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To close achievement gap, better start early

Two items of note appeared in Learning Curve’s inbox over the long weekend, both concerning early childhood education. Both offer further confirmation that the achievement gap begins when a child is born into poverty, can be narrowed by top-flight early childhood education and becomes harder — and more expensive — to try to close as kids age.

The first was passed along by former teacher and voracious reader Ray Schoch who, if hat tips were money, would be taking us all to Bermuda for the next holiday.

The cover story in the Dec. 1 issue of The New Republic, “The Two-Year Window” is behind a paywall, but I daresay it’s worth the price of a subscription. Even if you’re not terribly interested in education or child-care policy, it’s a terrific piece of science writing.

It’s a fascinating story on infant brain development in the first two years of life, a time when adversity can literally reshape the brain for life. Among other things, the story reports the first findings of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, which studied Romanian orphans who have experienced severe neglect and abuse.

A teaser:

“This past May, a team led by Stacy Drury of Tulane … found that telomeres, which are protective caps that sit on the ends of chromosomes, were shorter in children who had spent more time in the Romanian orphanages. In theory, damage to the telomeres could change the timing of how some cells develop, including those in the brain — making the shorter telomeres a harbinger of future mental difficulties. It was the clearest signal yet that neglect of very young children does not merely stunt their emotional development. It changes the architecture of their brains.”

After age 2, much harder to repair
Researchers, the piece continues, “are still learning about the orphans. But one upshot of their work is already clear. Childhood adversity can damage the brain as surely as inhaling toxic substances or absorbing a blow to the head can. And after the age of two, much of that damage can be difficult to repair, even for children who go on to receive the nurturing they were denied in their early years.”

The story goes on to detail the personal and societal costs of this damage, and lays out research that suggests high-quality early care can go a long way toward undoing damage done during the first part of that two-year window or toward counteracting a home environment where the infant brain isn’t likely to get what it needs.

Which is a tidy segue to the other item of note, a report [PDF] from the Minnesota Department of Education on the gap in education readiness. I’ll append a few highlights, but if you want to read deeper, you might want to check out policy think-tank Minnesota 2020’s synopsis of the report, which is annotated with other valuable reading.

As it has since 2002, last fall MDE, in concert with the Human Capital Research Collaborative, a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, surveyed a representative cross-section of the state’s elementary schools to obtain a picture of school readiness of kindergartners who began school in the fall of 2010.

Working with incoming kindergartners, researchers gathered data on five types of development necessary to ensure school success: physical development; the arts; personal and social development; language and literacy; and mathematical thinking.

Looked for markers
They didn’t test the tots per se, but looked for markers like hand-eye coordination, self-care, and knowledge of shapes, ability to participate in dance and other artistic play, etc. In order to be deemed ready, kids had to display 75 percent of desired markers.

Sixty percent of 2010-2011 kindergartners were judged ready. Seventy percent were physically developed, 59 percent displayed desired language and literacy skills, 56 percent displayed developed personal and social skills and arts proficiency and 52 percent showed mathematical thinking.

Primary home language and race and ethnicity were not statistically significant factors. Girls are more likely to be prepared than boys.

Poverty, however, is. Kids from poorer families, those with incomes below 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines, scored nearly 17 points lower than their more comfortable peers.

Percent of students reaching 75 percent standard by selected sub-categories
Source: Minnesota School Readiness Study

“The odds of reaching the 75 percent standard for a student whose household income was at or above 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG) were more than one and a half times as great as compared to a student whose household income was less than 250 percent FPG when holding all other variables constant,” researchers reported.

“The odds of reaching the 75 percent standard for a student whose household income was 250-400 percent FPG are nearly one and half times as great as compared to a student whose household income is up to 250 percent FPG. This result is statistically significant.”

Proficiency correlated with parental education
Proficiency was tightly correlated with parental education, too. Only a third of kindergartners whose parents lacked a high school education scored proficient, with scores creeping up a few points at a time, maxing out at 71 percent of kids whose parents had graduate or professional degrees.

Researchers also looked at MDE’s data on 2003, 2004, and 2006 kindergarten cohorts, who are now old enough to have taken the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, which are given for the first time in third grade. School readiness, they reported [PDF], “significantly and consistently predicted third-grade MCA reading and math test scores and the need for school remedial services (special education or grade retention) above and beyond the influence of child and family background characteristics. The strength of prediction was consistent across a range of child and family characteristics (e.g., family income, gender, and race/ethnicity).”

So much for that education vs. poverty dichotomy. Can we consider that one settled and move on?

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/28/2011 - 11:07 am.

    “Proficiency was tightly correlated with parental education, too. Only a third of kindergartners whose parents lacked a high school education scored proficient, with scores creeping up a few points at a time, maxing out at 71 percent of kids whose parents had graduate or professional degrees.”

    We’ve missed an important data point, it seems.

    If we can agree that IQ is at least one important component to one’s academic success, as well as eventual socio-economic reality, how many of these kids from poverty stricken families are genetically pre-disposed to perform intellectual tasks poorly?

    And given the reality that many in poverty are enthusiastic abusers of drugs and alcohol, both of which are known to adversely affect fetal development, how many of these kids are chemically damaged before birth?

    How many suffer from both disadvantages?

    We have been making an increasingly expensive investment in early childhood education for more than 20 years. Undoubtedly that has paid off for some, but how much was simply put to the task of chasing an outcome that was impossible to catch from the start?

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/28/2011 - 11:10 am.

    Oh, and BTW; the “Achievement Gap” is measured by race, but as you point out, race and ethnicity were not statistically significant factors in the study we’re discussing here.

    Are we even sure what problem we’re trying to solve?

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/28/2011 - 12:54 pm.

    The two studies certainly *seem* to dovetail.

    Is there any research to show that children in poor families receive significantly less attention and/or stimulation? I’m thinking specifically of those five areas that MDE is looking at in its cross-section of elementary schools. I vaguely recall reading something a few years back to the effect that children in poor households have lesser language skills, and it seemed in large part to be because they were involved in fewer conversations – there was less talk expected from them, and less talk directed at them.

    While I’m inclined to argue that language development is the key to most intellectual development in any/every field, it’s also true that other skills are very important, and the correlation between poverty and “readiness” in 75% of the desired categories seems, shall we say, statistically significant. The key issue then becomes, “What next?”

    The notion of “equal opportunity” is essentially tossed out the window by these findings, or at best is rendered a cruel joke, but the more obvious avenues of addressing the connection between poverty and intellectual development, between poverty and academic success, are also the ones most politically and socially contentious. These findings make the failure of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” 40-something years ago that much sadder, especially when the scientific rationale (and thus the ethical imperative) for such a national commitment is so much stronger now.

    For the record, I’ve never been to Bermuda…

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/28/2011 - 09:50 pm.

    Yet we continue to invest in Head Start when we’ve known for at least fifteen years that it doesn’t work. Its effects dissipated by 2nd or 3rd grade. “Head Start graduates performed about the same as students of similar income and social status who were not part of the program.”,8599,2081778,00.html

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/29/2011 - 07:09 am.

    We’ve known for a long time that early intervention helps. But no one has really cared about the poor for 30 years or more. It’s much more comforting to believe it’s all their fault, the corollary being that your success is all your own fault, too, and that you’re receiving just what you deserve.

    A fair society would reward individual effort, and share the results of luck. Of course, since superior nature and nurture are the consequences of a clever choice of parents, the residual is much smaller than most people imagine.

    “There but for the Grace of God go I” has disappeared from the American national social conscience. Perhaps the unforeseen economic blows suffered by many since 2007 will remind us of its truth.

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