How Important Is First Grade?

By Elizabeth Grever

Two people walk into an interview for the same software developer job. They grew up in the same town. Both attended college, graduating with identical GPAs. Both had full-ride scholarships. But one learned to code in their school’s student computer lab; the other from watching free online courses on the public library computer. Who’s going to land the full-time job offer with a prime salary and benefits? Who would you hire?

Access makes a difference. It doesn’t matter what that access is to (food, a computer, disposable income, etc.). If your access is limited, your options become limited. Conversely, if you have access, you have the upper hand. Education is an area where a stark contrast can be seen between those who had access and those who didn't. Unfortunately, most times, these sometimes slight differences in education is what helps set a person up for a well-supported life...or a life with more disappointments and challenges.

Why did one of our hypothetical interviewees learn from a school-funded computer lab while the other needed to learn from a public library computer? The answer lies in early education access. One grade school received a lion’s share of government money; it’s on the “right” side of town where greater property tax revenues created funds to develop a cutting-edge computer lab for its students. The other grade school was located in an area stricken with poverty and didn’t even have the financial resources to run heating during the winter, forget having a computer lab. How did the distribution of resources affect the access to education and opportunity for our two candidates?

New York Times bestselling author John Green famously quipped, “Public education...exists for the benefit of the social order. We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. . So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don't personally have a kid in school: It's because I don't like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”

In a perfect world, public funding for early education public institutions would be equitable, with budgets set for each state, funded by federal and local governments, to ensure that all public primary schools receive the same minimum financial disbursement and are held to the same standards. The quality of education a child receives shouldn’t be related to their geographical location in a country with as many resources as the United States. However, undertaking a change like that takes years of government lobbying, case studies, voting, cutting through red tape...not to mention convincing the public.

Instead, let’s start with an easier to-do list:

First, we must establish minimum standards that ensure each child walks into a school building of fundamental caliber. These are the table stakes; the minimum to be considered viable, whether you are at the poker table or the boardroom table. What does table stakes mean in an educational context? By John Green’s definition, the customer isn’t simply the students or their families; the customer is every citizen in the town, the state, even the country, who reaps the benefits of living in an educated society. The table stakes in education are the minimum criteria a school must meet before it is considered to be a valid institution of learning that supports an educated society. The quality of public education provided to children in the United States affects all of us living here.

Every school must be structurally safe, with potable water, electricity, supplies for their teachers, and enough current textbooks for classes. Each school must be provided with funds adequate to keep the heat or air conditioning on. Schools should be able to hire adequate staff and pay commensurate salaries, including enough teachers for appropriate classroom ratios. Ancillary staff must also be considered; administrators, custodians, and a school nurse with proper medical supplies to manage their myriad health concerns.

Then, we tackle access to food. A child’s attention span is already limited; add hunger into that equation and their ability to focus and learn diminishes. What if we implemented sponsored food programs that ensured each child can access breakfast before school? To provide lunches served that are nutritional and balanced? A mountain of evidence exists that demonstrates adequate nutrition is vital to support effective learning throughout the day. How might a child’s focus shift after they have two healthy meals during a school day, rather than an empty stomach?

There is a multitude of other inequalities prevalent in the public early educational system (staff wages, testing standards, etc.), but we need to start somewhere. A sturdy foundation for children to build upon is something many of us take for granted; how different would your life be if you went hungry during lunch at school every day? If you didn’t have teachers available to guide your learning?

With completely opposing childhood educations, our two interviewees found themselves going head-to-head for the same job. Now imagine if our two candidates experienced the same childhood educations, were allowed the same access to the fundamentals. Who would come out as the rockstar candidate? And which one would you hire?

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

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