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Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Ph.D., Shares Insights on Racial and Income Gaps in the United States

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Ph.D.
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Ph.D.

By Kate McAvey, '11

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Ph.D., the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development and Education at Teachers College and the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City, delivered a lecture entitled, “Reducing Racial and Income Gaps in School Readiness: Early Educational, Health, and Parenting Strategies, on Wednesday, Jan. 30, on campus. The event was sponsored by the Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Brooks-Gunn is a world-renowned expert in the field of psychology. She has published numerous books and various journal articles focusing on child development and poverty.

Brooks-Gunn began by explaining the extensive research she and other psychologists have conducted on ways to reduce socioeconomic gaps and how these gaps affect school readiness.

School readiness is defined by two major factors, she explained. The first are academic skills, which are vocabulary, language usage, counting ability, general knowledge, and social emotional skills. School readiness also includes following directions, working in groups, and impulse control. Children who are less ready for school are more likely to become teen parents, engage in criminal activity, or suffer from depression, Brooks-Gunn said.

She has performed extensive studies with economists, sociologists, and public health professionals, and their work reveals that there is a significant gap when it comes to school readiness levels among Hispanic and black children and white children.

Brooks-Gunn emphasized the importance of using standard deviation as an important measure of percentages. She shared the example of how one can easily turn a standard deviation from the minority test scores into the statement that 84 percent of white children will perform better than an average minority child on a vocabulary test.

The lecture continued as the professor clarified that much of the school readiness gap can be explained by socioeconomic status. She demonstrated how the math and reading scores of Hispanic and black children on the ECLS -- Early Childhood Longitudinal Study -- kindergarten test correlate to the socioeconomic index, which is the measure of the parent’s education, work status, and income levels.

After discussing the apparent differences between the races for school readiness, Brooks-Gunn discussed what measures can be taken to reduce the gaps. She explained how health conditions play a significant role in the problem. If conditions such as low birth rate, asthma, ADHD, and lead poisoning were ameliorated, then the school readiness gap show a reduction from 10 to 15 percent.

Brooks-Gunn then demonstrated how parenting practices can be improved to curtail what is a growing school readiness problem. She explained that white mothers are more likely to deploy higher rates of language usage, teaching, and provision of stimulating materials to their children. When it comes to preschool enrollment, white children are more likely to attend than either African-American or Hispanic children.

She emphasized that if the quality of preschool increased, then this gap would definitely decrease. Brooks-Gunn discussed various intervention strategies for reducing school readiness gaps. Socioeconomically, income supplements, parental education, and marriage promotion all are successful intervention strategies. Better healthcare, more home visiting programs for parents, expanded access to preschools, education programs for lower educated mothers, and income tax credits have all proven to decrease the school readiness gap that is apparent in the United States today, she said.

Learn more about Jeanne Brooks-Gunn.

Kate McAvey, ‘11, is a first-year student from Mahwah, N.J. She plans to major in Communications. Kate is working as an intern in the Office of Communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University. Kate’s professional ambitions include broadcasting, public relations, and journalism.

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Director of Communications, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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