Two Philly Neighborhoods, Two Libraries

A look at kids and books in Chestnut Hill vs. West Kensington.

The day after his State of the Union Address, on a stopover in Decatur, Georgia, President Obama expanded on a proposal he outlined the night before to make high-quality preschool education available to every single child in America. The plan is certainly not without merit. But the notion that leveling the playing field is enough to ensure equality of opportunity grossly underestimates the systemic, and often invisible forces that set children up for failure before they take their first step.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Jerry Z. Muller quotes scholar Edward Banfield, who wrote: “All education favors the middle- and upper-class child because to be middle- or upper-class is to have qualities that make one particularly educable.” While that statement, like much of  Banfield’s work, appears controversial, it’s hard not to recognize a grain of truth.

In their 2012 book, “Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance,” Susan B. Neuman, an educator who served as  U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education under George W. Bush, and LaSalle communications professor Donna Celano set out to find out why. They uncover some stark realities that undermine the belief that all that is needed for children to succeed is to spread the resources around a little.

They ask: What good is a level playing field if half the participants enter the game missing a limb?

To illustrate their point, the authors and their research assistants split their time between two Philadelphia neighborhoods: Chestnut Hill and West Kensington.

Neuman and Celano took a trip to the neighborhood public libraries to compare preschool activities. On first inspection, Chestnut Hill Library and Lillian Marrero, at Sixth and Lehigh (in a neighborhood known as the “Badlands”), appeared to have much in common. They are housed in stately buildings with an abundance of reading materials, and each contains a spacious preschool reading area with ample seating for visitors. But the similarities end there.

In Chestnut Hill, children are almost always accompanied by an adult from whom they receive a great deal of direction, while at Lillian Marrero, kids are typically alone or with an older sibling and, more often than not, they are left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, the average child in Chestnut Hill leaves the library with checked-out material, while the kid in Kensington usually leaves empty-handed.

The authors call this the “Paradox of Leveling the Field.”

Middle-class parents not only receive a different set of cultural prompts regarding proper child rearing, but they have the leisure and financial resources to put them into practice. But the problem is not limited to parenting style, as a simple tally of reading resources in both neighborhoods illustrates. The four available sources of reading material in the Badlands (two of them Rite Aid drugstores) offer just 358 children’s titles. In Chestnut Hill, there are 11 sources of reading material for children (three of them are actual bookstores) housing a total of 16,453 titles.

In light of these inequities, as children get older, a predictable pattern emerges: At Chestnut Hill Library, 93 percent of teenagers read at their age level, while a handful read above it; at Lillian Marrero, just 58 percent are reading where they should, and 42 percent below it. (Similarly, computers in classrooms don’t begin to make up for socioeconomic disparities. As Neuman and Celano note, simply understanding how to craft a search engine query and compile and print the results is an increasingly middle-class skill. Kids from poor families are forced to compete for a 30-minute slot of computer time at the local library, much of which is wasted confronting simple logistics that middle-class kids, who enjoy unlimited access at home, don’t encounter.)

Until we confront the fundamental inequities that are fueling the expanding achievement gap, programs that level the playing field in schools can only have so much impact. We need more programs that put books and computers in the hands of low-income kids, and just as important, that offer them the adult guidance and the leisure time they need to learn how to use them outside of the classroom. President Obama’s preschool initiative is an important component of such a strategy, but it’s just a new rung on a ladder that needs work closer to the ground.