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The only way to be successful in addressing the achievement gap

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Even when there are efforts to focus on “early education,” the resources and programs are focused on 4- and 5-year-olds, with infants and toddlers remaining invisible and shut out of educational resources.

The science is clear and becoming more obvious every year. There is not a learning readiness or brain development gap at birth. There is a gap by age 3. Why, then, is there so little discussion of the education of children from birth to 3?

Jim Nicholie

It is not that we don’t know what babies need in order to develop language, understanding of spatial relationships, a healthy body and a eagerness to learn. It is not that mothers and other caregivers are not committed to what is best for the babies in their care.

The primary problem is that state and local educational resources largely exclude infants and toddlers. Until there is at least parity in the allocation of resources, we will continue to engage in a futile “catch up” exercise in addressing the gap between white and children of color, between families who have resources and those who don’t.

‘Later education’

Our institutions and public resources are heavily weighted toward “later education.” Even when there are efforts to focus on “early education,” the resources and programs are focused on 4- and 5-year-olds, with infants and toddlers remaining invisible and shut out of educational resources. A prime example is the 2013 Legislature’s budget, which adds money for increased kindergarten hours and preschool scholarships for 4-year-olds.

If we are to be successful in addressing the learning and achievement gap we must start where it begins and where we can have the most impact. There are many programmatic approaches, but the key issue is the lack of funding and resources for educational support from birth to 3.

The following are some resources that may illuminate the importance of the first three years of education and development. Please note, read carefully. Even scientists and researchers often talk about brain and language development in the first five years of life. A closer look reveals that nearly all of this early development is concentrated in the first three years of life. Yet resources and programmatic efforts often are concentrated on years 4 and 5, repeating educational mistakes of the past — “too little too late.” Furthermore, such an approach further impoverishes the educational ecosystem and resources available to nurture children from birth to 3.

Further resources:

 Jim Nicholie holds a master’s in Human development from Pacific Oaks College and has worked in the field of Early Childhood Education for 45 years. Most recently he directed the YWCA Child Care Center at Abbott Northwestern Hospital for nine years. Nicholie is retired and lives in Minneapolis. 


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Robert Owen on 01/24/2014 - 10:06 am.

    From zero to three

    Are you suggesting the state should be funding the education of one-year-olds? Is that something beyond typical parenting (for some people) such as reading and talking to the very young?

    You make the assumption that mothers and other caregivers are committed to what’s best for the kids. If there is a gap at three, what went right for those at the top of the gap?

    I will assume “other caregivers” isn’t just a euphemism for “fathers.”

  2. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 01/24/2014 - 11:25 am.

    Non-Optional Expense

    Our youngest son started kindergarten last fall at a public school in south Minneapolis, and it was a stark reminder that the so-called “achievement gap” is already firmly in place by that point. It seems like this is the single most important thing to realize when trying to address the problem. By age five, it’s simply too late. The gap is already big enough that it cannot be overcome, and it only gets bigger as time passes.

    Both of our sons started preschool at 18 months. We intentionally picked a “preschool” over a “day care” and it is essential to recognize that, while there is overlap in their functions, the two types of institutions have significant differences (including, of course, cost). Thus, our sons arrived at kindergarten prepared to learn by virtue of already having had THREE-AND-A-HALF YEARS of actual classroom experience. Most of their peers arrived with exactly ZERO such experience.

    As parents, we contributed to their readiness, of course, by reading and singing to them, teaching pre-reading skills, encouraging curiosity, etc. But there is no question that they had a gigantic advantage over their peers at least in part because we could afford actual education (instead of simple babysitting) on a daily basis starting very early in their lives.

    There is no doubt that providing such educational opportunities for all children would be expensive, but if we really care about reducing the gap (which, societally-speaking, I sometimes doubt), then the expense should not be a consideration. If that’s the way to solve the problem, and we want the problem solved, then the expense is not optional.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/24/2014 - 08:18 pm.

      Expense not an issue?

      Though I agree with much of what is being said here and am a big fan of he Harlem children zone pipeline, expense is always an issue. Unless you are offering to fund it all personally.

      Who are you thinking should pay for this?
      Why shouldn’t we be holding parents accountable for training their toddlers?

      Toddlers don’t need school to be successful, they need rules, consistency, play dates, love, someone to talk or read to them, experiences, etc.

      Next you will be telling me that all poor kids are doomed to academic failure. Which we know isn’t true.

      • Submitted by Rick Prescott on 01/25/2014 - 01:33 pm.

        Considering Expense and Prep

        “Who are you thinking should pay for this?”

