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Winter 2008 Vol. 16. No. 2 Focus on Changing the Odds

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'What's behind being behind:' The birth-to-five gap

By by Meghan McHugh on Nov 26, 2008 01:00 AM

The racial and socioeconomic achievement gap often first surfaces as children begin to take standardized tests, usually around third grade.

But in reality the gap opens long before that – at or before birth, experts say, arguing that kindergarten is way too late to start.

President-elect Barack Obama agrees, promising to focus much of his education agenda on investing in the nation’s youngest children.

“Early disadvantage, if left untreated, leads to academic and social difficulties in later years,” wrote James Heckman, Nobel laureate in economics and Obama advisor, who has constructed a powerful productivity argument for investment in early childhood education. “Advantages accumulate; so do disadvantages.”

The ‘experience gap’

In 1995, one famous study showed that by age three, the children of professional parents have been exposed to 30 million more words than their peers born to parents on welfare. This striking difference is the powerful precursor to an achievement gap measured years later on tests like the PSSA.

“I guess in broadest terms you might call it an experience gap,” said William Teale, an expert in early literacy and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Vocabulary is like a proxy for experiences [and] opportunities that children have or don’t have. In that sense, it’s very much economically related.”

Linda Katz, executive director of Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, founded her organization 20 years ago with the goal of enriching the vocabulary and improving early literacy instruction for young children at risk of being affected by the gap.

Lack of vocabulary is not innate, she noted. “When exposed, these kids jump right up to national averages.” At Philadelphia Head Start centers using CLI’s word-rich curriculum, low-income and minority children have made large gains, she said.

There are other examples of successful interventions. John Fantuzzo of the University of Pennsylvania, explaining his research on “what’s behind being behind,” concluded that poor children are more likely to be born with greater “risk factors” and fewer “ protective factors” affecting their educational success. Working with preschool teachers, Fantuzzo has developed a curriculum that integrates literacy skills with explicitly taught social and emotional learning behaviors. Results from a massive multi-year study of these classrooms have been encouraging, he said.

A comprehensive approach

But many of these successful interventions have not been replicated on a larger scale. Meanwhile, many children remain in “unregulated care,” either at home or with a relative untrained in best practices for promoting cognitive growth.

Working with parents and families is “a critical piece of the equation,” said Sharon Easterling, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC). “Sometimes the child is just receiving custodial care and is not being attended to in a way that promotes that child’s growth and development.”

“More than half of the children entering kindergarten with preschool experiences were getting those experiences in center-based care via community child care centers,” commented Donna Piekarski, head of the District ’s Office of Early Childhood.

Reaching out to community-based and informal child care providers will be a necessary part of any early childhood strategy, experts agree.

School-based pre-k “is not an early childhood education system, ” said Harriet Dichter, whose office bridges the PA departments of education and public welfare. Dichter said that in Philadelphia, the School District is emerging as the lead entity in coordinating the comprehensive approach to birth-to-five services adopted by the state.

Fantuzzo warned, however, that neither the District nor the state may be fully able to coordinate the quantity of information and variety of services necessary to address young children’s multifaceted needs.

“We can’t just go to a school district and say, ‘Okay, you’re accountable for closing the gap,’ as if the school district controlled all the variables,” Fantuzzo noted, “That’s where districts need to be opening themselves up for… collaboration” with human services agencies.

A national priority

There is no doubt that great strides have been made in recent years. Statewide initiatives such as Keystone STARS and Pre-K Counts have imposed new standards of quality and accountability on child care settings and moved Pennsylvania from the back of the pack among states to near the front in terms of preschool quality and access. Gov. Rendell’s education budget this year includes unprecedented sums to continue these initiatives.

Mayor Nutter has created an Early Childhood Advisory Committee, led by his chief education advisor, Lori Shorr. Piekarski said the committee is developing ambitious goals to increase community support and financial resources to expand access and improve quality in early care sites throughout the city.

Although there has been progress, however, Dichter warns against becoming complacent. After six years of sustained state and local effort, she said, early care programs have increased from covering 18 percent to 35 percent of eligible children in Pennsylvania. That is “progress, but not adequate. People need to understand that we still have a signifi cant way to go,” she said.

Soon, the state may finally have the federal government on its side.

President-elect Obama has promised to invest heavily in early childhood and to replicate successful programs such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides comprehensive services for 7,400 low-income children – starting before birth – and 4,100 adults in a 97-block area in New York City.

While it is unclear whether this exact model could work in Philadelphia, there is no doubt that the underlying philosophy is on track with what experts recommend. “It’s about understanding that we have to be comprehensive,” said Dichter.

With local, state and federal government support and the participation of school districts and outside partners, Easterling said, “I think we can do it.”

About the Author

Meghan McHugh, a member of the Notebook editorial board, is on the staff of the Children's Literacy Initiative.

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