Monday, April 29, 2013

Equal Opportunity

I know I said I was going to be writing about productivity over the next few weeks... and I am. But something else came across my screen today that I feel compelled to write about first. I want to write about what equal opportunity really means. Not strictly from a standpoint of gender or race- but from a standpoint of what it would mean to have a society that provides equal opportunities to people.

I think a lot of people would say that it means that two candidates- for a job, or for a spot on a college admissions list, for instance- are evaluated strictly on merit. They are given equal opportunity to prove their worth.

I don't think that goes far enough.

I think we should aim to have it mean that any two little babies would have the same chance to live up to their full potential, regardless of their race, gender, eventual sexual orientation, or how much money their parents make.

There is a lot of work to do and a lot of interesting discussion to have around the first three things on my list, but I want to talk about the last thing on the list: the role of money.

I started thinking about this today because I read Sean Reardon's NY Times Essay: "No Rich Child Left Behind." It is about the the gap in educational attainment between rich kids and lower income kids. He presents data that show the gap is widening, and not because poor kids are doing less well, but because rich kids are doing better:

"The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school."

His essay is food for thought, but doesn't provide a lot of answers for what we should do. As he says:

"It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich."

He clearly thinks something should be done, though:

"Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the relationship between family income and educational success can change this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we have recently been taught to think.

So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born."

The added emphasis is mine. I am not an expert on early education, or public policy. I know that figuring out how to give all of our kids a better chance to make the most of the educational opportunities they have will not be easy.

But I strongly believe we should try.

I think most readers of this blog will have figured out by now that my husband and I are fairly wealthy.  Pumpkin and Petunia are easily in the group Reardon labels as "rich kids." He is right: we are rich and we have given them many enrichment opportunities, and we continue to do so.

Most of you might not know, however, that I wasn't always this rich. I don't write much about my background, not because I am ashamed of it (far from it), but because it seems so mundane. We weren't rich, but we weren't particularly poor. My family did use food stamps when I was little- I remember going shopping with my Mom and needing to separate our items into things we could buy with food stamps and things we couldn't. When I got a little older, though, my Mom (a teacher) went back to work and my father (a librarian) got a promotion, and money wasn't quite so tight. I don't remember wanting for anything as a grade school kid, but I still have memories of money being an issue some times. When I tell Pumpkin that something is too expensive to buy, I am trying to teach her about the value of money. When my parents told me that, chances were it really was too expensive for them to buy.

My parents certainly wouldn't have been able to take me to a two day visit to Disneyland for my 6th birthday- not even if Disneyland had somehow been transplanted to a location 1.5 hours away from my home. We took family vacations, but not every year, and we stayed in economy motel rooms, not the business class suites my husband and I favor.

This is not to say that trips to Disneyland and business class hotels are essential enrichment opportunities. It is just to give an idea of the difference in my current socioeconomic level and the one from which I came.

You can look at stories like mine and argue that there is no problem- I worked my way up,  after all. From food stamps to top 5% of income in one generation! But I think that overlooks both the extent to which I was the beneficiary of things not generally available to other kids from modest means and the extent to which we have dismantled some of the things that helped me when I was a kid.

I was cared for as a baby and young child by an expert in early education- my mother, who had taken a break from her career as an elementary school teacher both because at that time you had to quit when you got pregnant and because she wanted to stay home with her kids. I had parents who were well aware of the free educational opportunities offered by my local library and had no logistical trouble availing themselves of them- my Dad worked there, after all, and the children's librarians were family friends. I had a loving extended family, who provided a sense of security and well-being. My family had access to food stamps when we needed them, so I never remember going to bed hungry, except when I refused to eat my dinner on grounds of it being "gross." (Yeah, Pumpkin comes by her extremely picky streak naturally.) We had access to affordable housing. Our part of town was not wealthy, but the only time I found it scary was when a guard dog from one of the nearby light industrial businesses got loose. I do not remember gangs being much of a problem, although there was some gang presence in my high school. Both my former elementary school and my former junior high have to take anti-gang measures now.

And I'm white. So no one looked at me as a kid and thought I was genetically destined to be lazy or stupid.

