April 2006 | Number 45
The Achievement Gap: Early Childhood Education
Closing the Gap: Early Childhood Education
Second in a Series
In popular culture, the age of 40 is sometimes considered “over the hill.” This is decidedly not the case for the Perry Preschoolers—a cohort of low-income, predominantly African American children who 37 years ago were randomly assigned to attend a high-quality preschool program. The latest findings from the well-known longitudinal study of this group confirm that the program's “long-term effects are lifetime effects” (Schweinhart, 2005).
As 40-year-olds, the Perry Preschoolers are more likely than their control group counterparts to have achieved the standard trappings of the middle class: steady employment, home and car ownership, good family relationships. They have higher incomes and are less likely to use drugs, require social services, or be involved in the criminal justice system. Conservative cost-benefit models show that for an initial investment of roughly $15,000 per child, the return to society was roughly $250,000, or $17 for every dollar invested. This return comprised savings in the areas of criminal justice system costs, education spending, and welfare costs. It also included increased tax revenue due to higher lifetime earnings of the cohort members.
High-Quality Preschool: Formula for Success
What, then, is the formula that yielded such positive results? How can it be implemented nationwide to help all disadvantaged students achieve positive life outcomes? The formula, according to the Perry study, is deceptively simple: design and deliver a high-quality, comprehensive preschool program to disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds.
Features of such a program must include teachers with a bachelor's degree and certification in early childhood education; small class sizes (5–6 children); a minimum of two and one-half hours of instruction daily; weekly home visits; health and nutrition screening for children, and training for parents; and use of an instructional model that incorporates self-initiated, small- and large-group activities according to accepted, researched models of child development. Because the High/Scope Perry Preschool project employed a well-documented research design, the “formula for success” can easily be quantified. However, the issue of how to implement similar programs to benefit new cohorts of disadvantaged children is more complicated.
The High/Scope Perry Preschool study was one of the first to address what is now known as the achievement gap, the disparity in academic performance between children born to low-income, highly challenged families with multiple risk factors for academic failure and children from more advantaged backgrounds. Risk factors include poverty and non-English-speaking parents or guardians, who are often unemployed or underemployed and whose academic attainment is generally low (many have not completed high school). Other risk factors may include children's disabilities or developmental delays. Studies have shown that the achievement gap widens between disadvantaged and advantaged children as they move through the grade levels. Research further indicates that attempts to address the problem after children enter kindergarten (through tutoring, ESL classes, afterschool programs, Saturday school, and summer school) are often too little too late (Davison, et al., 2004). There is no “catch-up” time built into the school calendar for children who do not enter the public school system ready to learn. Davison notes, “The length of the normal school day is the same for students who are behind as it is for those at the head of the class” (p. 760). Other researchers have determined that making up time by retaining students as early as kindergarten can have negative effects on later social development and academic achievement (Hong & Raudenbush, as cited in Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005).
The Best Prevention
Given the fact that the achievement gap is complex and difficult to close, the most obvious solution is prevention programming. This seemingly formidable task can be translated into a straightforward educational goal: school readiness for all young children. The term “readiness” encompasses a wide variety of individual and societal factors. For the child, it is socialization to peers and classroom norms, facility with language, exposure to print, and developmentally appropriate hands-on learning experiences. Quality preschool programming is also concerned with each child's physical and mental health, including screening and correction for vision, hearing, and other health-related issues. Readiness also involves the family, focusing on nutrition education, support for parent involvement, and information on how to advocate for the child's education. Teachers who are certified and trained to work with young children in early childhood settings are vitally important to readiness, as is the involvement of the local community, including funding for at-risk students, wrap-around child care services for working parents, volunteers, and support for school-based initiatives to support the family. With all factors in place, all children would arrive at kindergarten on day one ready to learn. A key policy issue preventing access to preschool and thus school readiness is the lack of universal availability of quality prekindergarten programs (American Federation of Teachers, 2002).
