Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Pre-K Achievement Gap

Good Education just reviewed a recent survey presented at the annual conference for the National Association for the Education of Young Children in which two-thirds of kindergarten teachers say the majority of their students start school without knowing basic preschool concepts like the alphabet.

According to the survey, only 6% of kindergarten teachers said that their students were well prepared academically at the beginning of the year. Many students did not know how to hold a pencil or write their name. Less than 9% of teachers said their incoming students’ oral language skills were good.

The article does make some incorrect implications, like the idea that college educated parents are often working so much they may not spend enough time reading to their children. While they may be working longer hours and spending less time with their children than they should, affluent parents on average do spend far more time reading to their children than do poor and working class parents. They also tend to use a larger vocabulary with their children and introduce them to more complex words and ideas. Consequently, affluent children start kindergarten with significantly larger vocabularies and literacy skills (see Burkam and Lee).

The article also incorrectly hypothesizes that if every student had access to early childhood education, they would all be equal by the time they started kindergarten, effectively preventing the achievement gap from forming in the first place. This presumes that all children are equal at the age of three or four, and that the achievement gap results because some go to preschool and others do not.

In reality, lack of preschool worsens an achievement gap that is already in place well before children are even old enough for preschool (see Hart and Risely). Preschool has been shown to help mitigate this for some lower income children and provide skills that help some become school ready, but it does not make them equal to their middle class peers by the time they start kindergarten. And it does nothing to improve the conditions in their homes and communities that cause the achievement gap to grow over time, like hunger, illness and absenteeism, or lack of access to intellectually enriching summer activities.

It is troubling, though, that 94% of kindergarten teachers felt that their students were not well-prepared for kindergarten. However, it should not be a surprise. As the recession continues, we will likely continue to see increasing numbers of children struggling in school. Testing them and giving them homework to “prepare them for the rigors of secondary school” will not make them successful. It will only turn them off to school and learning at an early age and drive more people from the teaching profession.

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