This isn’t a nature or nurture argument; this is a nature AND nurture argument (excerpt):
Over the past year, the lack of universal pre-kindergarten for American four-year-olds has become a national issue….Even as these efforts are being made, however, new research is making it increasingly clear that educational disparities start much earlier.
The value of universal access to early education has long been recognized: it improves the life chances of disadvantaged children and is crucial to keeping a level playing field for all….
…Scholars have long documented that children who grow up poor face greater obstacles to social development and good health, obstacles that often remain with them the rest of their lives. They are more likely to have chronic diseases like asthma or attention deficit disorder, few of them graduate from high school, their wages are lower, and they often end up on welfare. Poor teenage women have more unwanted births.
But neurological evidence from recent years strongly suggests that the causes of these poor outcomes are neither solely cultural nor a function of a weak gene pool…there is new biological evidence that a high-stress environment for very young children does not simply affect cultural and psychological conditions that predispose the poor to failure; it can also affect the architecture of the brain, changing the actual neurological functioning and quantity of brain matter.
In other words, pre-K is not enough. What is concerning, moreover, is that these findings have been known for some time but are not getting adequate attention. In fact, the original documentation was published back in 2000 in a vanguard book edited by Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, and corroborating studies have multiplied since then.
I’ve long been in favour of universal pre-school in Malaysia. But the more I read around the subject (here for instance), it’s becoming increasingly clear that expanding access to pre-school won’t go nearly as far as I’d hoped in addressing inequality.
It appears from the evidence that children are effectively “programmed” even before they get to the pre-school stage. A high quality, inclusive school system might go some way to addressing shortfalls in cognitive and non-cognitive development, but you’ll be expending effort to catch up, not in forging ahead.
So what’s the solution here? More on more it seems that educating parents, especially first time parents, is a critical and required adjunct to any effective reform of the education system, and that this education should ideally happen before babies are even born. It’s not rocket science stuff either, it’s simple things like talking to your children (no, studies show the TV is NOT a substitute), and providing the right environment.
This won’t wave away the advantages children of higher income families have, such as being able to afford tuition outside the formal school system and access to more extra-curricular activities. But equalising initial conditions would be a good first step towards creating a more equitable society.