Richard Rothstein on the many causes of the achievement gap
Preschool advocacy has become popular, and that is a good thing: disadvantaged children’s attendance at preschool can help narrow achievement gaps between middle class and disadvantaged children. But some cautions should be kept in mind:
- The achievement gap has many causes: less adequate early childhood preparation is one, along with health differences; the absence of positive peer and community influences; the lack of high quality after-school, weekend, and summer experiences; insufficient school resources (including high quality teachers); excessively large classes; family economic stress; unstable housing; and more. Closing the achievement gap will require simultaneous and intensive mutually reinforcing efforts in all of these areas. Preschool alone is a good thing to do, and will make some difference. But even with the best preschool experiences, the achievement gap will narrow a little, not a whole lot. Much has been made, for example, of the long term effects of participation in the Perry Preschool experiment: for adolescents and adults who attended the preschool as young children, there has been less teen pregnancy, better employment outcomes, fewer criminal arrests, more high school graduation, higher earnings. But less attention has been paid in discussions of the Perry experiment to the fact that the former preschoolers still had much worse outcomes than those of typical children. The outcomes were better only in comparison to the control group of similarly disadvantaged children who had no preschool.
- Discussion of preschool often confuses prekindergarten, which typically enrolls four year olds; preschool, which typically enrolls three year olds; and early childhood programs, which enroll toddlers. Research cited by Michael Sadowski ("The School Readiness Gap" ) demonstrates that achievement gaps exist by age 3. It will help that some states are now offering (or considering the offer of) prekindergarten to all low-income children, because prekindergarten can try to undo some of these gaps from early childhood. But prekindergarten can’t fully offset the differences in learning ability which have already been deeply implanted before prekindergarten
age. An effective effort to narrow achievement gaps substantially must include the offer to infants and toddlers from low-income families of high-quality early childhood programs where, for example, these children can be exposed to the more complex adult language to which middle class toddlers are routinely exposed. Such programs do not entail taking children away from their parents. Many disadvantaged children are already away from their parents, but are in low-quality day care programs, parked in front of television sets. A high quality early childhood program, with high adult-child ratios, well-educated caregivers, and adequate physical space for play that develops fine and gross motor skills, will be expensive. Research by Kathleen McCartney, using data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. shows that fewer black and low income than white and middle class infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are enrolled in such high quality programs. Such disparities compound differences in home environments.
- We should be careful not to confuse school readiness with word and number fluency. Analysis of a federal survey, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. shows that a more important prekindergarten predictor of reading and math test scores in elementary school is not whether children enter kindergarten knowing how to count or read; it is their fine motor skill development. Effective early childhood, preschool, and prekindergarten programs balance literacy and number learning with free and guided play that draws on young children’s physical and imaginative abilities. And it emphasizes social skills and self-discipline (attention span, curiosity, self-control, interpersonal skills), which are also more important indicators of school readiness than early academic ability.
In short, there is no panacea for the achievement gap. Prekindergarten can make a contribution, but our expectations for its results should be tempered by understanding that multi-caused problems, like the achievement gap, require multi-faceted solutions.
Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and author of Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (Teachers College Press 2004).