I look at my background and at what I have today, and I mourn the fact that so many factors have to line up for people to have the socioeconomic mobility I have had. And apparently, it is only getting harder.

We should look at our society and ask ourselves how can we help all parents provide the excellent early environment my parents provided. How can we ensure that all kids have the same high quality of day care my children have? How can we make sure no child is held back by hunger?

In essence, we need to look at our society and ask ourselves how we can stop wasting so much human potential, because make no mistake, that is what we are doing now, and that is a tragedy both for the kids whose potential we waste and for our society, which misses out on the benefits of a better educated population.

I am not hopelessly naive. I know that parents matter and that there is only so much the larger society can- or should- do to level the inequalities created by money. I know that wealthy parents like me will continue to give our kids every opportunity we can, and that there we will never truly have equal opportunities for all the little babies born in our country.

But I think we can- and should- do a hell of a lot more than we do now.


  1. I read that same article and had some thoughts that I should put down on my blog, too.

    But, first I want to give an observation that I learned while working at a volunteer tutor at my daughter's Title I school with a large immigrant and poor population (with some overlap in the 2 groups).

    At a neighboring, slightly wealthier neighborhood school with a majority Asian-american (Korean and Japanese) population, the kids are sent afterschool to tutoring centers. One tutor at the center explained that it is a given that the Korean-american kids have a tutor in each subject. Many of the parents spend more for tutoring than on their mortgage or rent.

    This explains why that school district obtains such high standardized test scores even with 40 kids per classroom vs. the 30 in our school district.

    Our school gets refugees from that school who cannot tolerate the 40 students/classroom and cannot afford afterschool tutor centers to make up for the school crowding.

    In talking to parents at a neighboring school district that is much, MUCH wealthier, I learned that parents hire private tutors for their children at a cost of $50-$125/hr. If kids fall behind, the school recommend a tutor and the parents ante up.

    In my kid's school, kids that fall behind are given several no or low cost alternatives. Peer tutoring from other middle school students is offered for free at lunch or during study hall. A list of high school students (vetted by HS teachers) from the same district that tutor is also offered. The HS tutors meet the MS kids at the library after school. The HS teachers say that the cost for all HS tutors is $10 hour but tips are appreciated. One mother says that her daughter (HS junior) gets $10-25/hr based on the families' ability to pay.

    I offer free math tutoring in the library at lunch and study hall 3 days a week. I also tutor one boy in computer programming and answer science questions as needed. So, at least for 3 hours/week, they have a tutor with a PhD for free. Sometimes, trying to make up for life's inequities is like plugging a dike. But I try.

    1. Good for you! We have to try.

      I meant to include on of my favorite quotes in this post: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." (It is from Voltaire.) We cannot make it perfect, but we can make it better, and we should do that.

    2. the milliner4:50 PM

      What a great idea to do free tutoring for kids who might not otherwise be able to afford it. I've always wanted to volunteer to help people learn to read, and will look into this as well.

  2. Early child care is a HUGE part of this, I think. I recently inquired about infant care and found out that 3 days a week would be ~$2000/mo. That's for licensed, high quality care, not some sort of uber-special language immersion fancypants place. Most of the staff at this center don't have college degrees and many are a just few years out of high school. Even for the rich families in the 10% mentioned above, this is a huge hit.

    Middle class and poor families in our area likely resort to unlicensed home daycares where cost is more of a consideration than ratios, enriching activities, etc.

    The same is true for preschool - even half-day ones are several hundred dollars per month, and then what do people do with their kids for the rest of the day? And full time preschools are not much cheaper than the daycare example above.

    Our school district does offer Pre-K for lower income families. Space is pretty limited, and I'm not sure how many people know about it or take advantage of it. I know I stumbled on the info totally by accident - I've never seen it publicized anywhere.

    Where we live is pretty expensive, but it is really depressing to see the options out there (which even seem pricy to me, but we pay anyway because we can) and think about how less fortunate families get by.

