Playing Catch-Up

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2012

An important new report from ACT’s National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA) turns the lights up on a point that cannot be made often or strongly enough: when it comes to academic readiness, it’s easier to keep up than to catch up.  Over at Education Week, Sara Mead summarizes the findings, which she correctly describes as “sobering.”

“Among students who were ‘far off track’ in reading in 8th grade, only 10 percent achieved college and career ready standards 4 years later. In math and science, the percentage was even lower. And over 40 percent of African American students taking ACT’s EXPLORE exam in 8th grade scored ‘far off track’ in reading–as did 50% in math and 74% in Science. Put that together and you can’t like those odds.”

Policymakers take note of this from the report itself:

“Efforts to improve students’ academic preparation have often been directed at the high-school level, although for many students, gaps in academic preparation begin much earlier. Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge. These gaps are likely to widen over time because of the ‘Matthew effects,’ whereby those who start out behind are at a relative disadvantage in acquiring new knowledge.”

Bingo.  Old hat to followers of this blog, perhaps, but if “better schools” or even “better teachers” is your go-to response, here’s some cold water for you: “’Far off track’ 8th graders who attended schools in the top 10 percent of performance were roughly 3 times as likely to get back on track by 12th grade as the total sample,” Mead observes. ”But even looking at the top 10 percent of schools, the percentage of ‘far off track’ students getting back on track never exceeded 30%.”

Sobering, indeed.

The report’s takeaway emphasizes the need for “a realistic view of the difficulty of closing these gaps,” hence the need to start earlier.

“Underestimating the time and effort required could lead educators and policymakers to underfund prevention efforts and choose intervention strategies that are too little and too late. Underestimating the difficulty could also lead policymakers to hold schools to unrealistic accountability targets, creating strong incentives at various levels in the system to lower standards and artificially inflate test scores.”

In Mead’s view, this means “high-quality pre-k and early childhood education, particularly for African American, Hispanic, low-income, and other children from groups with higher percentages of students falling behind in school.”  I agree.  But critically, it must also mean a clear and focused understanding of what we mean when we say “high quality pre-k.”  Gaps in language proficiency are fundamentally gaps in knowledge and vocabulary–and the deficits are readily apparent on Day One.  To my mind, “high quality preschool” means aggressive interventions aimed at building language skill and knowledge acquisition before the dreaded Matthew Effect becomes a runaway train.


  1. As a seventh grade teacher, I spend so much time in meetings about the kids who are already hopelessly behind. We have this complicated system of interventions called RTI. Our superintendent touts it as one of the glories of our district. But it all seems like make-believe to me. The interventions don’t work. Yet even if I could convince my colleagues that they don’t (I probably could), I doubt anyone would allow themselves to contemplate giving them up. It would look like giving up on the kids. So the make-believe interventions would go on.

    Comment by Ponderosa — December 5, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

  2. It comes down to culture. If the student, family or community doesn’t value education highly enough to provide the necessary effort, the results will be less than stellar. This is especially true for kids needing to play catch-up, because they need to work especially hard. Kids coming out of ES “hopelessly behind” grade level (likely a majority at many schools) are likely to keep sliding backwards. The problem has to be addressed in k-5, where I see too many schools/districts making no serious efforts to instill the fundamentals of anything. Spiral math curricula like Everyday Math and ELA programs like Readers’ Workshop and Writers’ Workshop are seriously flawed and geography, government, history and science seem to be ignored, along with grammar, spelling and composition.

    BTW, my oldest grandkids’ school switched to Singapore Math a couple of years ago – due to parent pressure (one-HS town). My first-grade grandtwins are expected to have all of their addition/subtraction facts mastered – timed tests – by the end of the year and will also have timed tests on 2-digit addition and subtraction. Admittedly, they are in a true Lake Woebegon town, where pretty much all of the kids are above average (avg IQ in their ES is probably at least 120), but Everyday Math and Readers’/Writers’ Workshop don’t require mastering anything.

    Comment by momof4 — December 6, 2012 @ 5:59 pm

  3. Sara Mead’s findings corroborate my long held beliefs. Spend the money as early as possible to give kids their best chance academically.

    All the hype in the last few years about investing in junior/community college is all well and good but is it really the best use of public education dollars?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 6, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

  4. It is very easy to blame parents, but for many of these kids, their parents are also out of the power structure and work in jobs, if they have them, that rarely encourage an employee to question authority. Frankly, their are well-educated and well-paid adults that are often imposing their own agenda on the class room that does not result in these kids getting early remedial support. We need parents to care, but many a teacher and administrator knowingly and sometimes unknowingly have talked over and pushed parents out. This conflice is far more common than most appreciate in poor communities.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 7, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

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  6. Early childhood education has for many years been the passion of Art Rolnick, who was the longtime research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Economists try to quantify everything, and Rolnick has produced studies concluding that early childhood education in the long run benefits society economically (see the link for an article describing Rolnick’s work).

    This conclusion seems intuitively true: maximizing the brainpower of our citizens should make us collectively more prosperous. Exposure to the liberal arts can enrich kids’ lives as well, beyond tangible economic benefits.

    But the best educational practices to use with young children have always been a mystery to me. Like all adults, personal memories of my own age birth to, say, eight years old stage are very faded. I can’t remember what and how I learned back then, compared to knowing when and how I learned all manner of things as a high school and college student, and for 30+ years as a full-fledged adult.

    So I base my layman’s opinions on what experienced teachers say, along with deferring to the expertise of cognitive scientists who do research in this area (e.g. the article “Fine Motor Skills and Early Comprehension of the World: Two New School Readiness Indicators”).

