School leaders and policymakers trying to improve academic results for disadvantaged children need to look outside the classroom at social and economic conditions that directly affect a child’s ability to learn, according to a new report released Wednesday.
The paper, written by Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, focuses on five factors that new research suggests hinder the achievement of poor children: parenting practices in low-income households, single parenthood, irregular work schedules of parents in low-wage jobs, poor access to health care and exposure to lead.
All those factors drag down the academic performance of a child, but education policies address none of them, Rothstein said. Efforts to improve academic outcomes for the increasing number of poor children in public schools focus too heavily on incentives aimed at teachers and schools instead of taking on the underlying conditions that hamper children even before their formal schooling begins, he said.
“Policymakers are generally focused on the wrong things,” he said. “They’re trying to fix things in schools that can’t be fixed in schools. What we’re saying is, if we want to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children, we need to get these children to school ready for all the things school has to offer.”
The five conditions that are the focus of the report are not the only factors that affect academic achievement and might not be the most important, Rothstein said. The report highlights them because recent research has yielded new insights, he said.
The factors include:
●Lead exposure. One of the great public health success stories of the 20th century has been the reduction in exposure to lead, a potent neurotoxin. By 2013, fewer than 1 percent of U.S. children tested for lead had dangerous levels in their blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But in poor urban neighborhoods, lead remains a serious hindrance to healthy brain development in children, Rothstein said.
Children who live in apartments coated in lead paint, or where water is carried by lead pipes, risk severe effects. Minor exposure can cause attention problems, hyperactivity and irritability, while greater amounts are connected to cognitive problems and permanent brain damage.
Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man whose death in police custody sparked riots in that city, had a history of lead poisoning from his early childhood in West Baltimore. Gray was frequently suspended and dropped out of high school, and his sisters were diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to a 2008 lead poisoning lawsuit filed by the Gray family against the owner of their rental home.
“We’ve eliminated lead for white children, we haven’t eliminated it for urban children,” Rothstein said. “We should focus on cleaning up lead in urban areas. If we did that, we would have an impact on student achievement.”
●Parenting styles. Morsy and Rothstein examined new research that details racial and class differences in child-rearing styles among parents, suggesting that parenting styles account for some of the differences in school readiness between black children from low-income families and white children from more affluent homes.
White adults spend 36 percent more time than black adults reading to young children, and three times more time talking with and listening to them, according to research Morsy and Rothstein cite. White parents not only read more to their children, they offer more guidance and are more strategic about helping children build their literacy skills.
By age 6, white children typically have spent 1,300 more hours engaged in conversations with adults than black children have. White parents also tend to offer their children more choices in daily life, helping them to think through decisions and consequences, which are important skills that prepare them for critical thinking, according to the research.
Low-income parents tend to be more authoritarian, giving children direction instead of choice, Rothstein said.
Quality preschool would help balance that inequity, Rothstein said.
“We should provide more early childhood experience for children who come from homes where parents don’t have the kinds of lives that encourage inquiry and critical thinking,” he said.
●Erratic job schedules for low-income workers. Just-in-time scheduling, where shift workers are given variable work hours, has been a boon to employers who are able to more efficiently schedule workers when they are most needed. But they wreak havoc on low-income families, Rothstein said.
Constantly shifting work schedules make it difficult for a parent to arrange for quality child care and establish consistent routines at home, he said.
“We should have regulatory reform in the labor market that creates disincentives for this kind of practice,” Rothstein said.