When it comes to closing the academic achievement gap between students from lower- and higher-income families, we share the fate of Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, who was sentenced to spend eternity pushing a giant rock uphill, watching it roll back down, and then repeating the task.
The gap in school performance comes “pre-installed,” as it were, beginning well before children ever step foot in the classroom. By the time they enter kindergarten, poor children are already at a huge disadvantage relative to their counterparts from high-income families. By the time they take their first standardized test, the differences in vocabulary, background knowledge, and non-cognitive skills are so large that most poor children will never overcome them – no matter what school they attend, which teachers they are assigned to, or how these teachers are evaluated. And, like Sisyphus, whatever gap-closing progress we may make with each cohort of struggling students after they enter school, we must start all over again with the next.
What can be done? Stop putting out fires and prevent them – address the achievement gap before it widens.
High-quality early childhood education (ECE) programs remain one of the few empirically-validated interventions that have been proven to help narrow the academic achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white, native English speakers and English language learners. Yet expanding and improving early childhood intervention programs plays almost no role in current efforts to improve public education in the U.S. It’s no wonder that we haven’t made significant progress in narrowing these gaps since the late 1980s.
Decades of education research (see here, here, and here), as well as human capital research (see here, here, and here; or this research brief) by luminaries such as James Heckman, show that the most effective educational interventions – those with the largest payoffs, by far – occur at the earliest ages (0-5). For preschool-aged children, they provide what many poor parents don’t have the time or ability to provide on their own: exposure to more verbal interactions and knowledge and help with the basic non-cognitive abilities, such as motivation, social skills, and the like. These programs don’t rely on test scores to show success or failure, but provide the kind of cognitive and non-cognitive foundations that make those test scores actually mean something. Not all of them are as effective as the best ones (e.g., some of the results for Head Start are modest), but all else being equal, their benefits (including economic returns) far surpass those of other interventions in fashion today, both in strength and persistence. The recent study of kindergarten teachers’ effects – characterized in the New York Times as the case for “$320,000 kindergarten teachers” – is only the latest demonstration of the persistent, multifaceted benefits of earlier intervention (some good commentary on this study here).
Not only are quality ECE programs not being expanded quickly enough, they are being dismantled. States all over the nation are cutting pre-k programs due to lack of funding. And they’re getting little federal help, because we seem to have prioritized other things. Although the Obama administration’s blueprint gives lip service to ECE (and has just announced a new policy board), the massive infusion of funding from Race to the Top pays little attention to early intervention and, instead, incentivizes two policy prescriptions closing the achievement gap: charter schools and tying teacher pay and evaluation to test scores. There is only mixed evidence for the former’s benefits and almost none for the latter (see here as well). Adding insult to inefficacy, last week we learned that ECE programs are vastly overshadowed by other types of programs among winners of i3 grants (only a tiny handful are actually pre-K or earlier).
So, the big question: Why is ECE so often slighted among top educational reform priorities? Why, in our national obsession with improving public education, are so few people (there are exceptions) talking about what is arguably the most proven, effective road to improvement? Quality early childhood programs are, without question, expensive. But, given that funding is available (at least from the federal government) and going elsewhere, I can think of one possible reason – because the payoffs are so slow to arrive.
We are a quick-fix society. Political leaders and school administrators need immediate results to appear effective. Big city mayors literally run their campaigns on schools’ test results. If for no other reason than the timing of standardized testing regimes (which usually begin in third grade), the benefits of early childhood interventions are difficult to quantify until years after the fact. Indeed, for infant and toddler programs, it might be as many as seven or eight years before the children take their first tests. And in our current education policy culture – where random one-year fluctuations in scores can make or break careers, close schools, and get teachers fired – the promise of results so far down the road just doesn’t seem to resonate as much.
It’s bad enough that what passes for “education reform” today is a leap of faith, and that test scores seem to be our only metric of success and failure. But the opportunity costs of our current emphases may be even worse. Every dollar we don’t spend on quality early intervention programs makes all other educational investments an even steeper uphill climb, pushing an even heavier rock.