Income inequality is a top public policy debate these days, and early education should be a central part of those discussions, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman argues in an excellent op-ed published recently in The New York Times.
But, some would have liked Heckman – a trusted and valued voice for early learning advocates – to go one step further and draw a clear connection between poverty and race.
The fact is, a disproportionate number of poor children are children of color. So while it’s great to develop strategies to reduce income inequality by investing in childcare and preschool, we should also include ways to address racial equity in those programs.
“If you break down the data, you can see that race is a huge predictor of academic success and success in life. To make a real difference for children of color, we need to look at everything we do from a different vantage point,” said Lauren Hipp, acting director of policy & community partnerships at Thrive by Five Washington. Through its Advancing Racial Equity effort, Thrive recently led a highly diverse group of more than 100 early learning stakeholders in a year-long process to develop a collaborative vision and approach for how all levels of Washington’s early learning system can implement the state’s Early Learning Plan with a racial equity lens. The goal: remove and reduce the barriers that keep children from opportunity.
What does racial equity in early learning look like? One example is to value children’s culture and language by hiring educators who reflect their families’ backgrounds when creating high-quality child care. This helps develop what Heckman calls character skills by supporting positive identity development, which plays a defining role in a student’s long-term success.
Heckman is right. The nation’s approach to poverty needs to be overhauled, in part, by placing early education at the heart of a new strategy. And he correctly shows that current anti-poverty programs start far too late.
While education is a great equalizer of opportunity when done right, American policy is going about it all wrong: current programs don’t start early enough, nor do they produce the skills that matter most for personal and societal prosperity. … Cognitive and character skills work together as dynamic complements; they are inseparable. … Because skill begets skill, the opportunity for education should begin at birth — and not depend on the accident of birth. (Heckman also writes about “disadvantaged children” in his analysis, which could include low-income and diverse families.) — “Lifelines for Poor Children.” Opinionator. The New York Times, 9/14/13.
Adding racial equity only strengthens his message.