    We hear so much about the achievements of Finland, but formal schooling there doesn’t begin until age 7. Do we have so many more educational challenges for very young Americans because a much higher percentage of our kids are being raised by parents who do their kids more harm than good? Or to say it another way, does this mean that, as a society, we have to make up for the shortcomings of millions of inadequate to truly awful parents?

    Comment by John Webster — December 9, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

  7. @Webster, the truly awful parent question to me has a bit of chicken and egg quality. Do these parents become awful because they exist in a social milieu of inadequate housing, nutrition and high on social stress and violence or do they cause these qualities and then transmit them to their children? Maybe some of both? One only has to look at periods of severe labor dislocation to find social context that is truly horrific for children- think industrialization and Great Britain or even New York and Chicago. I think it is hard for most of us that exist in middle and upper class America to appreciate how bad it is in the de-industralized rust belt, rural America and urban core. Some of us might figure out ways out, but most of us would not know how to get out the crisis. Personally I think both liberals and conservatives fail to really think deeply about this crisis and find it easier to blame each others policies and in the meantime schools and other social providers hope to save a few kids and not make things worse. The question we need to ask about Finland is not are kids in schools but the socio-economic context of these kids lives. From all accounts I have read, the children of Finland, have a wide number of interventions that help these kids do well, independent of their parent’s SES. Finland in other-words, redistributes income, something anathema in this country even with the recent election.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 9, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

  8. @DC Parent wrote it is “hard for most of us that exist in middle and upper class America to appreciate how bad it is in the de-industralized rust belt, rural America and urban core.” Apropos of that, I highly recommend this piece from today’s Washington Post. An extraordinary look at precisely that through the lens of a single teenager. An extraordinary piece of journalism about a life which many of us remain unaware.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 9, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

  9. I’m all too personally aware of how bad it is in the de-industrialized rust belt, and the Washington Post article rings true to me. I grew up in a small (35,000) very blue-collar factory town in Wisconsin. Until the early 1990′s, most young people there who didn’t go to college could find a local job that paid enough, along with good benefits, to support a single-earner family.

    Probably 80% of those jobs no longer exist (auto factory, capital goods manufacturers, etc.). Unemployment exceeded 10% even before the current recession took hold in 2008. Every time I visit my sister there, I ask the locals what young people do for work. The answer: they have $8-$10 per hour jobs, they live with parents, the single mothers live on welfare, a few enlist in the military, and anyone with ambition leaves for greener pastures.

    The massive decline in middle-class jobs is the most serious economic problem in America, which contributes to all types of social pathologies. At the same time, the widespread acceptance of single motherhood across the whole culture has been a disaster for children, whose single-parent families are typically in far more precarious financial situations, and who often grow up with inadequate parental supervision.

    The current Atlantic Monthly has articles predicting the re-industrialization of America. I fervently hope so; my hometown, and all of America, needs jobs and the dignity and financial security provided by solid employment. I support many “liberal” social programs, but the best social program is gainful employment.

    Comment by John Webster — December 9, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

  10. @John Webster- I have read both the Wash Post piece and the the Atlantic piece and what strikes me is that we can’t get there from here. The “re-industrialization” of America is going to be fewer but certainly more complex industrial jobs, not many that will available to the workforce that exists in rural and small town America portrayed in the Wash Post article. I don’t think it is about moral fortitude as it is about the loss of cultural and social capital. Ever since Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, I have thought a lot about this question of cultural capital and how fundamental it is to kids succeeding. Yet I am loathe to believe it is because the poor are doomed because they make bad decisions. I think it was this interplay that made Tough’s book how children succeed so attractive to liberals like myself. In my mind it really does matter how and what we are teaching kids from a moral and academic point of view, but I wonder if liberals like myself have the fortitude to insist on both value judgements and frankly paying out in taxes what it will take to make a difference.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 9, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

  11. The most sobering aspect of the WaPo piece was realizing Tabi had a clue about her life yet the vast majority of kids in her situation (and far worse) have no clue. None. It seems like it’s only a question of time before we fall.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 9, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

  12. @DC Parent – I’m quite secular, and my dismay about the high rate of single parenthood isn’t based on traditional religious values. I’m persuaded that one-parent families are usually at a severe disadvantage by personal observations, social science research, and most of all by my wife’s experiences.

    She worked for several years as a social worker/counselor in a welfare-to-work program for single mothers. The program set up educational and work plans to make these women employable for the long-term, and provided them with all types of social services.

    All of those women loved their kids, but all of them deeply regretted becoming mothers before their own lives were stable. They learned from hard experience that the cute babies that gave them something to love also greatly complicated their lives (that’s true for even the most stable of married parents). Child care, having to live a low-income lifestyle, and as mothers not being appealing to most men their ages for long-term relationships – all were huge obstacles.

    The only women remotely content with their situations were those few who didn’t really mind being on public assistance for the long term. For almost all women, single motherhood is NOT the liberated lifestyle of a Hollywood starlet or an expression of independence, despite what much popular culture and extreme left-wing feminists want us to believe.

    Charles Murray addresses this issue in his book “Coming Apart.” He notes that a demographic that collectively leans very liberal – college educated white women – give birth to almost all of their babies (at least 92%) within marriage. They don’t want to be classified as “judgmental” for criticizing single motherhood – they just know that it’s too hard for women like themselves and usually not good for the kids. Murray’s observation led him to advise upscale white folks – the large majority of whom marry, stay married, and have their kids within marriage – to “preach what they practice.”

    Good liberals can support programs that help people in need, while also strongly encouraging everyone not to make destructive decisions in their personal lives. These approaches are not incompatible. Think about it: how many well-educated liberals regard it as a matter of indifference if their own daughters have babies outside of stable relationships and before the mothers are emotionally mature?

    Comment by John Webster — December 10, 2012 @ 1:26 am

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