Greatness Starts Before Grade School

Black Leaders on Education: How the NAACP's president proposes closing the racial gap in education.

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But the kindergarten results are even more disturbing. At the very first stage of formal schooling, children in the highest socioeconomic level already outperformed their playmates in the lowest socioeconomic level by 60 percent. And given the link between the legacies of slavery and segregation and modern patterns of poverty, it should come as no surprise that white kindergartners outperformed their black classmates by 21 percent.

Why is this? In the first five years of life, the brain develops swiftly as children gain essential language and literacy skills. These skills range from visual recognition of words and numbers to the simple knowledge that a book is read from left to right, top to bottom, front to back.

Many children of color — particularly those who are also poor — lack a language-rich environment in these formative years. On average, higher-income families speak 30 million more words to their children than lower-income families do.

Meanwhile, low-income families tend to have fewer books in their homes, less access to good libraries and less access to the Internet. Exposure to fewer words and books can severely stunt a child’s educational maturity.

One answer is a reinvigorated early-childhood-education movement. The NAACP’s action plan endorses a program called Educare, a public-private partnership that provides high-risk infants, toddlers and preschoolers with a language-rich environment before they fall behind in formal schooling. Early data show that students who attended the program for five years entered kindergarten just as ready as their middle-class peers.

Still, while public policy can play a role, the ultimate responsibility to educate our children rests with each of us who is blessed to be a parent — just as it was with our ancestors at the dawn of our collective freedom.

As a father of two young kids in a household in which both parents work, I am intimately familiar with many of the pressures that create incentives for us to undereducate our own children. I admit that I have sometimes strayed from the path of conviction cut by our ancestors — I have used television as a babysitter or found myself feeling too tired to read to my children some nights.

But when I feel that way, I look at my children and think about how far we have come for them and how far they will need to go for their own kids. Then I put down the work I have brought home with me, pick up that book and read to them as if their very lives depend on it.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is the 17th president and CEO of the NAACP. In 2012 Jealous was ranked No. 3 on The Root 100 list and received the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. Jealous and his wife, Lia, are the proud parents of two children.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff. 

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