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David Brooks Forgot to Do His Research Before Writing About Poverty and Pre-K

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Warning: The lede on David Brooks column in today’s New York Times carries a nearly lethal dosage of glibness, and I’m about to quote it here. Read forth at your own peril.

Brooks opens, “Over the past decade we’ve had a rich debate on how to expand opportunity for underprivileged children. But we’ve probably made two mistakes.”

Get that? The debate about the poor has been rich. That’s a sentence overflowing with connotation. It’s an opulent festival of implication. What’s more—and perhaps even better—we’ve only stepped wrong twice.

Our first mistake, Brooks writes, is that we’ve “placed too much emphasis on early education.” Important as those years can be, he thinks that we should focus on all of the years. To “really make an impact,” we need “a developmental strategy for all the learning stages, ages 0 to 25.”

It’s hard to imagine where Brooks gets the notion that early education has received disproportionately great attention. Here at the New America Foundation where I work, we recently released a paper surveying the last five years of early education in the United States. While there are a few isolated bright spots—states have built systems to continuously monitor and improve early education programs’ quality—most of the metrics waver between stagnant and dire.

Take a few obvious examples: Federal spending on early education (broadly construed) has been basically flat since 2008, and state funding has been all over the map. The National Institute for Early Education Research called 2011 to 2012 the “worst in a decade” for state funding.

Our collective inattention to early education has real consequences. The average pre-K teacher’s pay in the United States is less than $26,000 per year. In 2009, 40 percent of U.S. four-year-olds were enrolled in pre-K. Last year, it was 42 percent. For kids living in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, pre-K enrollment percentages actually dropped from 2005 to 2011. We’re not just stagnating on pre-K access: The Child Care and Development Block Grant, which provides public child care subsidies to help low-income parents stay at work hasn’t been reauthorized in 18 years—its last authorization expired more than a decade ago.

In other words, we’re not overemphasizing the early years of education. We’re scarcely touching them. Sure, we should align our early education investments with “all the learning stages.” But we’d have to start by investing enough to provide comprehensive access for most low-income students. In other words, it’s hard to developmentally align the K to 12 years with nonexistent 0 to 5 programs.

What’s more, Brooks sells the research on early education short. As the Upjohn Institute’s Tim Bartik wrote today, there’s solid evidence showing that investment in the early years does have a real impact, even without a comprehensive birth-to-quarter-life developmental plan. High-quality pre-K programs considerably increase students’ adult earnings. Period.

But Brooks charged us with two mistakes in our pursuit of opportunities for low-income students. Aside from our lavish (if empirically invisible) overemphasis on early education, what else have we gotten wrong?

Apparently, “we’ve probably put too much weight on school reform.” Why? Because better schools won’t matter “if millions of students can’t control their impulses, can’t form attachments, don’t possess resilience and lack social and emotional skills.” He notes that there is growing evidence that poverty harms children’s ability to control their emotions and focus on tasks. This isn’t just research endorsement of the obvious challenges that poverty poses for children. Poverty-related stress actually impairs children’s development. And, Brooks notes, that makes them harder to teach. Their presence even undermines their peers’ education.

The problem, Brooks concludes, is that low-income parents have children too early and often. He suggests that they need cheaper, better birth control along with public programs to teach them how to raise children once they have them. He also recommends expanding counseling programs for children suffering from poverty.

That’s reasonable enough. There’s solid evidence suggesting that access to birth control decreases the number of unintended pregnancies. The parenting programs he cites (Nurse-Family Partnership and the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Baby College) are solid programs that can substantially improve parenting—and student outcomes. Counseling is better than no counseling for children traumatized by growing up in poverty.

Look deeper, though, and there’s something wildly bizarre about his advice. These are both programs designed to deal with poverty’s symptoms—not the beast itself. That is, Brooks accepts that poverty can profoundly damage children. But instead of offering policies to prevent or address poverty, he offers mechanisms to help parents and kids cope with being poor.

It would be one thing if Brooks weren’t aware of the scope of poverty’s effects on kids. Ignorance might be a plausible excuse for suggesting such half-measures. But Brooks knows better. He describes the brutal, destiny-altering, cancerous effects of poverty … and suggests that we try some mild palliatives. It’s hard to tell if this is cruelty by omission or just a failure of nerve, but in either case, his prescriptions are embarrassingly inadequate.

Years ago, I taught first grade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I’ve seen the debilitating challenges that family poverty hangs around students’ necks. I’ve seen the resilience of families that only scarcely resemble the bleak, unprepared figments of Brooks’s column. While most of my students made significant gains during their time in my classes, there’s no question that for some, poverty was a millstone. These students were—and are—heroic in their efforts to overcome these obstacles.

So sure, schools can make a difference. Frequent, high-quality counseling might help underprivileged children cope with some of the effects of growing up in poverty. But that’s no replacement for facing—and ending—the material insecurity that threatens so many low-income families. After seeing this up close, I knew better. And Brooks offers enough information about poverty to indicate that he does, too.

As of 2011, 48 percent of U.S. students qualified for free or reduced lunch, and we set the qualifications pretty low—a family of four making $43,500 qualifies. Even if only half of these students suffer from poverty-driven stress (and that’s almost certainly lowballing things), we’re still looking at over ten million students who might need these services. Brooks is going to need a lot of parenting instructors and school counselors. It’s not always efficient to treat the symptoms instead of the disease.

Maybe it’s time to end the “rich debate” and start a serious conversation about how we distribute wealth? This isn’t an abstract debate. As Brooks acknowledges, children’s brains—and lives—hang in the balance.

Conor P. Williams is a Senior Researcher with New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams

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