    A friend was telling me about how child care is heavily subsidized where she lived in Canada, so you could get high quality care for a really low rate per hour, which meant nearly all women went back to work after their (much longer) mat leave was up. I know it's an unpopular idea here, but I'm all in favor of that sort of thing.

    1. I'd like to see subsidized child care, on a sliding scale based on parental income. There are some awesome in home child cares out there- I know people who have found them. But it is a bit of a needle in a haystack and not everyone has the time that sort of search takes.

      If the centers in your area are like the ones in mine 3 days/week costs the same as 5 days/week, because they have to reserve a spot for you. Our center now charges ~$1950/month for infant care. The lead teacher in all of the rooms at our center has a certain number of early childhood education hours, though- I can't remember how many. But we've been impressed by the quality of staff they get. Petunia's current teacher is just amazing.

    2. Nope, 5 days of infant care was $2500 (!). So you get a break for 3 days, because they can schedule a 2-day family on the other days.

      I do agree there are good in home daycares, but they are usually licensed and more $ (and full!). Not to mention if you don't have a lot of time/backup child care, it's hard to put that much time and effort into a search.

    3. the milliner5:13 PM

      I live in the part of Canada that is likely the same as your friend @Anandi. Subsidized daycare here is $7/day. Yep, no typo there. In Quebec (where I am) the government wants to assure the continuation of the Quebec (i.e. francophone) population and so there are many measures in place in support of families. Well that and the fact that Quebec tends to be a bit left of centre politically.

      Extended mat leave being one of the measures (though it's pretty much the same all over Canada I think) and heavily subsidized daycare being the other major one. The catch is of course that there are not enough subsidized spots for everyone, and not all subsidized daycares are created equally.

      But if you have to pay for private you can get a significant refund on your taxes (depending on your income)...the catch being of course that you have to upfront the $$ to the daycare. We were unable to get $7/day at the beginning (and were barely able to find daycare, period) and had a nightmarish 1st private daycare (the gov't ended up closing it eventually), and OK 2nd private one, and then the subsidized one we are at now that we LOVE (though it's far away from home and has increased my commute time to 1.5 hrs each way, instead of 20 minutes). We never got a call from the 30+ daycares we were on waiting lists for in our general vicinity. People generally go on the waiting lists as soon as they get pregnant. Wait is typically 2-3 years.

      Anyhow, I know we're really lucky to have heavily subsidized daycare, even if it's not perfect. And it's great that the $7/day is available to all of the population. Though there are cerainly lower income families who still have a struggle if they can't get into a subsidized daycare.

      Just like the family doctor situation here, higher subsidizing usually means longer wait times to access services. But again, better that than not at all.

      While we of course totally appreciate the $7/day daycare, I'd totally be willing to convert it to a true sliding scale where people with higher incomes (i.e. like us) pay more.

    4. I wonder if Quebec moved to a sliding scale system, the province would be able to pay for more day care centers?

      The waiting lists at daycare centers and preschools in many places is something I also find depressing and very frustrating. The idea that you have to figure out that you need to sign up when you're pregnant and then still wait. As far as I know, we're still on one waiting list (for 5+ years) for the only decent daycare in the town my husband lives in. I ended up moving with kids somewhere else because the child care situation where he lived was so intolerable. (We found a fantastic home day care for a while, but she was quite restricted in the ages of children she accepted.)

    5. the milliner7:01 PM

      It's a good question @Erin. The gov't will be providing additional funding to more daycares (but at the same time cutting budgets of the existing subsidized ones I think...if I remember correctly).

      The waiting lists here make people c.r.a.z.y. And very stressed. It's hard to find daycare period and you don't want to be stuck sending your kid somewhere you're not comfortable with.

  3. There are a lot of low cost ways we can close the gap.
    I've got a preschooler, and I'm fascinated by this stuff.
    This article caught my eye, too.

    1. Yes, I've seen that research! It is interesting. And makes me wonder if our "ever mother-child pair isolated in their own home" societal organization is part of the problem. I think back when women used to work communally, babies probably heard a lot more words because their mothers were talking to each other. Now the mother has to talk directly to the baby.

