• Allan J. Mucerino

WHEN THE GAP IS SMALLEST

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

Part I of a series on early childhood education.

It stands to reason that the most economically prudent way to narrow the achievement gap is to invest in closing it when it's at its narrowest point. It also stands to reason that the younger children are, the more narrow the gap. That's true. Though perhaps surprising to some, the rate of growth in achievement once students start their formal schooling is similar for socioeconomically advantaged students and their lesser-advantaged peers. The gap does widen slightly between the groups over the summer, however. While all children are not created equal, all children do possess the capacity to grow cognitively at relatively equal rates. But that growth has proven to be dependent upon individual and family characteristics and educational experiences. The weight of evidence is conclusive: Interventions to close performance gaps must start early in children’s lives because skill and performance gaps take root before children enter kindergarten and do not go away (García, E. & Weiss, E., 2017. Key Findings from the Report “Education Inequalities at the School Starting Gate." Economic Policy Institute).


The above-referenced Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report is among a growing body of evidence that supports the contention that the achievement gap between the Haves and Have Nots will continue to persist until high-quality childcare and preschool become universal and the playing field related to kindergarten readiness is leveled. For school districts investing in preschool, the benefits include reductions in special education placements, grade retentions, and teenage parenting, and an increase in college attendance (learn about the famous Abecedarian Project here).

The research that EPI and countless other researchers, including Linda Darling-Hammond's Learning Policy Institute, have conducted has fueled a national dialogue on universal preschool. There is reason to be optimistic in California, considering Governor Newsom appointed Dr. Darling-Hammond as the President of the California State Board of Education soon after taking office. It demonstrated an acknowledgement that education policy and practice must be supported by evidence. In the case of the achievement gap, that evidence paints an eloquent and disheartening picture of how our education system reflects and compounds growing societal economic inequality. It starts with the failure to address the gap before it's too late.


How has it all come about? For starters, the Iceberg Effect has masked the achievement gap in America. What goes on beneath the waterline stays beneath the waterline. However, only by studying the problem in the context of the entire system can conclusions be drawn and appropriate action be taken. Systemic structures account for an estimated 80-90% of what occurs at the tip of the iceberg. In the case of the achievement gap, what lies beneath the surface is social class. To that end, in the report For Each and Every Child (2013), the Equity and Excellence Commission called on the Department of Education to enact a more comprehensive approach to education to mitigate the massive impacts of poverty on schools. To dive deeper into this discussion, read Closing the Opportunity Gap, a collection of scholarly essays that explore a broad range of opportunity disparities, as well as ways to mitigate them.

Equally compelling, the achievement gap has long been identified as emerging as early as 3- and 4-years old, when the differences between students who are socioeconomically advantaged and their lesser-advantaged peers widen by more than a full standard deviation in reading and math. The gap related to social and emotional skills is smaller, but also significant. The research has shown that early learning gaps do not go away. Social class is a powerful factor related to children's abilities when they enter kindergarten. Kindergarten readiness makes for a persuasive argument for how unchecked inequality plays out in the lives of Americans. The deficit that many students encounter when they begin their educational journey feeds the deficit-based model that continues to hold students back. At California State University, Fullerton, where I teach the next generation of education leaders to reject deficit-based models, Just, Equitable, and Inclusive Education (JEIE) drives our work.

The systemic barrier exists well beneath the surface.

Given that introduction to the problem, I've tasked my doctoral students to look through the lens of an education economist to examine the cradle to grave movement using the Iceberg Model as a framework to study the patterns, structures, and mental models driving the system that is responsible for the condition known as the achievement gap. This exercise comes at a time when the movement is gaining momentum, locally and nationally. During a Southern California tour focusing on affordability for California families this past August, Governor Gavin Newsom made his expectations clear: “We need to be innovative, creative and visionary by imagining the early learning and care system we want for families and children, especially when one in five children live in poverty in our state." His historic $2 billion down payment on his promise to invest in the youngest of Californians and their parents set the movement in motion.


On a national level, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently introduced a plan to provide all Americans with affordable child care, proposing a new tax on multimillionaires to support her vision for government-subsidized and government-regulated early childhood education/child care. Universal preschool is coming to a school district near you, soon. But it's not a new idea. The promise of high-quality early learning has been around since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared The War on Poverty in 1964. A year later, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted. Head Start programs have served more than 36 million children since 1965.


As amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, all school districts receiving Title I funds are required to develop agreements with Head Start and other early childhood providers to level the kindergarten playing field. The spirit of the law revolved around equal opportunity for all students. It may have been inspired by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown vBoard of Education of Topeka. ESEA came a year before the Report on Equality of Educational Opportunity, widely known as the Coleman Report. Johns Hopkins sociologist James S. Coleman led the research team commissioned by the U.S. Office of Education in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It came during a turbulent time in America. Similar to today, equality was prominent in the public's consciousness. Find my two essays on Coleman's work here and here.


Sadly, the achievement gap persists. Legislating equity has not proven to work. The courts have not found any success either. If you're wondering why a persistent gap that is so well researched, so well known, and so well understood still exists, you're not alone. It's perplexing on the surface. Upon deeper investigation, however, it's evident that broader structural forces that drive poverty are responsible for the gap and its persistence. Where children are beating the odds, whole-child approaches are employed to mitigate economic policy and structural barriers. The school-community partnership is among the most successful models. Generally, the approach revolves around a school, which serves as a hub for a community-based program that unites with multiple partners, public and private, agencies and foundations, all driven to mitigate the early education gap at its narrowest point. Programs gain traction when political allies join forces to support the effort.

In the interest of this series of essays designed to provide my students with the equivalent of a literature review, I am defining Early Childhood Education (ECE) as it is defined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC): Early learning for children birth through age 8. While late bloomers exist and some children do catch up, they are rare. Reading researchers estimate there is a 90% likelihood that a child reading below grade level in the first grade will remain mired in that developmental lag throughout their formal schooling.

Comprehensive, well-designed early interventions at the school and community level make a difference. There's plenty of evidence to support that claim. While at the macroeconomic level there remains little support, education is about local control. In California and across the country, states have replaced notoriously inadequate school funding formulas with models built on a foundation of equity. Now it's up to school districts to come to terms with their reality and work closely with their stakeholders to address it. Dismantling the structure that lies deep beneath the surface requires groundbreaking work.


Our less-advantaged children can't wait for major policy changes at the state or national level. Communities need to take matters into their own hands #childrenmatter.


Read Part 2 - No Snowflake in an Avalanche Ever Feels Responsible - here.

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