As cited in ASCD's 2006 legislative agenda (see box), early intervention is a critical bridge to closing the achievement gap—or preventing it from occurring. Perhaps the most cost-effective of the early intervention approaches is high-quality, universally available prekindergarten, focusing on the development of the whole child. Holistic child development programs address factors critical to learning that contribute to but are not measured strictly by academic achievement, including the health and emotional well-being of the child.
This issue of Infobrief examines the policies and programs that are needed to support best practices for closing the gap in early childhood, with the recognition that the solution is not “one size fits all.”
2006 ASCD Legislative Agenda: Increase Support and Resources for School Readiness and Early Development of the Whole Child
Early intervention is the most cost-effective approach to closing the achievement gap. ASCD supports high-quality prekindergarten education programs for all children, with the highest priority given to programs that serve students who are most at risk. While one focus of such programs is kindergarten readiness, ASCD advocates attention to and development of the whole child.
The current educational climate often emphasizes academic achievement and excludes a more holistic approach to educating the whole child. Early childhood programs must recognize the relationship between health and learning. ASCD encourages the creation of programs that provide developmentally appropriate learning opportunities and that emphasize emotional and physical well-being, motivation and engagement, and experience in the arts.
School readiness requires high-quality teachers and the involvement of family, community, and policymakers. ASCD opposes programs that do not include support for appropriate professional development of high-quality teachers.
ASCD calls upon the U.S. Congress to support high-quality prekindergarten education programs for all children and to increase funding for school readiness programs, including Head Start. In the law's reauthorization, ASCD calls for flexibility in alignment of federal programs with state and local school readiness programs. Further, funding priorities must be provided to Head Start programs that are aligned with school district curricula and accountable.
ASCD opposes the use of a single measure assessment to determine the effectiveness of local school readiness programs, including Head Start.
The Earlier the Better
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines “early childhood” as ages 0–8. Studies show that the achievement gap can begin as early as infancy, when the physical conditions and stresses of poverty can take their toll on the development of the child's brain and therefore the ability to learn (Ounce of Prevention Fund, 2005). Poor nutrition and stress due to unstable family and living conditions can have a negative impact on brain development beginning in early infancy and continuing into the preschool years and beyond. Educational policymakers and community stakeholders must take these conditions and experiences in a child's earliest years into account as they plan prevention initiatives to close the achievement gap.
The challenge to policymakers, then, is where and when to reach young children at risk. Although all states offer public education from 1st through 12th grade, not all offer universal kindergarten, much less prekindergarten programs. Indeed, many researchers criticize the nation's “nonsystem” of early learning, comprising either home- or center-based care of varying levels of quality and accountability (Education Commission of the States, 2006). According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2001), more than half of the country's preschoolers (ages 3–5) are enrolled in center-or school-based programs. The center-based programs include preschools, nursery schools, prekindergartens, day-care centers, and Head Start programs, most of which are not linked to the local public school system in any systematic manner. Therefore, children arrive at kindergarten or 1st grade with widely varying levels of preparation for school. Additional confounding factors include variation nationwide in the age for compulsory school attendance (from 5 to 8) and the provision of kindergarten—half-day, whole-day, or none at all (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2002).
Options for Closing the Gap
If, as research suggests, the answer to closing the achievement gap lies in promoting early childhood education, then the good news is that there are many options. However, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Education decision makers must address a variety of factors related to the demographics, funding, and policies in their own states and school districts. Some of the most promising interventions include
- Universal prekindergarten (and universal kindergarten for those states without it);
- Full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten;
- Head Start or comprehensive early care and education programs (including health, parent involvement, and other holistic components) on school sites;
- Model programs for young children with special needs; and
- Year-round schools.
High-quality universal preschool is widely available in other industrialized countries, such as Denmark, France, Norway, and Sweden. These countries spend up to five times the amount per child that is spent on programs for young children in the United States. The educational attainment of preschool teachers also is higher than in the United States, with most countries requiring either a four-year degree or specialized training and certification in early childhood education (American Federation of Teachers, 2002). In the United States, preschools vary widely in quality and affordability, with minimal options for low-income families.