      Anyway, California ran ads for awhile trying to spread the word about talking to your baby. They were cute- but I have no idea if they worked. They were funded by our tobacco money.

    2. Well, that sounds like a good use for tobacco money :)
      I have a friend who works in early childhood policy - I'll ask him about more recent programs, and whether they've been deemed successful.

  4. Anonymous5:25 AM

    I went to Disneyland when I was 6 with the Boys (and girls) club I was in for after school care. My parents scrimped and saved for educational opportunities for us (and we always lived in a college town for my mom's job-- that helps a lot, even small college towns have free enrichment opportunities). My mom would always say she wanted us to have the advantages she never had. We're pretty well-off now, and don't do all those educational opportunities because DC1 doesn't really need them. One of these days we'll get around to signing him up for piano lessons.

    There is an enormous literature on early childhood education, most of it based on randomized controlled trials done in the 1970s. Jim Heckman is considered the leading authority in economics on the topic. The bottom line is that early intensive high quality interventions work. Period. If we spent a ton of money on high quality childcare for poor kids, they would do better in school up to fourth grade even if we did nothing else. On top of that, the girls will be less likely to have teen pregnancies. They would be more likely to get post-high school education. Earnings would be higher. Back in the 1980s people said that these interventions didn't work because the gains disappeared by 4th grade, but (a. that doesn't mean they didn't work, just that we need more interventions and b.) the gains came back after 8th grade.

    There's also a ton of research on the benefits of feeding little kids. It is a travesty that we can still have hungry kids in the US.

    And now we have this sequester-- and they're patching the parts that affect rich people, but letting the parts that hurt kids and poor people stand. It is unconscionable. But I had to vote for a libertarian in my district in order to vote against my tea-party congressman.

    1. The fact that congress fixed the air traffic control problem without fixing any of the problems in programs that affect poor people makes me really, really mad.

      There are lots of things that are making me mad and actually ashamed for my country right now. Sequester, the hunger strike at Guantanamo, our failure to even get the background checks bill voted on....

      And having a choice only between a libertarian and a tea party person. Yikes.

    2. I find it interesting that the fact that gains disappear post 3rd grade is taken as a negative against the preschool. It could also mean that the K-12 schools are so subpar they caused the decline.

    3. Anonymous9:57 AM

      Yes, I don't understand these "it's not a magic bullet, therefore we shouldn't do anything" arguments. Jon Stewart did a good job tearing apart that argument the other week (or month) with regards to Head Start, I believe. ("Doesn't it just mean that we need to have more interventions later? How is that an argument for no interventions?") It seems so obvious, and yet this is one of the leading arguments for not spending money on early childcare interventions.

      And it turns out, high quality intensive preschool for low SES kids sort of *is* a magic bullet because there are these long-term benefits that you just don't see in test-scores after third or fourth grade. And the benefits are especially pronounced for girls. Just think how much better we could do if we kept up with high quality schooling for all children.

    4. Yes. Amen to all of the above here.

  5. And don't forget the government directly and indirectly funds most earth scientists around the world. So sequestration has turned me (involuntarily) into a housewife and community volunteer.

  6. Engineering Elf8:39 AM

    When we went from one child to two we had to give up our Montessori preschool which was $282 a week and then $300+ a week during the summer. Add that to infant care if I could find a decent in home center and it would have been around $500 a week; less than what others have quoted here but out of reach for this engineer and her super commuting technician husband. Now both boys are at home with an au pair, who costs $400 a week ($200 to her, $150 to the agency and $50 or so of additional groceries). She does her best but the elder is not anywhere near as challenged as he was before. They do frequent the library and received a kids museum membership for Christmas and it seems to help.

    Challenge encourages kids to grow and think and possibly even love school. It seems that we can not start this early enough with kids; though we run into people who think school too early inhibits children's growth, especially boys. I would also like to see subsidized quality childcare on a sliding scale based on parental income. All kids should be given a boost to reach their potential, society benefits when they do and isn't that what school was started for?

  7. What a fascinating topic.

    I agree 100 % with Sean Reardon about "improving the quality of our parenting and of our children’s earliest environments... Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children."

