Imagine you are the owner of a small, lucrative family business that makes handmade soaps. The most popular soap you sell is lavender cream; people love it! It has been the best seller for over 30 years when your father started the company. The problem is that some of the raw materials you need for production have declined in quality. It started gradually; out of every bunch of lavender that shipped, about ten percent of the blooms were too small to use or were beginning to rot. At first, your employees just removed the rotten or undersized blooms. But over time as the shipments came in worse and worse, the quality of your finished product has started to suffer because the percentage of rotten blossoms has surpassed the developed ones and you need to use them to keep up with demand. Customers have been noticing and protesting for months now about the failing quality of your soaps. You looked for other distributors, but, local laws dictate that you can only use this one supplier of lavender which happens to be within 5 miles of your store. You meet with the supplier quarterly and discuss the deficiencies apparent in their supply, but they blame the seed and chemicals in the water. They convince you they are doing everything in their power to fix the problem; however, the lavender bunches continue to appear in worse and worse condition.
What will you do to fix your business? Double the money you spend on your machinery? Redesign your factory? Alter the family recipe that has worked well for years? You could waste a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to evoke change by focusing only on the parts of the process which occur within your walls. But, the major problem was never within the process or procedure you were using, it was with the raw materials that were coming in; and unfortunately, no amount of time or energy that you put in after the fact will change that.
Now, consider changing your perspective for a second. Think of the farmer as part of your larger company and not as a separate entity. In this way, it is easy to see that you need to put your resources toward producing better raw materials. Your money would be well spent helping the lavender farmer to buy high-quality seed. Your time would be well spent helping him to weed. Your dedication would be better directed toward listening to the farmer’s concerns and helping him come up with a plan, even if you aren’t sure yourself how to help. Once the crop is well established again, then you could work on building up your machinery and perfecting the recipe. But until the lavender supply is sorted out no amount of high tech machines, buildings, or new methods will boost your sales. The underlining mistake was treating the lavender farmer as an entity separate from yourself, instead of part of the community that builds your business; or perhaps more appropriately seeing your business and your products as independent from your community. Everyone in the scenario wins when the farmer does.
This scenario is a metaphor for our educational systems that we may garner insights from, on how to best effect change in our schools. People often view the schools failing to produce college or career ready citizens as separate entities from themselves, the communities where they live, or that they live near. This is a disservice to not only our communities and ourselves, but to the future of our country. García and Weiss emphasize this idea in their research noting; “It is also a loss to society when children’s talents are allowed to fallow for lack of sufficient supports.” Just imagine what it does for your business when all or even most of the seeds planted in the community successfully yield a healthy harvest. Think of the untapped human potential we lose every year we do not act, while society’s seeds are under-developing. We lose out on the full potential they could bring to our communities and workforce.
When asked to research and write about the inequalities that exist in education, I kept coming to the same obstacle. The obstacle was within the qualifier itself; educational inequalities. Although, as an educator myself, I see that there countless inequalities my students face every day, I believe some of the most demonstrative inequalities begin well before the student engages in the formal education process.
Like weeds, in the lavender field, these inequalities are sewn into the communities and households where young, marginalized learners develop and unfortunately have the most compounding effects; before they ever set foot in our schools. When we examine the inequities that students face only once they are enrolled in our schools, we do them a disservice by not acknowledging that they are starting the race 100 yards behind their more affluent peers. Many of the benefits afforded to well-to-do students occur pre-education, including simple life skills like following directions, interacting with others, and problem-solving.
To illustrate what being a “100 yards behind” might look like for a kindergarten seedling; below are two examples of backgrounds that are similar to students I have known and instructed myself.
Student A’s background mirrors the classic ideal. Student A’s parents were both ecstatic about the pregnancy and prepared for it; mom took prenatal vitamins attended doctor’s appointments regularly and had a balanced diet and emotional state. Once he was born, she nurtured Student A, read him bedtime stories, feed him the best food and ensured he was only surrounded by a loving and compassionate community. It was quiet in his house when it is time to sleep and welcoming when he is awake. Mom and Dad engaged with him as they shopped, drove in the car, and played with him. He arrives at kindergarten registration already knowing how to spell his name, all his letters, numbers through 10 and all the primary colors. He has not yet perfected sharing, but he knows what it is, that it is expected, and has had opportunities to practice with his cousins and related playgroups. His parents have also reinforced certain behavioral expectations regarding following directions and interactions with others. He has an overexposure to electronics compared with doctor’s recommendations, but all usage was supervised and monitored.
Student B’s background is somewhat less advantageous. His mother and father were not expecting or planning to conceive; both were young and inexperienced. Student B’s mom could not afford prenatal vitamins, despite working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Because her jobs were all part-time, she had difficulty taking time off from work to attend the multitude of prenatal doctor’s visits. Student B’s mother loved him immensely, but external and financial stressors, like finding a ride to work, did not always allow her to attend to his needs or make sure he was well nourished. He knows his name when it is time to register for kindergarten but is not responsive when someone he doesn’t know is speaking to him. Colors, numbers, and letters are cumbersome and mostly foreign to him. Mom was lucky to find affordable and reliable childcare with a neighbor who worked from home but couldn’t provide much more than indirect supervision and TV. He hasn’t had the opportunities to learn much about sharing because he primarily plays alone and no one in his circle has had the patience to teach him about how to follow directions as it is almost always more effective for mom to do the task herself.