Full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten also hold promise for those students most in need. The full-day structure, combined with appropriate before- or after-school programs, offers an enriching and safe environment for young students whose parents are working. Full-day programs provide schools the opportunity to address children's learning challenges and nutritional requirements, and, in the case of older children, the extended day can include tutoring and homework assistance.
Head Start—the 40-year-old federally funded, locally operated early childhood development program serving more than 900,000 low-income children across the nation—is in the final stages of a three-year revamping and reauthorization process (see box below). Head Start developers are increasingly working with local school districts to set up their programs on school grounds. These agreements have made it possible for low-income, significantly challenged families to more easily participate in their preschool-age children's program at their school-age children's school. Such collaborative efforts have proven especially beneficial because they combine health, nutrition, and parenting education services.
Head Start Reauthorization
In preparing to reauthorize Head Start, Congress is working to improve the program's effectiveness and operation. Issues such as curriculum alignment, financial irregularity, and controversy over the use of a new standardized test to measure children's skills and progress are being addressed in the House and Senate versions of the bill. Other improvements under consideration include the establishment of local governing boards to monitor programs, requirements for Head Start programs to align their activities with state academic standards, and a requirement for at least half the programs to employ teachers with bachelor's degrees within the next five years. Congress is expected to finish work on Head Start before it adjourns at the end of 2006.
Model programs for young children with special needs are innovative responses to local needs that may be adapted for use in other environments as well. Studies have shown that disadvantaged children with special needs show greater gains when they are included in socioeconomically diverse settings rather than homogenous groupings (Sylva, et al., 2004; Schechter, 2002). One such program for children with disabilities has been implemented at the district level in Washington State (see box).
Peer Mentors: Closing the Gap for Special Education Students in Washington State
“Teachers are passionate about it, and the community embraces it,” says Sean Whalen, director of special programs, in referring to Fife School District's Early Childhood Special Education Program. For more than 15 years, the program has employed a unique model of using peer mentors to help bridge the gap in education for children with disabilities. Using a portion of the state's allotted special education funding, the program targets children ages 3–5 and older, depending on the nature of each child's disability. Classroom composition is roughly one peer mentor for every three children with a disability, for a total of six children per class of 3-year-olds and ten per class of 4-year-olds. Each classroom is managed by a certified teacher and an adult aide. An additional advantage is that the program is housed together with kindergarten and 1st grade, providing continuity in programs, personnel, and learning environment. The program is provided at no cost to the families, using instead a combination of state, federal, and school district funds to underwrite program costs.
What makes the program special is the interaction between peer mentors and children with disabilities. The peer mentors are not simply passive participants; they are chosen specifically for their ability to help lead in critical areas such as language development. Children selected as peer mentors are high-functioning for their age group, with the intent that their ease and comfort level in the educational setting will help advance the skill levels of the other children.
Since the primary intent of the program is to close the gap for children with disabilities, some parents of typically developing students struggle with the idea of letting them serve as peer mentors in a program not targeted specifically to their own needs. Others, however, embrace the concept as a valuable experience because they have access to an excellent prekindergarten program, despite not being the target audience.
With continued support from the community, parents, teachers, and the students themselves, the Fife School District program will likely continue as long as funding and need dictate. Approximately 30 children are participating in the program this year. With the continued support of the peer mentors, the Fife School District program is one that truly makes the special education program “special.”
Source: S. Whalen (personal interview, February 14, 2006).
Year-round schools hold promise for children in districts where families may not have care arrangements or cannot afford costly enrichment programs during the summer break. In these schools, the short breaks between quarters are often used for district-sponsored enrichment or catch-up activities for students, depending on the students' performance in the prior quarter. This arrangement seems to be more beneficial to children than summer school, because learning problems can be addressed in a more timely fashion. Year-round schools also help students from non-English-speaking homes, so that their language reinforcement, critical to second-language learners, is not interrupted (Ballinger, 1995). For students who live in poverty, attending a year-round school eliminates a long summer break with poor nutrition, lack of enrichment activities, and exposure to crime.
