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Education Opinion

Start Early: Close the Achievement Gap Before It Starts

By Guest Blogger — March 06, 2019 5 min read
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Ian Rowe is CEO of Public Prep, a network of single-sex elementary and middle public schools in New York City. Public Prep enrolls nearly 2,000 students in grades PreK-8. Ian has held a number of roles, from directing a public service initiative at the White House, to serving as a senior executive at MTV, to working as leadership at Teach For America and the Gates Foundation. Ian will be writing about how family structure impacts education outcomes, what that means for schooling, and what schools can do.

If you want to catch up on enthralling reality television, binge watch 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, and 30 Something Grandma. This docu-series trilogy captures the dysfunctional cycle of young women who get pregnant, become unprepared parents too early, typically get abandoned or under-supported by their equally unready male counterparts, and then witness their young children repeat the behavior less than twenty years later.

What’s amazing about these shows is the racial diversity. Black, Hispanic, and white single mothers are all represented, underscoring that widespread fatherlessness and the explosion of non-marital births is a phenomenon affecting children of all races.

Because of organizations like Power to Decide (formerly the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy), the teen birth rate since 2009 has fallen to a new low each year. While an incredible public-health achievement, the unfortunate reality is that a related issue has moved slightly up the age scale: The National Center for Health Statistics reports the non-marital birth rate to women age 24 and under was 71 percent.

SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics

Every racial group is impacted. Imagine the likely hardships to be faced by the more than 250,000 white babies born to unmarried young women age 24 and under. Or the more than 90 percent of black babies or 73 percent of Hispanic babies who will be nearly five times as likely to be raised in poverty. Beyond the non-marital birth rate, a staggering 41 percent or more of women 24 and under who gave birth in 2017 were already mothers carrying somewhere between their second through eighth child.

In raw numbers, this means that in 2017 alone, unmarried young women 24 and under who had given birth that year were raising an estimated 1.1 million children, creating enormous stress for these young mothers valiantly trying to hold it together. They are more likely to suffer poor mental health and maternal depression, which according to the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves can weaken attachment and therefore “slow their child’s early development, which increases the risk of poor educational outcomes, which in turn heightens the risk of future poverty.”

While young, unmarried mothers are experiencing depressive symptoms, along with other stressors like financial hardship and social isolation, what of the young men? According to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, "[A]bout one year after a nonmarital birth, 48% of fathers are living away from their child, rising to 56% and then to 63% at three and five years, respectively.”

Family structure matters. But what does all this have to do with education? It turns out, just about everything.


Nationwide, large numbers of very young single mothers are raising very young children, and in many cases multiple children under the age of five. Typically, K-12 leaders assume they have no choice but to be passive recipients of these infants and toddlers, who a few years later will likely enter kindergarten already far behind.

In contrast, at Public Prep, our philosophy is to “start early, with the end of college completion in mind.” Each day, (typically) young mothers drop off a Boys Prep or Girls Prep scholar, with an infant son or daughter in a stroller. In a few years, that younger sibling will have automatic preference in our lottery. So we decided to break the firewall between our K-8 system and that infant’s early-childhood experience, to give that child a true head start.

That’s what led to a partnership in 2014 with Sesame Workshop to create PrePrep: the Joan Ganz Cooney Early Learning Program, a Universal PreK for four-year-olds. It also led to a partnership in 2018 with the Parent Child Home Program. Through the partnership, the siblings of current Boys Prep or Girls Prep scholars, who are as young as 18-months-old, will receive roughly one hundred, 30-minute home visits focused on building language and numeracy skills.

For two years—two times each week—a trained, community-based early-learning specialist will bring the family a new high-quality book or educational toy as a gift. Using the book or toy, the specialist will work with the child and the child’s caregiver in their native language to model reading and conversation and to-do activities designed to stimulate parent-child interaction and promote the development of the verbal, cognitive, and social-emotional skills that are critical for children’s school readiness and long-term success. A variety of independent evaluations have found results such as:

SOURCE: Parent-Child Home Program

Because of these results, in my perspective, the federal government is evidencing support. According to AEI’s Katharine Stevens, for the first time in the law’s half-century history, ESSA acknowledges a birth-through-K-12 education continuum. ESSA explicitly encourages state and local education agencies, specifying “establishing or enhancing” preschool programs for children from birth through age 5 as an allowable use of federal education funds.


“Going upstream” in the education process—ensuring children enter school ready to learn rather than remediating deficits later—is emerging as a promising strategy for improving K-12 achievement. Advances in neuro-science indicate that the deficits a child experiences during ages zero to three are inextricably linked to almost inevitable adverse, long-term harm to their well-being later in adulthood.

SOURCE: The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

For leaders in K-12 public education, this recurring theme of helplessness to reverse adverse early childhood experiences is an achingly bitter pill to swallow. No one wants to believe that our efforts are futile.

Get over it.

We have to close the achievement gap before it starts.

See you upstream.

Ian Rowe

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.