What is the Achievement Gap?
Though all children in the United States must start formal schooling between the ages of five and seven, they do not all start with even preparation. At age four, children are learning and developing as much in a year as an adult will in ten years (D’Souza). Many children attend preschool from age three or have ample exposure to letters and numbers before starting kindergarten whereas some do not. According to the California Department of Education, children aged six are required to attend kindergarten, but early childhood education is not provided by the most states. (Kindergarten in California). Other states though some preschool programs are provided for low income families, they are not required and many children do not attend school before Kindergarten. Sixty percent of three years olds do not attend preschool, and thirty-one percent of four years olds are still at home. The reason for this is largely due to the cost of preschool. (Financial Samurai) In the United States, the major requirement for starting kindergarten is being five or six, and having all vaccines.However, the recommended skills for Kindergarten includes asking for help, taking responsibility for own belongings, using words to solve problems, cutting with scissors, holding pencils correctly, riding tricycles, recognizing rhyming words, recognizing their name, understanding addition and subtraction, and telling stories with pictures, as well as many other skills. (Leap Frog) Though these may seem like easy and intuitive skills, they are incredibly difficult for children who have never been to school, or are English language learners. This creates the achievement gap.
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Historical Background of the Achievement Gap
The Achievement Gap was first recorded with the Coleman Report in 1966. The Coleman Report was a 737 page report mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The study, conducted over two years, evaluated the achievement gap in first, third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth grades in over 4,000 schools. This was in hopes to highlight the differences between schools attended by Black children and white children, particularly in the South. Not too long ago, segregated schools were abolished, but there were still largely separate schools. There was a large gap in achievement between races that seemed to only grow as the children did. The Coleman Report found that the achievement of an African American twelfth grader was similar to that of a white seventh grader. (What Matters for Student Achievement). Another group the achievement gap affects is children of a lower socioeconomic standing. “According to a seminal study of language development in 1995, by age 3, children in poverty have smaller vocabularies and lower language skills than children from middle-income families.” (Achievement Gap). Growing up in a low income family that cannot afford preschool, going to a school with less resources, or being an english language learner can give children a disadvantage from a young age. Growing up in a low income family that cannot afford preschool, going to a school with less resources, or being an english language learner can give children a disadvantage from a young age. Other parts of daily life can impact a child’s achievement, such as the size of the family and the structural stability of the house, to the books in the home and parent’s educational hopes, as well as a parents education level. It was found that the family had a large impact on children’s achievement(What Matters for Student Achievement). From, it is clear that many factors impact children’s achievement.
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How is the Achievement Gap affecting children today?
The current Covid-19 pandemic has also had a negative impact on early childhood education. Distance learning cannot yield the same benefits for any age, especially young children. Children who are only learning through a computer screen cannot learn a lot of skills, and keeping a child at home is a lot of work for parents, especially those with multiple children. Some parents this year decided to keep their children in preschool a year longer, or those who cannot afford preschool chose not to send their children to school at all. There was a decline from 17% to 10% in kindergarten enrollment in different areas. For example, in Los Angeles, there was a 14% drop, and in Oakland, there was a 9% drop (D’Souza). The achievement gap between high income families and low income families is expected to increase with the children who did not go to kindergarten this year, though children who were in distance learning all year or those who skipped kindergarten all together. Private schools, especially preschools, were allowed to open much earlier in the year than public schools. Though some states and districts may assess children’s level, many will be expected to start right in first grade because of their age. Since the first grade program is now more like what second grade used to be, it is undoubtable that children will struggle. Though it may not be as much, it is perceived that even children who went through with distance learning will struggle. They may already be falling behind in math, or social skills, and many of these children will need to learn entirely how in person school works (D’Souza).
Though the academic lag is important to address, children who do not go to preschool may suffer social deficits as well. Preschool is often the first time when children are in a group setting, and are supposed to listen to someone other than their caregivers. They also learn to share, take turns, and express feelings through words. Though these skills will be reinforced in kindergarten, children who do not go to preschool are found to have lower graduation rates, less self esteem, and less self control as adults (Piper).
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There are programs and organizations working to solve the early childhood achievement gap. First Five California is a program in California created to educate parents on how to help their children get ready for kindergarten. It encourages parents to read and talk to their children from a young age, which can be hugely beneficial. Another transitional kindergarten program, offered only by California, Massachusetts, and West Virginia. Transitional Kindergarten can serve as a transition between pre-k and kindergarten, or even as an introduction to school as it offers a different curriculum than kindergarten (Hinton). One of the biggest programs working to solve the achievement gap is Head Start. First launched in 1965, Head Start works to help children of a lower socioeconomic status with everything from schoolwork to healthcare. Head Start offers a preschool service to help children grow academically and socially. It also provides immunization and involves parents in their children’s lives (Head Start). Though these efforts have made progress, the achievement gap persists.
What else can be done?
There are many ways to help close the achievement gap, and hopefully eliminate it all together. Simply reading, coloring, talking, and doing art projects with their children can help them grow exponentially, and get them ready for kindergarten. Children could also be put in a playgroup, or have them take a dance class, or be on a sports team, as well as attending daycare or going on playdates or summer camp, though this is not readily available for working parents. There could also be a legislation that requires that all kindergarten programs start at age five and go for a full day. There could also be work done to extend the transitional kindergarten program in California, Massachusetts, and West Virginia. Though arguably, the best step would be to have public preschool available. This would require state funds and preschool teachers. The state of Georgia funded their universal preschool program through the lottery, actually starting in 1922. (Enrolling in Georgia’s Pre-K Program) In order to provide universal early childhood education, Preschool teachers must be considered full teachers. Though they are legally considered teachers, they are often seen as just glorified babysitters. They also make less than public school teachers, and cannot receive tenure. President Biden recently created a campaign to create high quality universal preschools to try to close this gap in his Affordable High-Quality Child Care and Universal Preschool proposal, which would be a great stride in closing the achievement gap (Uhing). Overall, early childhood is a crucial time in development and those without access to quality early childhood education, and steps still need to be made to close the achievement gap.
Do you have any young children in your life? What can you do to help them, and others, learn?
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