        If, as a society, we believe this is a problem which needs to be solved, then we, as a society, should fund the solution. We have found all sorts of ways to raise money for other things that were collectively important. It can be done. The unlikeliness that we will do it suggests where it falls on our collective priority list.

        “Why shouldn’t we be holding parents accountable for training their toddlers?”

        You may as well ask, “Why can’t all parents train their kids to be plumbers?” The truth is that parents have a variety of skills, and many parents are not good teachers. There is no way that I could have given my sons the preparation for learning that they got from the professionals (even though I did provide them with all the things on your list).

        And “holding parents accountable” in this context effectively means rewarding/punishing children for the skills/deficiencies of their parents. There are better ways.

        “Toddlers don’t need school to be successful, they need…”

        The point of this discussion is that, more and more, the “achievement gap” appears to be descended from a “preparation gap.” Put simply, the more (and more appropriate) preparation toddlers get, the better they will do over the long term. The gap forms when some preschoolers get significantly better (or more appropriate) preparation than others.

        An argument could certainly be made that our style of educating and evaluating students systematically favors those of a certain cultural or economic background, and that this would predispose some students toward success or failure. That’s a separate issue, and doesn’t change the point that, whatever the cause of the divergence, it happens well before age five.

        As such, it’s becoming more and more clear that if the gap is not closed by changes in very early preparation, it cannot be closed.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/25/2014 - 02:35 pm.

          Society Pays…

          Society will “need to find the money” usually translates into we will need to raise the taxes even higher on those that have money to pay for services and supplies for those who do not.

          My wife has been both a Daycare Provider and PreSchool Owner/Teacher for decades, so I have met and heard about all kinds of parents. There are what I think of as “over achieving” parents who are adament about developing and educating their kids. (ie montessori, highly structured, etc) Then there are what I call the “balanced” parents who want the kids to develop some social / academic skills. And there are others that are just trying to survive parenthood.

          After watching these parents and kids grow and develop, I don’t think these kids need to be geniuses by age 5 to be successful. They do need to have a rough idea of their numbers, letters, small motor skills, large motor skills, respect for themselves / Teachers / peers, ability to listen and follow rules, the ability to sit still and be polite, etc.

          My point is that every Parent should be able to be at least an adequate Parent / Teacher with a little work. This is not an issue of money or Pre-K education, this an issue of poor irresponsible parenting.

          Until someone admits their problem and accepts that they need / want help, there is little we / society can do to help them and/or their children. Though there are many people who will rob Peter to try to save Paul, even if Paul is not interested in being saved.

          • Submitted by Rick Prescott on 01/25/2014 - 04:39 pm.

            Fair Enough

            “…we will need to raise the taxes even higher on those that have money to pay for services and supplies for those who do not.”

            This is, perhaps, the discussion we need to have: Is there a societal advantage to pooling our resources to solve society-wide problems? Is the overall societal gain worth the (relatively slight) inconvenience to those with the most resources? Is “every man for himself” really the best way to organize a modern society?

            From your comment, your answers to those questions are clear. We will have to agree to disagree on that one.

            But I will say again that, if we collectively consider this a problem (doubtful), the appropriate solution is a collective one — whether that be through pooling financial resources or some other technique. One thing is becoming clear: The imbalance of resources between the two ends of the economic scale is likely part of the source of this problem. It will have to be mitigated somehow.

            “…this an issue of poor irresponsible parenting.”

            That’s a bold statement, especially when made without justification.

            Even so, would you really want children to be limited by the skills and resources of their parents? That sounds like a very good way to keep the gap growing.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/25/2014 - 10:56 pm.

              So Many Choices

              Your views are a bit too socialistic for my taste. At some point individuals need to take responsibility for their life and that of their children. Our society already transfers a great amount of money between citizens via taxing and spending policies. When the horse is ready to drink, I am sure it will.

              My rationale for it being poor parenting is very simplistic. From my experience few children start pre-school at 18 mths, and yet most seem to do ok to great academically.

              Now I do agree that being poor, young, single, recent immigrant and/or under educated would make parenting infinitely harder. From my perspective though, it does not mean that they get a pass regarding “good parenting”. It is their child that they chose to bring into the world and not put up for adoption. Therefore the problem is still poor parenting.

              I know poor single moms that are excellent parents and it shows in the behaviors and achievements of their children. I know low income couples that are terrible parents and their kids struggle. Being poor is not an excuse for being a poor parent.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 01/25/2014 - 02:52 pm.


          Food for Thought

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