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"Diversity in Preschool Classrooms: The Link Between Diversity and Quality,"

by Jeanne L. Reid, Sharon L. Kagan, Michael Hilton & Halley Potter May/June 2015 issue of Poverty & Race

Abundant data, widely popularized by public information campaigns, have given early childhood education (ECE) a prominent position on the public agenda. But is our society fully capitalizing on the opportunity such attention affords and the significant public investment that comes with it?

Data on what constitutes quality in early childhood education abound, and efforts to address the sustainability of early childhood efforts are gaining momentum, with attention to issues of governance, accountability and capacity development. However, we have not seen similar progress regarding equity within ECE classrooms. Despite concerted efforts to reduce economic inequity among poor children, including the launch of Head Start 50 years ago, issues of racial and socioeconomic equity have only been tangentially tackled in programs that segregate children by income, and often in practice, by race, within their preschool classrooms.

To improve child outcomes, policymakers should consider the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic composition of children’s classrooms as an important component of preschool quality. In an April 2015 report, A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education (NY & Wash. DC, The Century Fdn. & PRRAC), we present the results of a review and analysis of demographic data, current research literature, and national position statements of early childhood organizations. The results indicate that quality and equity are inextricably linked, that programs that are segregated by race/ethnicity and income are rarely of equal quality, and that efforts to make early childhood investments sustainable must take this into account.

The Problem of Inequity in Early Childhood Education

Despite increasing investments in programs for young children, demographic data on early childhood education programs reveal three troubling trends related to equity. First, according to data from the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, children from low-SES families and Hispanic children are less likely than higher-SES and non-Hispanic children to be enrolled in center-based early childhood programs. For example, in 2012, only 45.6% of children from families with incomes below the poverty line attended center-based programs (including pre-K, Head Start and center-based childcare), while among families making at least twice the poverty threshold, enrollment rose to 72%. These data suggest that many children who could most benefit from high-quality preschool are not enrolled.

Second, low-income children are most likely to attend low-quality preschool programs. In 2012–13, for example, more than half a million children in state pre-K programs—41% of nationwide enrollment—attended programs that met fewer than half of the quality benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research, as reported in their annual report, The State of Preschool 2013. The problem is compounded for low-SES families because pre-K programs serving high numbers of children in poverty and racial/ethnic minorities are the most likely to be low quality. Moreover, federal reports on Head Start reveal that overall quality in the programs is uneven, but the level of instructional quality tends to be low.

Third, most children attend public preschool classrooms that are segregated by income and often by race/ethnicity as well. Although overall enrollment in state pre-K programs is remarkably diverse in both family income and race/ethnicity, this diversity in program enrollment does not always translate into diversity within pre-K classrooms. Forthcoming research from one of the authors of this article (Jeanne Reid) uses a 2001–04 sample from 11 state pre-K programs, for example, and finds that almost half (47.1%) of the children attended high-minority classrooms (70 to 100% minority) in which, on average, three out of four (75.4%) were poor. Only one-sixth of the children (17.0%) were enrolled in classrooms that were both racially diverse and medium- or high-income.

Overall enrollment in Head Start programs is racially and ethnically diverse, though in accord with Head Start policy, far less heterogeneous by family income. By federal law, Head Start programs can enroll up to 10% of its children from families with incomes above the poverty line; programs may also serve up to an additional 35% of children from families with incomes 100 to 130% of the poverty line, as long as the needs of families below poverty has been fully met. Yet the pursuit of diversity is often compromised by pressure to serve the lowest-income children first. In 2012–13, only 7.6% of Head Start children nationwide had family incomes that were at least 100% of the poverty line. Moreover, because many parents prefer neighborhood programs, preschool programs often reflect neighborhood patterns of segregation, a reality that is growing more entrenched.

The Potential of Promoting Diversity to Improve Quality and Equity

The data on preschool classroom diversity matter because the evidence suggests that children who are clustered in high-poverty and high-minority preschool classrooms develop fewer cognitive skills on average than children who may also be low-income and minority, but who attend more diverse classrooms that, on average, are higher SES and lower in minority concentration. For example, a study by Jeanne Reid and Douglas D. Ready of Teachers College, Columbia University, found that children in middle- or high-SES classrooms learned more language and math skills than those in low-SES classrooms, regardless of children’s own SES and race/ethnicity and the racial/ethnic composition of their classrooms. Studies in kindergarten and elementary schools support the findings from research at the preschool level.

