Lots of people know how to close the achievement gap: better teachers, more standardized instruction, longer school days, free preschool for all, stricter discipline, more testing, less testing … the list goes on and on. No single solution is a silver bullet that can deliver success.
Decades of research show that the achievement gap begins early.
- At 18 months, children in low-income families are already falling behind in language development.
- By age three, children in low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than children in high-income families.
- A Stanford University study published in 2012 confirmed the research from the 1990s that initially identified the 30 million word gap:
“Where do such early differences among children come from? One critical factor is that parents differ in the amount of language stimulation they provide to their infants. Several studies show that parents who talk more with their children in an engaging and supportive way have kids who are more likely to develop their full intellectual potential than kids who hear very little child-directed speech.
“‘For lots of reasons, there is generally less supportive talk to children in families living in poverty, which could partially explain the SES differences we found in children’s early processing skill and vocabulary learning,’ Fernald said.”
Logically, early education is crucial in closing the achievement gap. A recent study published in the Journal of Human Resources, says 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.”
So if the achievement gap is closed at age three, how does it begin growing again by age five and age eight? Not too hard to figure out: kids are not on a level playing field. Income matters. Higher-income families can afford more computers in their homes, faster internet access, more books, more parental leisure to read books to kids, more summer and after-school programs, family vacations, museum memberships. As students get older, higher-income families can afford tutors or SAT test prep courses.
Closing the achievement gap requires support all along the way, starting in early childhood years and then continuing through elementary and middle school and into high school and college.
- The St. Paul Federation of Teachers is asking for comprehensive school counseling programs for all schools as part of the current contract negotiations. Overall, Minnesota ranks second to last among the states in school counselor ratios, with an average of 800 students per counselor.
- College Possible, an expanding multistate program that began here in Minnesota, works with low-income high school students. Students enrolled in its programs get intensive coaching and support to take them through high school and into college.
- St. Paul teachers initiated a home visit program to strengthen parent-school ties, and the district has adopted the program.
Some argue that the only way to close the achievement gap is to fundamentally restructure society to provide good jobs for all and lift all families out of poverty. That is a great goal — but it’s not going to help the kids who are living in poverty or near-poverty from now until that utopia is reached. For these kids, we need to strengthen and fully fund programs from birth through post-secondary education.