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The Achievement Gap?

December 1, 2014


Julia Auch, Early Childhood Literacy Specialist

Julia Auch, Early Childhood Literacy Specialist

Have you heard about the achievement gap?  Well, guess what… it’s really a word gap!

I have no doubt that we have touched on this concept before, but we can never talk about this too much.  I’m as guilty as the next guy of having an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of mentality (at times), so if we don’t keep talking about this, my fear is that we may forget its importance.

It’s quite simple, really.  We just need to expose children to more language.  It seems like a relatively simple concept, even I’d agree, but the reality is that this is something we, as a society, struggle with.  We struggle for a variety of reasons from one end of the spectrum (living in impoverished conditions) to the other (families who are too busy to take time out to talk with/read to their children). It’s not my job (nor yours) to judge, but instead, continue to seek out remedies for this growing epidemic.  That’s what Ready Readers’ mission is all about.

Here’s what we know:

The uncomfortable truth is that children’s vocabulary skills are undeniably linked to their economic backgrounds.  According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, by three years of age, there is a 30 million word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families.  30 MILLION.  That’s really hard to wrap my head around.  I was the “crazy lady” in the grocery store explaining zucchini to my infant.  Nonetheless, even though it’s hard to imagine, and comes as a shock at new volunteer training, I’ve witnessed this over the course of my 25-year career in early childhood.  You’ve witnessed this in your time as a volunteer reader.  It’s a real thing and we’ve got to figure it out.

A recent Stanford study looked at the language processing of 18 and 24-month-old children.  Each toddler sat in her caregiver’s lap as images of two familiar objects were shown on a screen. (The caregiver wore sunglasses so the child could not be influenced by the caregiver’s responses to the questions or images.)  A recorded voice identified one of the objects by name and used it in a sentence (Look at the doggy). The researchers filmed the child’s eye movements, tracking which picture the child looked at (vocabulary) and how long this took in milliseconds (processing time).

Children from higher economic backgrounds looked at the identified object faster and spent more time looking at the correct image.  At 24 months, children from the lower economic group were performing at the same level as the 18-month-olds from the high economic group in both speed and accuracy.

Researcher and author Betty Hart described the results of their observations by saying, simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour).  This is important because vocabulary development during the preschool years is related to later reading skills and school success in general.

Dr. Edmund Gordon is one of the nation’s foremost scholars on education and the achievement gap.  He was one of the founders and the first research director for Head Start, and is currently the Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  He identified at least three factors that we know play into this word gap:

? Unequal distribution of resources/access

? Quality of learning opportunities

? Differences in cultural values

If you’d like to hear more from him, check out this YouTube video:

Another shocking moment in new volunteer training comes when I share the requirements and expectations for working in childcare.  Licensing mainly concerns itself with health and safety standards, which are certainly necessary, but really pays no attention to instructional programming.  Education was supposed to be the great equalizer.  I can’t figure out for the life of me how we, as a society, as a city, allow childcare programs in underserved neighborhoods to reflect the “unequal distribution of resources” that Dr. Gordon speaks about, as well as the challenges with the “quality of learning opportunities.”  In many cases, I truly believe that Ready Readers may be the only partner providing support.  And for that, we thank you.  We KNOW that our program is moving the needle in the right direction.  Our day-to-day experiences and interactions with the children and teachers we serve tell us that, as does the information garnered through our annual outcome study.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that programs intended to strengthen families in underserved communities such as Parents as Teachers, should never lose their funding.  And programs intended to do the same for the childcare programs that these children attend, in these same underserved neighborhoods, must be developed.  Entities that focus on the concept of collective impact such as the 24:1 initiative in Normandy and Project Launch in the 63106 and 63107 zip codes are doing just that.  Ready Readers… yep, we’re doing that too – one child and one book at a time.

To view our most recent outcome study, CLICK HERE.

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