Individuals outside of the educational realm may recognize these differences as a mere representation of the haves and have-nots that have always existed, but they may be under the false impression that these setbacks only affect Student B before kindergarten. The thinking might be, yeah these kids are behind, but then they all get to kindergarten, go through the educational system, and those gaps will be addressed eventually. So, let’s fund low performing schools and provide them with state-of-the-art technologies and classrooms. Let’s give the little ones free breakfast and lunch programs, access to free books, start programs to make sure they all have coats and school supplies. That will help them catch up!
The problem with that line of thinking is that the inequalities between Student A and B do not just level out when the students get to school, even if the schools are equitable, which I can tell you, they are not. The more significant part of this problem is that the time between birth and kindergarten is a lot like the time we should first set up a retirement plan as a young professional. The benefits of putting away even a few dollars a month when you are a young twentysomething, far outweigh putting in large sums of money when you are in your mid to late forties, because the gains are exponential. Not to mention that this time in a child’s life sets the foundation for the way they understand and interpret the world around them. Has the world provided a safe place for you to take risks, learn, and develop? Or has it been dangerous, traumatic, and unforgiving?
Teachers see these backgrounds take effect when the preverbal snowball starts rolling for the affluent kindergarteners, who start with these skills already coming to school. They walk in the classroom with arm-sized snowballs between their pudgy hands and begin building on what they know right away, creating what might seem like small gains at first, but each time they build on these skills, they are doubling their initial input. Meanwhile, the students from poor households are just learning what snow is and start by squishing it between their nubby little fingers when they get to kindergarten.
As a kid growing up in America, one of my favorite stories about our country was that we were the land of opportunity. Anyone could be successful with effort, perseverance, and education. Little did I know at the time that, that ideal was actually a measurable statistic called absolute mobility. It is typically measured by a person’s capacity and likelihood to make more money than their parents, and it is a statistic that since the 1980s has fallen by 90% compared to the 1940s and ’50s.
Contrary to the popular but now nostalgic ideal, countless studies indicate that when it comes to education, children’s socioeconomic status is the most significant predictor of educational success. One such study compared the performance of kindergarteners from the top fifth of the socioeconomic food chain to those in the bottom fifth. The study found that in 1998 and again in 2010 kindergartener’s performance on assessments from these two groups was separated by over a standard deviation. That means when four, five, and six-year-olds start their educational careers, the most impoverished kids are already showing statistically significant indicators that their crop will yield considerably lower returns than their peers sitting one desk away.
There is no single solution to balancing educational inequalities, but building better communities and community resources are the starting point. Hurling more money at failing schools is the solution we keep looking toward to work. However, these funds are band-aids that do alleviate some struggles for learners and their families but are not enough to change the enormous deficits that exist. We need to start seeing the problem as failing communities, and not just failing schools. No amount of money thrown at the farmer would make the rotten lavender bunches appropriate for usage; but human resources like guidance with planting, sowing, and fertilizing seeds would make considerable differences. The farmer needs these human resources and support over time to fix his, and therefore your problem; and our communities do too.
As long as the those who are unaffected directly by this crisis, see these concerns as someone else’s burden to carry, we will continue to see these problems plague our communities, schools, and the job force. If the soap maker views the farmer’s difficulties as separate from his own, he remains unsuccessful, and his failures amplify. But, with a different lens, seeing himself as a valuable and vulnerable member of a community dependent on the success of the farmer, he will be more likely to provide the farmer with some of his human resources, like time and compassion; and then he can make systemic and lasting change.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It is time that we start recognizing that throwing money at this problem has not, and will not, solve the issues at large; neither will casting blame on teachers and schools. We need to capitalize on the exponential growth that occurs for the Student B’s of America before they set foot in our schools. And we need not look any farther than the people in our local communities. The people in these communities and the neighboring ones can unlock the potential for these tots before their future is set in stone. Not by just donating money to them as if they are a charity that they can write off on a tax return; but by donating time, compassion, and commitment.
We all need to examine more closely how we are connected to- not distanced from the individuals affected by these statistics. We need to analyze how our unique skill sets could be used to assist the communities that are struggling, even if that just means listening. Think of how a community center in walking distance from your home with access to pre-K, 3K, healthcare, childcare, healthy food, social workers, and job/career coaching could impact the future of a generation of students from that area. What if that community center is equipped with professionals from the area that could provide valuable resources, networking possibilities, and assistance to those in need?
We need to stop seeing ourselves as a separate entity at arm’s length from the problem so that everyone benefits from the untapped cultural capital that exists within their homes and neighborhoods. Then and only then, after years of cultivating young learners in community centers like this will we return the vision of the unlimited potential that was once apparent in the neediest communities in our country during the ’40s and ’50s. The sooner we step up and make these changes ourselves, the sooner we see differences in the outcomes of our schools.
García, Emma, and Elaine Weiss. “Educational Inequalities at the School Starting Gate: Trends and Strategies to Address Them.” Economic Policy Institute, 27 Sept. 2017, doi:Epi.org.
Megaffin, Chris. “The Inequality of Education.” National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 30 May 2018,
Mead, Sara. “Education Inequality Starts Early: Disparities in Learning Start Even Earlier Than You Think.” U.S. News, 27 July 2017, doi:Usnews.com.
Tavernise, Sabrina. “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say.” New York Times, 9 Feb. 2012, Newyorktimes.com.