    Perhaps, it is time to teach high-school students about parenting and early childhood development. It would certainly be nice to have a reasonable paid maternity/paternity leave (say, 1 year instead of 6 weeks) - the first year is critical for brain development.

    I wonder if there is also any correlation between income and TV-watching (ie, infants and toddlers being exposed to too much TV).

    There is certainly going to be a correlation between income and quality of food. Foods that are organic tend to be more expensive; highly processed food can be cheap. Are there any long-term effects of "bad" food on memory and cognitive abilities? Think about childhood obesity - how will that affect their educational success?

    1. I am not an expert on the TV thing by any stretch, but last I saw, the evidence is not clear cut. The American Association of Pediatricians recommendation is to limit screen time, but it also seems that not all screen time is the same (i.e., watching Dora is better than watching day time soaps). There may be a role for screen time in the problem, but I suspect it is more in what is missing if there is a lot of screen time (i.e., time interacting with adults, time playing) that what the TV itself does.

      Full disclosure- my kids watch TV, and started watching TV at about 1 year old. We choose the shows, though. I also credit a set of Leap Frog DVDs with teaching Pumpkin how to read with us just helping her practice as she wanted.

      On the food thing- the strongest association is with calories. It is 100% clear that insufficient calories leads to issues with brain development, some of which may be irreversible. Letting little kids go hungry is a terrible, terrible thing to do. (This is why so much of my family's charity budget goes to programs to address hunger, but I also don't think we should leave something this important to chance and charity.)

      The role of actual nutrients is less clear, and again not my area of expertise. There is some evidence that omega-3s help brain development. Since my kids still haven't decided to eat much fish, we supplement omega-3s. Or we try to. Petunia won't take hers. But she's also more likely to eat fish.

      The nutritional content of organic vs conventional is controversial. I don't personally think there is that much difference, but the jury is out. The nutritional content of fresh produce vs. processed food is clear, though! But again, I haven't seen studies linking too much processed food with cognitive abilities. That doesn't mean they aren't out there, though. I just haven't gone and looked for them.

    2. I agree that there is probably not much difference between organic and conventional fruits/vegetables in terms of nutrition. I was thinking more along the lines of exposure to pesticides from conventional foods.

      From a quick Pubmed search, there is some evidence suggesting effects of pesticides on early brain development. Here is a review that has a pretty good section on the effects of pesticides on neurodevelopment:

  8. We know exactly what we spent on child care last year because we had do these intense financial planning forms - it was $30,000. Two kids, Montessori preschool + after care some days + summer camp. The university daycare is okay (just okay, not bad but not great) and cheaper, but still $200 wk/ per child.

    It really depresses me how little Americans care for each other. There are solutions to many of these problems, even if they aren't perfect. We just don't care enough to implement them! (I'm in a bad mood this week.)

  9. In New Zealand all three and four year olds are eligible for 20 hours of early childhood education. The official website says "The Government is funding 20 Hours ECE because it believes that giving young children the best possible start in life is vitally important, and that quality ECE builds the lifelong foundations of successful learning."

    Yes. It is an incredibly liberal scheme. It is offered by government and private organisations - as long as it is 'teacher led'. Places that offer over 80% qualified teachers on staff can ask for an optional payment - but it is optional. For details see:

    There is of course variability in what is available, but there is a national curriculum.

    We got very, very lucky. My daughter is at an AWESOME preschool which is very much a high SES school (it feeds a private all-girls school) but with the ECE subsidy, afterschool care and choosing to pay the optional fee, it costs us about $500/month for three full (8am to 5pm) days a week. The actual pre-school program (with art! and music! and Spanish! and lots of outdoor play! and swimming lessons for the 4 year olds! and perceputal motor skills! and cybrary!) runs from 9 to 2.45 but they also offer on-site before and after school care so there is no transition for the kids. Moo sits up in the morning and says 'Yay!' when it's a preschool day. Theoretically, the ability to pay shouldn't be a barrier to accessing the school because a child could attend three days a week core hours only and choose not to pay the optional fee - however, given the suburb and social barriers, I'm not sure that actually happens.


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