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Closing the achievement gap requires resources

Jack McCarthy

As Republican and Democratic members of Congress and the executive branch come together to reauthorize the federal charter schools program, disagreement continues to plague the national debate about pre-K.

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address once again highlighted early childhood education. This and his administration’s announcement of over $1 billion in new federal and foundation funding to increase pre-K access has provoked a debate in which such funds are either viewed as a great investment or a waste of money.

Both perspectives are flawed: Doing nothing new for children from the most disadvantaged families or spreading pre-K access thinly across as many 3 and 4-year-olds as inevitably limited funds can reach won’t close the achievement gap, which is public education’s greatest challenge.

This achievement gap, whereby children growing up in poverty underperform academically compared to their more advantaged peers, begins at birth. Rice University research has found that disadvantaged children hear an average of 30 million fewer words by age 3 than young children from more affluent homes with two parents.

Poor children often hear fewer words, especially if they have single parents whose own school experiences were lacking. This word gap, and similar deficits in social and emotional skills or school-ready behaviors, lead to the achievement gap whereby society’s most vulnerable children begin kindergarten unprepared for school, fall further behind, and are then at high risk of dropping out.

Some pre-K advocates argue that universal preschool will provide important benefits to all children, at whatever cost or quality.

But this ignores the fact that not all early education is high-quality; daycare won’t close the achievement gap. Providing everyone a limited dose of preschool may not harm children from more advantaged circumstances but will do nothing to move the needle for those children who have huge language and vocabulary deficits because they were born into poverty.

The most persuasive policy argument for early education is that it prevents learning difficulties in children’s K-12 experience. Evidence-based early interventions that build young children’s language, vocabulary, pre-literacy, early math and socio-emotional skills have been effective in reducing the achievement gap before kindergarten.

A strategic investment in children at the greatest risk will pay the greatest, short-term dividends. The worst thing we could do is nothing at all.

Despite such differences in the debate about pre-K, early learning pre-K initiatives have been successfully delivered at a growing scale in traditional and charter public schools.

Analysis by the National Institute for Early Education found that a New Jersey state-Supreme Court mandated pre-K program closed about half the achievement gap before kindergarten.

In Washington, D.C., data from pre-kindergarten students at several charter public schools using the Every Child Ready instructional model, which was developed through a federal Investing in Innovation grant, is showing dramatic growth in the cognitive and socio-emotional skills identified with schools readiness.

Early learning is a “purple issue” in that both Democratic and Republican governors and mayors are persuaded that tackling the achievement gap earlier makes policy sense.

Research undertaken by Nobel prizewinner James Heckman found that programs which screen children from disadvantaged families for languages, speech and hearing problems and build up their pre-literacy, early math, social, emotional and linguistic skills pay for themselves in the long run.

As the Obama Administration proposes greater investment in preschool as Republican Members of Congress think about ways to improve Head Start and other early learning programs — there is an opportunity to come together with targeted investments in evidence-based programs that produce outcomes in the skills that lead to literacy and numeracy while ensuring that children learn those important behaviors like how to share, take turns, play together, persist when frustrated, have grit and solve problems with words.

Educational failure entrenches intergenerational poverty and unemployment. Individuals who do not graduate from high school are nearly 20 times as likely to be incarcerated as those who graduate from college. America’s incarceration rates are the highest in the world. We can do better.

America wants its leaders to govern. As the president and Congress think about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — now known as No Child Left Behind — reauthorization, investing in early learning to close the achievement gap before kindergarten is something everyone can agree on.

Jack McCarthy is president and CEO of the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation.