The United States is somewhat exceptional

iknklast made this very important point in a comment:

When I was in Texas, the divide between the money spent on educating minorities and educating the white citizens was notable. I had students of color in my classroom who struggled to keep up because they had less preparation. This fed into the preconception of people who assumed they were not as smart. Because they had less opportunity earlier in life, they came to college with less preparation, therefore they typically did worse (especially at first) than white students. Ergo, they were less capable by nature.

Sometimes it required a little extra work on my part when teaching a student from a poorer school, usually a person of color, and for a lot of people, that proved their prejudice. It never occurred to them that this was the work that had been done with the other students earlier on in life, and being three steps behind everyone else meant it was an amazing feat when the students finished even.

A few minutes after I read that comment, I opened this article by Roberto A Ferdman at Wonkblog at the Washington Post, and read:

Wealthy parents aren’t just able to send their kids to top pre-schools—they can also purchase the latest learning technology and ensure their children experience as many museums, concerts and other cultural experiences as possible. Low-income parents, on the other hand, don’t have that opportunity. Instead, they’re often left to face the reality of sending their kids to schools without having had the chance to provide an edifying experience at home.

That might sound foreboding if not hyperbolic, but it’s a serious and widespread problem in the United States, where poor kids enter school already a year behind the kids of wealthier parents. That deficit is among the largest in the developed world, and it can be extraordinarily difficult to narrow later in life.

Especially in a country that, collectively, frankly doesn’t give a fuck that poor people are held back by poverty, and in fact think it serves them right for being poor.

This is one of the key takeaways from a new book about how United States is failing its children. The book, called Too Many Children Left Behind, is written by Columbia University professor Jane Waldfogel, a long-time researcher of poverty and inequality. And it will force almost anyone to reflect on the impact of unchecked inequality on children.

Waldfogel says the massive achievement gap in the United States is a blemish for a country that aspires to be the greatest in the world. In her book, she shows that achievement gap is pronounced to a startling degree in the first years of life.

And then it’s made even worse by people like Scalia who conclude that poor people are just stupider than rich people.

Ferdman and Waldfogel had a conversation about the issue.

How serious is the achievement gap between poorer and wealthier children in the United States?

It’s pretty frightening.

We find that for both reading and math, the children whose parents had low levels of education—meaning they only got a high school education or less—are lagging behind the children of more educated parents by a full standard deviation at school entry. A standard deviation is huge—it’s a big gap; it’s at least an entire year of development.

By comparison, in the other countries we looked at, the gap was closer to half a standard deviation. So the gap is substantially and significantly larger in the United States.

Wow. And we’re talking about kids who are only four years old. So four years in to life they are already a full year behind?

Yes, it’s terrible.

And we do a crap job of catching them up, and we’re an outlier in both of those ways – the bad start and the bad finish.

The United States is somewhat exceptional in this regard. Can you talk a little about how the size and shape of the achievement gap in this country is distinctive?

Where the United States really stood out was in having significantly more inequality at school entry and at the end of school compared to peer countries we found around the world—those are Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada. For most of the things we looked at, the U.K. was in second place behind the U.S. in terms of the level of inequality. Australia and Canada really stand out as having much more equality of outcomes among kids than the United States. And this is carried through as kids go to school. The achievement gap grows as kids go to school in the U.S., but it doesn’t really elsewhere.

And…what’s more important? Apart from climate change and continuing to have a planet that can sustain life? What’s more important than doing everything possible to give everyone an equal chance in life?

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