The process by which preschool composition affects children’s learning is complex and not fully clear, but emerging research suggests that interactions among peers are an explanation for how socioeconomically diverse classrooms may promote children’s learning. On average, low-SES children enter preschool and kindergarten with fewer literacy and math skills than higher-SES children. In preschool, several studies have found that it is beneficial for children to have classmates with relatively high levels of language and math skills, and this is particularly true for children who are less skilled than their classmates; children who are highly skilled tend to be less influenced by the skills of their classmates.

Peer diversity may also offer important social benefits to all children. Children from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and race/ethnicities can learn from peers who are different, and these benefits may be enduring and profound. Exposure to peers from a variety of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds can inform emerging social categorizations and prejudices. The friendships that form in diverse classrooms can diminish the social isolation that characterizes children in socioeconomically and racially homogenous neighborhoods, whatever their predominant race or income.

For A Better Start, we conducted a content analysis of the central policy/position statements of 14 major national organizations committed to advancing early learning to discern if and how the organizations have addressed this issue of preschool classroom composition. In general, we were unable to find any position statements that specifically called for economic and racial integration within preschool classrooms.

The Recommendations for Building an Excellent, Equitable and Sustainable Preschool System

The research on classroom composition and peer effects in early childhood education suggests that the economic and racial/ethnic segregation of young children limits their learning. Yet much of current preschool policy effectively segregates children by income and often by race/ethnicity. We need to devote concerted attention to classroom composition in the important discourse about what constitutes preschool quality, and how to build an equitable and durable system. Though we recognize the need for broader structural reforms, we offer more immediate recommendations for how to foster diverse preschool classrooms. (For details, see the report, A Better Start.)

Build Public and Professional Knowledge
We recommend a coordinated effort to disseminate information regarding classroom diversity in ECE, using diverse sources to reach diverse audiences. Moreover, the government and foundations should support enriching the research base to extend and deepen our knowledge of preschool classroom composition, how it operates in practice, and how it affects subgroups of children, such as those who are learning English as a second language, those of diverse family incomes, those of diverse races/ethnicities, and children with disabilities. In addition, national early childhood organizations should ensure that their policy statements reflect current research and offer guidance to readers and members regarding the effects of classroom integration at the preschool level.

Increase Funding
To support program-level efforts to serve diverse communities, state and/or federal policymakers should assure that public and private funding streams are adequate to support high-quality preschool programs. For example, the federal government should increase fiscal allocations considerably to allow Head Start providers to use the existing option of enrolling up to 10% of their children from families with incomes above the poverty line without jeopardizing service provision to low-income children.

Consider Location and Subsidize Transportation
Policymakers should consider supporting programs for young children in or near diverse neighborhoods and in or near large employers, such as hospitals, universities and corporations, where employees who are parents of young children may represent diverse backgrounds and may elect to enroll their youngsters in convenient, high-quality programs. At the same time, the predominance of residential segregation requires that policymakers assure that families have access to affordable transportation to diverse programs.

Strengthen Professional Development
To enhance attention to classroom diversity in all ECE teacher preparation efforts, pre-service or in-service, states should support professional development that systematically shares the research on socioeconomic and racial/ethnic diversity to prepare teachers to teach in integrated settings. Higher education and postgraduate education schools should promote enrollment for all prospective teachers in a course on diversity in ECE and assure that student teaching placements include settings where classroom diversity exists.

Support Enrollment and Engagement
Programs need to assure that families know their parenting beliefs and wishes will be respected and embraced in the preschool setting. When families do enroll, administrators and teachers need to engage them as valued members of the preschool community. We call on policymakers and program administrators to support parent outreach and recruitment efforts, and the engagement of parents in their children’s preschool experience.

With A Better Start, we call attention to the importance of socioeconomic and racial/ethnic diversity within preschool classrooms. Not only is such integration possible, but it is an important (though often neglected) correlate of quality. Taking a stand on quality for all children commits our society to the kinds of classroom-level integration that are long overdue, especially for our youngest learners.

For further reading and citations for source materials, see Jeanne L. Reid and Sharon Lynn Kagan, A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education (The Poverty & Race Research Action Council and The Century Foundation, 2015), available for download at

Jeanne L. Reid is a research scientist at the Natl. Ctr. for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia Univ.
Sharon L. Kagan is the Virginia & Leonard Marx Professor of Early Childhood and Family Policy and Co-Director of the Natl. Ctr. for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia Univ. and Professor Adjunct at the Child Study Ctr., Yale Univ.
Michael Hilton is a Policy Analyst at PRRAC, specializing in federal education policy with a focus on school desegregation. Mr. Hilton is a graduate of Columbia Law School, where he was a Managing Editor of the Columbia Journal of European Law, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Halley Potter is a Fellow at The Century Foundation

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