Early Childhood Opinion

Throwback Thursday: Close the Achievement Gap Early

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 11, 2014 4 min read
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Ask any Kindergarten teacher about differences between their students as they enter their classrooms and most will respond with an answer about the experiences the students have had before arriving. Being five years old, those experiences with family are widely varied, as are the families themselves. Some children have been read to nightly, taken to libraries, museums, and zoos. Some have traveled, been spoken to with expanding vocabularies, been asked to answer complex questions and use computers regularly. Others have had none of these opportunities.

Head Start has continued to grow and develop its programs, working with children from low-income homes. They have participated in research that shows their early childhood programs make a difference. The need for reaching students who live in poverty before they arrive at our public school doors remains obvious.

Ask any Kindergarten teacher what they think was the most influential factor in a 5 year old’s preparedness for learning. Most will say the child’s parent(s) or guardians. Motoko Rich’s October 2013 article in the NY Times reported, “professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households.” That leaves a lot of catching up for little ones to do when entering school at age 5!

HIPPY, Head Start, and 62,000 Pediatricians Agree
In a 1983 article published by EdWeek staff writer Susan G. Foster interviewed Chaim Adler who at the time was the director of the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Education. The interview was about The Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY). The program began in 1968 as an experimental project with initial funding from the National Council of Jewish Women and, later, from the Israeli government. Adler was careful to emphasize that the purpose was not to begin formal learning of reading, writing and arithmetic at an earlier age. We need to be sure, in the quest to prepare students that we do not step into their developmental level with demands from the next. HIPPY was designed to impact the home environment in order to prepare children to conceptualize, think rationally, generalize and have more language at their disposal.

In a July 2014 article in EdWeek, Vicky Schippers wrote:

We know that babies are born primed to learn and that their first years of life affect the success they experience later in school. Children who are exposed to more language and caring interactions have a large advantage over those living in stressful environments or with unresponsive caregivers.

Also in July of this year, we wrote a post reporting that 62,000 pediatricians across our country united to encourage parents of children 0-5 to read to their children.

HIPPY USA has been in existence for 25 years and Head Start for 50. Now, pediatricians are reaching out to encourage reading to little ones. With schools welcoming growing numbers of students from homes in which poverty is intergenerational, it is encouraging to see that the focus on this issue remains...or is it also discouraging?

The achievement gap is an issue of income. What has remained the same is those students who live in poverty arrive with less learning readiness than their middle and upper class peers. What has remained the same is that those students rarely, if ever, rise to become advanced placement students in high school. The good news is we have not abandoned the resolved focus on the development of those little ones who need enrichment in their early years. The time is ready for it to take hold across the nation.

Prevention vs. Intervention
We rarely see families and their children until they arrive at our doors. Our focus is on youngsters once they enter our schools. But, it is in the interest of some potential students and their families that we begin to advocate in earnest for an enriched pre-school experience. Hold back on saying “we don’t have the time.” Years of data demonstrate if we don’t invest time and attention in this direction, the poverty/achievement gap will remain. Rather than directing our energy toward closing a gap, why not direct our energy, as a community, toward preventing it?

Head Start, HIPPY, pediatricians...there is an expanding base of support. This may be the very time to step up and reach out. It is not an action that will show achievement improvement this year or next, but it can set the course for a narrowing gap. Too many look for quick fixes, especially those watching how educators spend time and energy. This is a long-term investment. Now, more than ever, we have the support of other professions and agencies. On this #tbt , no matter the level on which you teach or lead, a commitment to invest in the nation’s pre-schoolers will make a difference.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.