Challenges to the Field
The No Child Left behind Act (NCLB) presents considerable challenges to school districts where disadvantaged children have little or no access to quality preschool education. NCLB emphasizes academic skills, particularly literacy and mathematics, yet many disadvantaged children enter kindergarten without having participated in early learning experiences designed to help them succeed in school. In essence they have been set up to fail, and along with them the teachers and schools held accountable under NCLB. With its standardized testing and strict adherence to standards of learning for each grade level, NCLB fails to recognize that “fully preparing children for school involves addressing a broad range of social and emotional needs” (American Educational Research Association, 2005, p. 2).
In 2003, Head Start programs began testing 4- and 5-year-olds to assess their progress in early math and literacy skills. The test data form the basis of the National Reporting System (NRS), which holds promise in terms of monitoring children's early learning and targeting training and technical assistance to Head Start classrooms most in need, even though the program is still in its infancy.
Prepared for School, Prepared for Life
Despite the challenges the achievement gap presents, there is good news from a number of scientifically based, longitudinal studies of quality early childhood interventions. The High/Scope Perry Preschool study, profiled earlier, demonstrates that a quality preschool experience can result in permanent, positive change in the lives of the disadvantaged children who participate, effectively closing the gap for this population. Other well-known longitudinal studies also point to the long-term positive effects of quality early childhood interventions:
- The Carolina Abecedarian Project is a randomized control study of the effect of high-quality, full-time child care on low-income children. The program included developmentally appropriate games and educational activities, and focused on all aspects of child development—social, emotional, and cognitive, with a special emphasis on language. The treatment group received the program from infancy to age 5, and follow-up studies on the children's academic and social attainment were conducted at ages 12, 15, and 21. The Abecedarian Project demonstrates long-term benefits of early intervention: relative to the control group, the treatment group was less likely to ever repeat a grade or to need special educational services, and more likely to graduate from high school by age 19 and attend college (American Educational Research Association, 2005; Campbell, et al., as cited in Barnett, 2006).
- The Chicago Child-Parent Centers (CPC) study, currently in its 16th year, shows similar advantages to early intervention. The project's original sample consisted of 1,150 children and families who received services through the school-based CPCs in kindergarten, and a control group of 389 children who participated in all-day kindergarten programs in schools serving primarily low-income children. The CPC program provides services from preschool to 3rd grade and includes a strong family involvement component. Through age 21, the treatment group was more likely to have graduated from high school on time, and less likely to have been involved in special education or juvenile crime (Reynolds, et al., 2002).
In addition to the positive impact on academic achievement and overall life skills, cost-benefit studies of these three programs offer community leaders and policymakers something to consider. The economic analyses compare the initial investment per child against cost savings derived from reduced use of special education services, social services, and welfare. The analyses also include benefits derived from taxes on higher wages and fewer periods of unemployment. The benefit-to-cost ratios—$17.07 for High/Scope Perry Preschool, $3.78 for Abecedarian, and $7.14 for CPC (Barnett, 2006)1
—clearly illustrate the value of investing in quality early childhood interventions. Such programs not only help close the achievement gap but also offer a significant payback to society by preventing costly interventions later in life. The dollars saved through early intervention give policymakers some leverage in promoting these programs.
Model Programs as Investments
Investment in quality early childhood education programs for disadvantaged students, once almost entirely the domain of the federal and state governments, has now become a popular undertaking with the private sector as well. Using public and private funds, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington State has launched a 10-year initiative to improve early childhood education opportunities for all children in need (see box). The PNC Financial Services Group also has launched a 10-year, $100-millon initiative to improve school readiness for children, ages birth to 5, in the six-state service area of Delaware, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania (Karoly, et al., 2005). In Minnesota, proposals are on the table to create an endowment to fully fund high-quality early childhood education for all Minnesota children living in poverty. Initially proposed at $1.5 billion dollars, it is being advocated as a prudent economic investment for the state by economists from the Federal Reserve Board of Minneapolis (Rolnick & Grunewald, 2003).
