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Part 2 in a series on early childhood education. Read Part I here.

The American Dream is out of reach for many Americans. Children’s chances of earning more than their parents have been in a perpetual decline since the 1940s, when 90% of the Silent Generation out-earned their parents. In stark contrast, today's New Silent Generation (also referred to as Generation Z) are just as likely to not out-earn their parents as they are to out-earn them, according to a distinguished team of researchers who published an influential study in 2017 titled, The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940, a study commissioned by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Mobility was measured based on the odds of a child from the bottom 20% of the income bracket reaching the top 20%. Education has never been needed more to fulfill its promise as the great equalizer in reducing economic inequality.

Students who start out on the wrong side of the achievement gap are likely to end up on the wrong side of the opportunity gap too.

There are a few other threats to the fading American Dream. One in five students still don’t graduate from high school, quadrupling the likelihood that they'll drop out of the labor force too. Of the students who do graduate from high school, only about half continue on to college. Of those students, about half drop out of college. According to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to ensure the needs of low- and middle-income workers are included in economic policy discussions, the total share of income claimed by the bottom 90% of Americans has steadily decreased since the early 1980s, with the majority of income gains going to the top 1% (Garcia, E & Weiss, E., 2017).

Furthermore, the authors concluded that the trending income inequality divide would not be such a major concern if our education system compensated for these inequities by striving to level the playing field and enable children to rise above their birth circumstances. Since California Governor Gavin Newsom replaced Jerry Brown Jr. last November, he has taken the establishment to task. He committed a $2.5 billion-dollar total investment in early childhood in the 2019-20 budget.

The governor's focus is squarely on the whole child to increase the likelihood that California's neediest children can rise above their birth circumstances. The resources are composed of new one-time funds and ongoing funding.

He also established the Early Learning and Care Infrastructure and Workforce Development program, created to expand access to early learning and care opportunities for children up to five years of age by providing resources to build new facilities or retrofit, renovate, or expand existing facilities. Also, the Early Learning and Care Workforce Development Grants program was created to expand the number of qualified early learning and care professionals and increase the educational credentials of existing early learning and care professionals across the state.

If you need more evidence the Governor is committed to closing the gap when it's at its narrowest point, he recently established an Early Childhood Policy Council, a diverse group of experts, practitioners and parents to guide California’s efforts on early learning and care. It's chaired by California’s Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. He has also assembled a team of experts to create a Master Plan for Early Learning and Care. They are tasked with developing a comprehensive roadmap for California to accelerate the Governor’s goal of providing universal preschool and action steps to increase access to affordable, high-quality child care that embraces the strengths and meets the needs of parents and young children. It's expected to come into play in the next 18 months.

About one in five of all children ages 5 and younger in California live in poverty, and nearly half of California’s children live in households that are at or near the poverty level. While their parents are at work or in school, about 1.2 million of California’s young children are cared for by relatives or attend preschool, a child-care center, family home care, Head Start, or a combination thereof. These startling facts were published in Getting Down to Facts II (September, 2018) and soon became a catalyst for the rebirth of childhood education, which, also reported in Getting Down to Facts II, is marked by diminished investments in quality, low wages, and highly fractured oversight. It's time to reinvent it.

It's not just California. The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in the U.S. is larger than that in top-performing countries.

The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) has reported that schools in the United States do a much poorer job of enabling poor and minority students to move up the social and economic ladder than schools in most other industrialized countries (2016). Furthermore, providing strong supports for children and their families before students arrive at school is among the 9 Building Blocks for a World-Class Education System. Most high performing countries have extensive government supports for prenatal care, mother and child nutrition, universal health care, high-quality childcare for working mothers, high-quality preschools and family allowances for families with young children. Countries with higher proportions of women in the paid workforce tend to have the strongest government supports for families with young children.

According to Anthony Mackay, the president and CEO of the NCEE, results of the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that in the U.S., advantaged students outperformed disadvantaged students in reading by 99 points in 2018, compared with 59 points in Hong Kong, 61 points in Estonia and 68 points in Canada. And the gap between high-performing and low-performing students has increased since 2015 in both mathematics and reading, largely because high performers’ scores increased while those of low performers remained flat. Results from the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a similar widening of the performance gap. Considering that the proportion of disadvantaged students in the U.S. is increasing, this is a frightening reality.

Mackey went on to say, “The U.S. is increasingly off the pace. We cannot be satisfied with flatlining. The time for a reset to the U.S. education system is now.”

The gap between the U.S. and top-performing countries is large. Students in the Chinese provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, which represent a population of 184 million, half of that of the United States, performed almost four grade levels ahead of U.S. students in mathematics. China is now poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. According to Marc Tucker, founder and distinguished senior fellow at NCEE, "It is hard to see how the United States can compete with a far larger country that has a much better educated workforce that charges much less than we do for labor. Increasing unemployment, ever lower wages and growing political instability will be the inevitable result if we do not greatly improve the education of our young people."

It's time for policy makers, educators, and everyone who thinks beyond their own lifespan, to accept responsibility for failing to dismantle systemic educational inequities. While equity is today's most fundamental social justice issue, it continues to spark more talk and debate than action. Given California's stature as the fifth largest economy in the world (currently behind the U.S., China, Japan, and Germany), it's time we take action and position ourselves to realize Governor Newsom's promise to close the achievement gap while at its narrowest point.

Read Part I - When the Gap is Smallest - here.

*The title of this essay is credited to Polish aphorist and poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, from his 1968, More Unkempt Thoughts.


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