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Report by TC Researchers Highlights Segregation and Disparities in Pre-K Classrooms

The report, by the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, calls on policymakers to focus on diversity in early education.

A new report by researchers at TC’s National Center for Children and Families describes troubling racial, ethnic and economic disparities in American preschools and calls on policymakers to focus on the value of diversity in early education classrooms as a means to increase equity and quality for America’s youngest learners.

The report was prepared for and funded by The Century Foundation and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, who released it on April 29 at a Capitol Hill briefing in Washington, D.C.  It was written by Jeanne L. Reid, a research scientist at the National Center for Children and Families; and Sharon Lynn Kagan, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy and Co-Director of the Center.

“The research on classroom composition and peer effects in early childhood education suggests that segregating children limits their learning,” Reid and Kagan write in A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education. “Yet, much of current preschool policy effectively segregates children by income, and often, by race or ethnicity.”

Studies have found that socioeconomically and racially diverse preschool classrooms offer important cognitive benefits for children. Reid and Kagan found that few children enrolled in public preschools have access to diverse classrooms.

The report comes at a time of unparalleled investment in preschool programs, as policymakers strive to build high-quality early education systems that are equitable and sustainable.

Reid and Kagan found that, out of 14 of the nation’s leading early learning organizations’ position statements, none articulated a specific commitment to economic and racial integration in preschool classrooms.

The report also states that:

  • Children of families with low socioeconomic status (SES) and Hispanic children are less likely than high-SES and non-Hispanic children to be enrolled in center-based early childhood programs;

  • Low-income children are most likely to attend low-quality preschool programs; and

  • Most children in public preschool programs attend classrooms that are segregated by family income and often by race/ethnicity as well.

“If we’re really serious about addressing the achievement gap, we need to stop educating low-income children in separate schools – and pre-kindergarten is the best place to start,” argues Philip Tegeler, Executive Director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council. “The Department of Education needs to take a leadership role on this issue.”

Halley Potter, TCF fellow and contributor to A Better Start, encouraged policymakers to seize this moment of unparalleled investment in preschool programs to call for increased diversity.

"As policymakers consider the best ways to set our nation's children on a path to success, we hope this report will encourage our leaders to enact creative policy solutions that increase the opportunities for children of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds to learn together in the same classrooms," says Potter.

A Better Start makes specific recommendations to address the diversity challenge in early education, including:

  • Build Public Knowledge: Fund research to extend and deepen our knowledge of how preschool classroom composition relates to children’s learning, and support the dissemination of research findings.

  • Increase funding: Create an “equity” set-aside in current federal early education funding, parallel to the concept of the “quality” set-asides in Head Start and Child Care Development.

  • Make diversity a priority: National early childhood organizations should take a stance on reducing segregation in preschool classrooms as a critical element of their commitment to serve all children and serve them equitably.

  • Strengthen and diversify Head Start: Increase fiscal allocations for Head Start considerably to allow Head Start providers to enroll children from families with incomes above the poverty line without jeopardizing services to low-income children.

The Capitol Hill Briefing will take place April 29 at 2 p.m, in the Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2226 (House Judiciary Committee Hearing Room), 45 Independence Avenue S.W., Washington, DC 20219.

The Washington Post and Education Week covered the story:

The Washington Post: "Segregation of the nation’s children starts with preschool, new report finds"

Education Week: Racial and Economic Segregation Starts in Preschool, Study Finds

Published Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2015