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Early Childhood: Closing the Gap Before it Opens

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We are closing the achievement gap before it ever begins.

You heard me. The gap won't have a chance.

It was late summer and I was at a coffee shop desperately pumping up my hesitant first-year teacher for her kindergarten interview. She had taught secondary math all summer and now she had a chance in early childhood. Understandably, she was scared. As someone with only secondary experience, I was mildly terrified too. But if it's where she was needed to be, then let's do it. She just needed a little urging.

Pounding the table with my fist, I explained: Preschool is where 3- and 4-year olds are getting the opportunity to learn their letters and be set up for reading on time. All across the district in Teach For America-taught Kindergarten classes, kids are learning to read at a first or second grade level by the time they enter first grade. Early childhood education (ECE) is where you're putting them, not on the right track, but the better than best track. These children may come from low-income families, but you're giving them an even greater head start in life. We are going to kill the achievement gap before it even starts.

By the time I finished my passionate speech, I was ready to take on a class of 5-year-olds myself. Thankfully, so was my teacher, who went off the next day to interview and scored the job. By the way, despite her (and my) initial fears, her kids (and I) are doing great.

Thankfully, our enthusiasm is not alone. Obama has just pledged $10 billion toward ECE. (1.4% of the $700 billion bailout money, but the biggest chunk of change toward ECE yet!)

The New York Times writes: "Driving the movement is research by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, James J. Heckman, and others showing that each dollar devoted to the nurturing of young children can eliminate the need for far greater government spending on remedial education, teenage pregnancy and prisons."

Popular opinion supports it. Educators, foundations and researchers are all pouring time and energy into it. Early childhood education is in the spotlight more than ever. Let's just make sure we do it right. Let's make sure it's quality (and fun!) education that teaches students developmentally appropriate and rigorous material that sets them up to be not just on-track, but ahead for first grade. This means learning their letters along with playing dress up. It means deliberately being taught how to play nice with others, how to sit quietly during Morning Meeting, and how to draw with lots of different colors of markers.

My pessimistic side is bracing for lots of preschools suddenly sprouting that end up being little more than glorified daycare and little care for quality (and age appropriate and fun) instruction. But it doesn't have to be so. Educators across the country, including Teach For America teachers in DC teaching early education, have made significant and measurable gains for their preschool and kindergarten students. (I'm tooting our own horn, because the ECE team here is pretty incredible.)

According to the recent Education Week article, "During the 2007-08 school year, 124 pre-K pupils in the 49,000-student school district who were taught by TFA corps members learned to recognize all or most of the letters of the alphabet, according to the study by Westat.

The findings are “remarkable,” writes Nicholas Zill, the author of the paper, who recently retired from his post as a vice president of the Rockville, Md.-based research organization, “because getting young children from low-income families to learn all their letters before they start kindergarten is an accomplishment that is not usually achieved in Head Start or in public school prekindergartens serving low-income, central-city families.”

So, Mr. Obama, thank you for the promise of 10 big ones. But please, make sure we use it on quality care and instruction for children and parents like you promised during the debates. Because until we close this achievement gap, it's a rough learning world out there and we need to arm these four-year-olds with all we can before they become a part of it.

5 Comments

Excellent post, thank you! The problem is that according to most studies, those gains don't last beyond the primary grades. By the 4th grade, there is no significant difference in the achievement of kids who received early childhood schooling and those who didn't. As a former HeadStart teacher, I have always found those statistics disheartening.

Jessica,
This is your former corps mate from NM 05! What a great post! I'm an ECE SPED teacher in DC and jumped and cheered every mention of this movement in the debates (by both candidates). Keep fighting the good fight :)

Hope to see you sometime,
Laura W.

I think that Early Childhood Educators should not underestimate themselves. One major cause of the achievement gap is a lower quality of education recieved from inner city public schools. One way to hopefully decrease the achievement gap, is by constantly giving students a positive outlook on school even though they are in these conditions. Also, in this situation, making learning fun is important because it is already hard for students to have to be in a school in really bad shape. We should remind them to never give up and of how much they can accomplish if they put their minds to it. We should try to have an environment to where kids will have an interest in learning, instead of them "having" to learn. I think that it is important for Early Childhood Educators to work hard to give their students positive experiences that help develop their language and literacy skills. Without these, students tend to struggle throughout later school years. The achievement gap is something that needs to be decreased and Early Childhood Educators can be a major impact in doing so.

RESPONSE:
Mary, you're so right. That little thing called "high expectations" makes a world of difference in the way we interact with children, what we plan for them, what we expect them to do by the end of the day, and how much they learn. Learning needs to be fun and age-appropriate-- but I totally agree that ECE teachers shouldn't underestimate themselves. They can't! They are so key to closing the gap. Thanks for all you do! -- Jess

I thought it was going to be some boring old post, but I'm glad I visited. I will post a link to this page on my blog. I am sure my visitors will find that very useful.

Im not going to say what everyone else has already said, but I do want to comment on your knowledge of the topic. Youre truly well-informed. I cant believe how much of this I just wasnt aware of. Thank you for bringing more information to this topic for me.

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