What are the odds that an eighth grader in a high-poverty school who is far behind academically will catch up? You know the odds are low, but single-digit low? According to research from ACT, catching up in high school is rare—if by “catching up” we mean getting poorly prepared eighth graders ready for college by twelfth grade. An eighth grader in a high-poverty school who is far from meeting ACT’s college readiness benchmarks has just a 6% chance of catching up in reading—in science and mathematics, that student has a mere 3% chance. What about catching up before high school? Not likely. A fourth grader in a high-poverty school who is far behind has just a 7% chance of catching up in reading by eighth grade and an 8% chance in mathematics.
For some readers, the obvious conclusion is that the schools need to get better at closing the gap. But the ACT’s report also has findings for all schools, the top 10% of all schools, the top 10% of low-poverty schools, and the top 10% of high-poverty schools. All of the results on catching up are depressing.
Once gaps exist, we certainly have to do everything we can to close them. At the same time, we must start earlier to prevent these enormous gaps from opening up. The path to college begins in preschool.
And, by the way, after preschool, children should go to kindergarten. Why do I state the obvious? While many of us have been chattering about Obama’s universal preschool plan, ECS has just reminded us that some kids do not have access to kindergarten. Across states, access to high-quality kindergarten is so unequal that it “perpetuates, if not exacerbates, the achievement gap.” While 15 states require children to attend kindergarten, five states do not even require school districts to offer kindergarten. (Those five are Alaska, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Four of them have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which begin in kindergarten. Are you scratching your head yet?)
Ultimately, the ECS report reminds us that we have a long, long way to go in developing a strong system of early childhood education in this country.
Silver lining time: The one benefit of having waited so long to get serious about early learning is that we have an enormous body of research to draw from. We have so much research that sorting through it is a challenge. For that, I’m turning to an unsung hero of the school improvement world: Chrys Dougherty. He is a senior research scientist with ACT and a former teacher. He knows the education and cognitive science research—and he gets kids and classrooms.
ACT recently published Dougherty’s College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning. Everyone involved in early childhood and early grades education should read it. For that matter, everyone interested in school improvement and closing the achievement gap should read it.
I’m assuming that you are going to read it—it’s only 8 pages! So, instead of offering a CliffsNotes version, I’m providing my favorite parts (you’ll have to go to the report for the endnotes):
Students who do not have a good start usually do not thrive later on. That is due not only to the fact that students in stressful environments with limited learning opportunities often remain in those environments, but also because early learning itself facilitates later learning—students who already know more about a topic often have an easier time learning additional information on the same topic, and early exposure to knowledge can stimulate students to want to learn more….
Educators have long emphasized the importance of learning to read well in the early grades, a belief supported by longitudinal research. Reading consists of two abilities: the ability to identify the words on the page (decoding), and the ability to understand the words once they are identified (comprehension)…. Ensuring that students learn to decode well depends, among other things, on using activities and methods in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade that develop children’s phonological (sound) awareness and their knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds. Meanwhile, children’s comprehension can be developed in the early grades by reading aloud to them from books that develop their knowledge and vocabulary….
One study found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge of the world was a better predictor of those students’ eighth-grade reading ability than were early reading skills. This is consistent with research showing that reading comprehension, particularly in the upper grades, depends heavily on students’ vocabulary and background knowledge….
Accountability systems have been designed to create a sense of urgency about improving test scores. However, this has often had the undesirable effect of shortening educators’ time horizons so that they emphasize changes aimed at improving accountability ratings over the short run. These changes can include narrowing the curriculum to deemphasize subjects not tested in the current grade, and spending inordinate amounts of time coaching students on how to answer sample test questions.
By contrast, many steps to improve academic learning and behaviors take time to bear fruit and may not immediately result in higher test scores. For example, implementing an excellent kindergarten and first-grade reading, mathematics, science, social studies, or fine arts program will not immediately affect test results in the older grades. Neither will field trips to science and art museums, nature areas, and historical sites—all of which develop knowledge of the world. Accountability incentives should be modified to recognize efforts that increase student learning over the longer run and promote learning in grades and subject areas not covered on state tests.
If we actually followed Dougherty’s advice, our students would have a great chance of getting ready for college.