Eliminating the achievement gap, part 1 of 3: Focusing on income

Wow – I can’t believe that I agree with an entire David Brooks column, in which he advocates “building lifelong social and emotional development strategies from age 0 to 25,” including ready access to contraception, teaching parenting skills, “counseling and treatment, in which the psychic traumas that go with poverty are recognized and addressed,” for kids in elementary schools, and lots of programs to help teens.  “It Takes a Generation” comes at the end of a week packed with news about what children need to succeed.

Beth Hawkins kicked off the week at MinnPost, touting a new study that says, in her words, “providing full-time, high-quality preschool to impoverished children under the age of 3 could entirely eliminate the achievement gap.”

The study, co-authored by the U of M’s Aaron J. Sojourner and published in the Journal of Human Resources, boldly claims that “a two-year, center-based early childhood education intervention” targeting at low-income children and parents, “would essentially eliminate the income-based gap at age three and between a third and three-quarters of the age five and age eight gaps.” The program studied covered children from birth or age one to age three — before the time that preschool, Head Start or Early Head Start programs kick in.

Greg J. Duncan and Aaron J. Sojourner have done a terrific job in analyzing the data from the Infant Health and Development Program (IHDP), a program for low-birth-weight children. Because the program included children from all income levels, they were able to look at results from a diverse sample of children in eight different study sites across the country.

While most attention focuses on the racial achievement gap, the income achievement gap is persistent and growing. Professor Sean Reardon documented the income achievement gap in his 2011 book, Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children:

“The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier. In fact, it appears that the income achievement gap has been growing for at least fifty years …

“First, the income achievement gap … is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. Fifty years ago, in contrast, the black-white gap was one and a half to two times as large as the income gap.”

According to the U of M study, the gap between lower-income and higher-income children was “essentially eliminated” after two years. The program included weekly home visits from birth to age one, and biweekly visits from age one to three, as well as referrals to community services. From age one to three, children went to a daily, free, high-quality child development center, with free transportation provided.

The programs studied were intensive and high quality. Duncan and Sojourner noted that this is different from Early Head Start programs, which do not show the same rate of success:

“For instance, according to calculations based on Love et al. (2005), the average Early Head Start participant received 437 hours of center-based care. In contrast, the average member of the IHDP treatment group received 260 days of center-based care, or 2,080 hours if attending for eight hours a day. Moreover, the IHDP went to great lengths to ensure that care standards were uniformly high and the curriculum was well implemented, while the quality of Early Head Start programs is more variable.”

That kind of intensive, high-quality programming is expensive, and expense is a factor in whether we can get programs implemented. Duncan and Sojourner also suggest a couple of other issues, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

Related posts: 

Eliminating the achievement gap, part 2 of 3: What about race?

Eliminating the achievement gap, part 3 of 3: No silver bullets

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2 responses to “Eliminating the achievement gap, part 1 of 3: Focusing on income

  1. Pingback: Eliminating the achievement gap, part 2 of 3: What about race? | News Day

  2. Pingback: Eliminating the achievement gap, part 3 of 3: No silver bullets | News Day

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