The Private Sector Gets Involved
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides grants in Washington State for programs designed to give all young people in the state an opportunity to succeed in school and in life. In 2005, the foundation introduced its new early-learning strategy, designed to direct public and private resources toward making measurable improvements in school readiness for all children.
The Gates Foundation developed its strategy using Washington State data, prior experience with foundation-funded grants, the growing body of research on the effect of quality early childhood interventions on school readiness and success in school and beyond, and initiatives underway in other states. The program, to be implemented over the next 10 years, will involve public-private partnerships, grants, demonstration communities, and promising practices to enhance the existing infrastructure for children with multiple risk factors for school failure. The program targets preschool children where they spend most of their time—at home or in a child-care facility. The program seeks to “transform child care from the current average or low-quality custodial care to effective centers that will help parents prepare children socially, emotionally, and cognitively by age 5 to succeed in school and life” (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2005, p. 5).
The research cited in this Infobrief is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is available to support early childhood education as an effective tool for closing the achievement gap for children who are disadvantaged, live in poverty, or have disabilities. Decision makers who are considering district-specific plans for improving school readiness through early childhood programs would do well to heed the following guidelines:
- Use current data that describe the achievement gaps in the district;
- Choose model programs that are well researched and applicable to the demographics in the district;
- Develop a curriculum or choose an existing quality curriculum that addresses needs of the whole child;
- Hire certified, trained, early childhood education teachers;
- Choose model programs that include parent involvement, community involvement, and transition planning to ensure K–12 continuity;
- Form linkages to existing prekindergarten programs, Head Start, community programs for families, and programs for children with special needs; and
- Consider holistic approaches such as all-day prekindergarten or kindergarten, or half-day programs with links to wrap-around child care.
Subsequent issues of Infobrief will look closely at best practices for closing the achievement gap by identifying and addressing the needs of families and communities, as well as needs inside schools. The series will continue to examine the research available to support decision makers in developing policy to strengthen the crucial interplay between teachers, families, communities, and schools in fostering success in learning for all students.
American Educational Research Association. (2005, Fall). Early childhood education: Investing in quality makes sense. Research Points: Essential Information for Education Policy, 3(2), 1–4. Retrieved March 6, 2006, from www.aera.net/uploadedFiles/Journals_and_Publications/Research_Points/RPFall05.pdf
American Federation of Teachers. (2002). Early childhood education: Building a strong foundation for the future. (Policy Brief No. 15). Retrieved January 20, 2006, from
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (2005, November). The effect of retaining kindergarten students on reading and mathematics achievement.
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Reynolds, A. J., et. al. (2002). Age 21 cost-benefit analysis of the Title I Chicago Child-Parent Centers. (Discussion Paper No. 1245-02). Madison, WI: Institute for Research on Poverty. Retrieved March 6, 2006, from
Rolnick, A., & Grunewald, R. (2003, March). Early childhood development: Economic development with a high public return. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis fedgazette. Retrieved January 26, 2006, from
Schechter, C. (2002). Language growth in low-income children in economically integrated versus segregated preschool programs. West Hartfort, CT: Saint Joseph College, the School for Young Children. Retrieved January 24, 2006, from http://ww2.sjc.edu/syc/PDF%20files/AERASchoolReadiness.pdf
Schweinhart, L. (2005). The High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age 40: Summary, conclusions, and frequently asked questions. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Educational Research Foundation. Retrieved January 26, 2006, from
Sylva, K., et al. (2004). The final report: Effective pre-school education. (Technical Paper 12). London: Institute of Education, University of London.
The benefits have accrued to age 40 for the High/Scope Perry Preschool study, and to age 21 in the other two studies, accounting for some of the variability in return on investment.
Anne Nelson is an Education Studies writer for ICF Caliber.