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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.

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.

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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.

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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?