Monday, February 4, 2013

Every Child Prepared to Succeed




Disclaimer: the views expressed in this post are my own and do not reflect those of my employer.

My last post mentioned Jumpstart, a national early education organization that works to develop language and literacy skills in preschool-age children in low-income neighborhoods (read more at http://www.jstart.org/). It should be fairly obvious that I support the mission of Jumpstart [...]
—I have spent the last few months working as a Corps Member in the Woodlawn Neighborhood of Chicago through Jumpstart’s University of Chicago site, and after all, this blog has already discussed the importance of childhood literacy (http://teaandspectacles.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-spectacle-of-reading.html). Moreover, very few people are going to contest the idea that teaching children how to read is a positive thing, both for fostering children’s future success in society and for helping them lead more fulfilling lives. So why is Jumpstart’s work so (very!) necessary in our current education system? What conditions prevent children from having access to the literacy education that seems to be an important value in our society? How does Jumpstart frame its mission in such a way to garner support? This post will be the first in a short series critically examining Jumpstart’s position on and role within education as an example of one particular literacy organization in the United States which both feels the need to defend its work and also to take as assumed the value of developing literacy skills.


Crisis—Destabilizing Assumptions about Education

“Imagine starting a race knowing more than half of your competitors will be given a ten minute head start.” This is the premise of the crisis that Jumpstart takes itself to be facing (http://www.jstart.org/our-work/americas-early-education-crisis): children living in lower-income neighborhoods will start kindergarten 60% behind their affluent peers in terms of language and literacy skills.  On the website, Jumpstart attributes problems like high school drop-out rates, incarcerations, the need for remedial programs, and unemployment to this gap in early education. In other words, the problem of unequal children’s literacy skills based on socioeconomic status is not merely a question of fostering success, but of alleviating social ills. What’s at stake in making this jump (which is not supported by further information like studies and stats on the website, although it is more thoroughly discussed in Corps member training) from lower literacy skills to much broader issues like unemployment? 

If literacy is simply about individual success, then every child works for him or herself; hierarchies in society will remain stable unless individuals change their own lives because isn’t it possible for each child to get more educational resources, to pay more attention in school, to work harder? As I’m gagging over these glaringly overoptimistic ideas—which come out of real assumptions that people make about children’s abilities to succeed in an educational system which in fact is deeply concretized in its socioeconomic hierarchies—I realize that you cannot take for granted the knowledge that lower-income neighborhoods come up against far greater learning barriers than something as simple as not using resources (perhaps because those resources don’t even exist). (Jumpstart’s website includes a 2009 Pearson poll which shows that many parents don’t connect early childhood literacy skills with future success or lack thereof). So, for Jumpstart, how to make society feel the imperative of early childhood literacy development specifically for children in low-income communities? Chalk up social ills—such as incarceration and all its associations of criminality—to inadequate literacy skills which arise because of where children grow up.

While I think such a connection is a bit extreme, it does put attention (and funding) into the right place: if you can’t persuade society that there are massive education gaps between neighborhoods and communities based on socioeconomic status, then position yourself in such a way that the only reasonable solution to large societal problems is by ensuring strong literacy skills in those particular neighborhoods that need those additional resources. That is, Jumpstart can, by its logic, address a social crisis and offer a solution. Before diving into that solution, though, Jumpstart’s website explores the larger benefits that providing literacy education will provide: “higher high school graduation rates and academic achievement; lower rates of crime, teen pregnancy, and public assistance dependency; and higher levels of lifetime workforce productivity.” Jumpstart is, in other words, “A Smart Investment”:  “Every dollar invested in early childhood education produces a return on investment of 10%. Investing in early education benefits society as a whole.”

By marketing itself to produce societal results (rather than foster individual children’s success), this particular segment of Jumpstart’s position addresses its potential impact on a broad scale. But how much can and does Jumpstart really accomplish? How can it be effective within other limiting factors like funding, politics, boundaries getting the program into schools at all, resistance within schools, etc? If nothing else, Jumpstart, through the generally-endorsed program of literacy development and its immense impact on the individual lives of children and Corps members, points us to important social boundaries and issues which need to be addressed before literacy programs (and through them, a leveling of class and socioeconomic inequalities) can be successful.

For the next few posts, I will examine Jumpstart’s proposed solution, my own experiences in the classroom and the daily impact I see, and what is at stake in developing literacy skills for the organization, for Corps members, for children, and for communities.

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