Education Opinion

Early Achievement Gaps Must Not be Ignored!

By Anthony Cody — October 11, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Recent research has revealed what some of us have long known. The achievement gaps we discover when we begin testing students in kindergarten or the first grade began to manifest much sooner. Researchers at the University of Okefenokee in Florida, led by Dr. Theodore Pogo, have been studying infants and toddlers to see when they master the skills thought to be essential for these ages. Their research has revealed:

  1. Some infants “latch on” right away, while others take quite a bit of instruction in learning how to breast feed.
  2. Some defy the normal “walk at one, talk at two” expectations set by society. The most intelligent children walk at 9 months, and talk at a year and a half.
  3. Some infants lag significantly behind their peers and do not talk until age two, or walk until age two-and-a-half!

The more advanced children are being intensively studied. Their ability to walk and talk earlier confers significant advantages on them. If they can start walking earlier, their physical development can be “fast-tracked,” and thus they can be better prepared for success in kindergarten athletics. Research has shown that students gain confidence from success at such games as tag and playing on the monkey bars. Clearly those students who walk weeks or even months earlier than their peers will have significant advantages in these competitive arenas.

Early talkers also have significant advantages. They can begin building the vocabularies they will need for success on the tests they will take in the first grade, and can also respond when parents begin to review the new words on their first picture flash cards. They can also begin to learn their alphabet so they know which letters to bubble on the tests.

Researchers are also studying the parents of these children. Their working hypothesis is that these parents held unusually high expectations for their children. These parents did not simply accept it when the children grunted meaninglessly. They withheld food until the child said “Banana” clearly. To encourage walking, toys were placed out of reach so the child would have to walk to get them. Most powerfully, clear learning targets were set by these parents, and explicitly demonstrated for the toddlers.

Unfortunately there are also children who lag behind the norms. These children are of particular concern, because the existence of this early achievement gap means that many of our parents have failed, and calls in to question our system of parenting. These parents are assumed to have set low expectations for their offspring. These children were allowed to crawl around the floor like animals, instead of being shown the proper mode of upright bipedal locomotion. These children were apparently given food even when they squawked or squealed like little piglets, rather than having the food provided only when requested using proper English.

Low expectations results in these poor outcomes - but in our current system of parenting, where are the consequences? If we are serious about closing this achievement gap, we need attention-getting consequences for success or failure. Policymakers have been hard at work and have come up with several new ideas which can be implemented soon. Toddlers who can demonstrate their ability to walk and talk on a standard walk/talk test will qualify for early admittance to kindergarten. This will allow them to complete high school and college a year early, which means they get a head start on all their peers, and more importantly, an additional year of earnings once they graduate. Those earnings could be significant! Furthermore, their parents will be rewarded because the offspring will therefore be off to college and out of the house a year earlier, saving additional dollars (not to mention headaches!)

Toddlers who are behind the curve are currently escaping detection. The standard walk test should be given at age one, and the talk test at age two. Those who are not at appropriate age level in their skills should be placed in special motivational classes led by individuals equipped with research-proven scripted curriculum to ensure uniform opportunities for skill acquisition. We can no longer afford to leave this to chance - too many children are being left behind before the race has even begun!

We all know the starting gun in the race for success sounds the moment that doctor slaps that baby’s pink butt. Effective parents take advantage of every minute to prepare their little one to win this race - and all we ask is that they teach their babies to walk and talk. We have turned a blind eye to the achievement gap in this area for far too long. It is time that ineffective parents are identified and helped to improve, or encouraged to give their children up for adoption by other, more capable parents, before irreversible harm is done.

So I offer my thanks to the Florida team. Our policymakers can get to work right away, armed with this potent research, and in a few years, all our children can live up to our expectations that they be normal and hit their age appropriate learning targets. This will surely make us all much more competitive in the Race to the Top!

What do you think? When should the Race to the Top begin? What can be done to close the toddler gap?

Image provided through Creative Commons, by mbrubeck

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.