Laura McSorley was aware of the achievement gap when she began teaching several years ago as a new recruit for Teach For America, a national nonprofit that deploys recent college graduates and professionals to teach in high-poverty schools.
But McSorley says she was surprised to find evidence of the gap among the very young students in her public preschool classroom in Washington, D.C.
"I was really surprised that a 2- or 3-year-old could be behind a higher-income peer," says McSorley, who now heads Teach for America's early-childhood education initiative (ECE), which expands the program's outreach into programs for the youngest students.
According to McSorley, some students would be "really excited" to learn, but not quite as ready to do so as their peers. That would change over the course of the school year as these children would catch up, providing evidence that "we have an impact as teachers on 3- and 4-year-olds to close that gap," McSorley said.
Since Teach For America's early childhood education initiative began in 2006, more than 1,000 corps members have taught in public schools and charter schools, and Head Start and community-based programs. Currently, more than 280 corps members are teaching prekindergarten in 23 regions nationwide.
The initiative was highlighted earlier this week when Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the federal Office of Head Start, volunteered as a guest teacher in one of the initiative's classrooms at a Washington, D.C., public elementary school. Part of Teach For America week in D.C., the annual event draws local business and political leaders into schools as guest teachers.
Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, got things started last week by guest-teaching in another D.C. elementary school classroom taking part in the initiative, according to McSorley.
"She really got a chance to interact. The students knew she was a special guest," McSorley said.
According to the Teach For America website, a 2008 study conducted by Westat Inc. found that 124 pre-K kids taught by ECE volunteers during the 2007-2008 school year "made significant growth in vocabulary, letter recognition and early math skills."