoring kids from low-income families.

Though rags-to-riches stories pervade pop culture and local news, Carnevale says our “system in a fairly systematic way takes inequality, which we find in K through 12, passes it on into higher education, then again into the labor market where the starts the cycle all over again.”

But, there are ways state and local governments can help level the playing field.

For starters, the Georgetown research, along with two other recent reports, all point to the idea that early interventions can help lower-income kids succeed in school. Preschool, in conjunction with other programs, has the potential to close socioeconomic gaps over a generation.

Evidence for this comes from an analysis released this month by the Perry Preschool Project, a program in the 1960s that provided high-quality preschool and weekly home visits from teachers to help parents reinforce the curriculum at home. The participants -- three- and four-year-old African-American children living in poverty and at high risk of failing in school -- have been tracked through their adulthood. 

The kids in the original research group, who are now in their 50s, were 30 percent more likely to complete high school without being suspended and 26 percent more likely to have full-time jobs or be self-employed, according to an analysis of the Perry project by economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago.

This is in part due to a stable home environment: The parents in the Perry project were more likely than parents of low-income children who did not attend preschool to have higher incomes, to be in a long-term relationship and to spend more time with their own children.


Access to Preschool

Despite the potential benefits of early childhood education, access to it is a luxury in most places.

While programs like Head Start seek to make quality early childhood programs available to low-income families, they don't meet the full need. Many families opt for free care provided by a family member. The result is that many low-income kids enter kindergarten far behind their higher-income peers -- a gap that can persist throughout a child's school career and into adulthood.

But many states are stepping up their game. This year, 32 governors proposed nearly $3 billion in new funding for preschool, state child care and home visiting programs, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP).


The Long Game

Focusing on interventions before lower-income kids enter the K-12 system, however, isn't enough for them to overcome their hurdles in the long run.

“All the research shows that high-quality preschool can make you ready for kindergarten when you get there,” says Simon Workman, CAP’s director of early childhood policy. “But we also need high-quality kindergarten to keep those gains. You have to look at the full continuum.”

According to Carnevale's research, for instance, among children with similar academic potential in kindergarten, just 30 percent of economically disadvantaged students remained high-scoring during elementary, middle and high school. Among their more economically advantaged peers, 70 percent remained high-scoring.

"People of all abilities and backgrounds stumble throughout their academic journeys," the study says. "But advantaged students have safety nets to keep them on track while their less-advantaged peers do not and as a result, are more likely to fall behind and stay behind."

That's why interventions are also necessary in middle and high school, says Carnevale. Schools that employ a “wraparound” approach -- a system that connects students in need with counseling, medical, dental and social services -- have been found to have better outcomes for lower-income children.

In one study of 7,900 students, students who received support services attended school more and dropped out of high school at half the rate of students who did not. In addition, the achievement gap between English Language Learners and native speakers was eliminated by third grade. 

This appears in the Finance newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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