Why Can’t We Bridge the Achievement Gap? Maybe We Are Not Looking in the Right Place

The Huffington Post
By Sarah Walzer, December 28, 2010
There has been much talk in the media recently about our failure as a nation to bridge the achievement gap. The gap continues to be gapingly large whether we look at school readiness, fourth grade reading scores or high school graduation rates. The inability of educators, policymakers, and a host of school reform efforts to ensure that low-income and minority children succeed in school, and graduate from high school, should lead us to consider whether we need to think outside the classroom as we struggle to improve educational outcomes for the country and for each individual child.
We have not been able to bridge the achievement gap, because we are not fully addressing the preparation gap that exists before children enter school and we are not properly preparing families to develop, support, and sustain their children’s academic careers. Children in school spend at most 20 percent of their time annually in the classroom. Before they enter school, many children, particularly low-income children, spend all of their time at home with family, friends and neighbors. None of the most popular school reform efforts (class size reduction, teacher training, new reading and math curriculums, or charter schools) focuses much attention on the critical role of the families and home environment.
The preparation gap occurs because too many children enter school, whether it is pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, without the early childhood experiences or skill-building opportunities in their homes that they need in order to be successful in a classroom. They have little experience with books. They have not been read to or told stories. They have never held a crayon, done a puzzle, or sung “Itsy-bitsy spider”. Their parents have not been shown how to provide their child with the critical experiences that make up “school readiness”. They may not have access to the materials that would enable them to introduce their children to books or puzzles or crayons. They may have limited literacy skills themselves and not know that talking, picturing reading, and playing with their child can be critical to school readiness.
By the time they get to kindergarten, low-income children have heard on average only 15 million words, while middle-income children have heard 55 million (Hart and Risley, Meaningful Differences); and they have experienced only 25 hours of one-one-one reading time, while middle-income children have experienced 1,700 hours (Packard/McArthur Foundations). As Richard Rothstein notes in his 2004 book, Class and Schools, “A five-year-old who enters school recognizing some words and who has turned pages of many stories will be easier to teach than one who has rarely held a book. The second child can be taught, but, with equally high expectations and effective teaching, the first will more likely pass a reading test than the second. So the achievement gap begins.”
But there are ways to remove or reduce this gap before it ever appears. School readiness programs that deliver services to low-income families through individualized home visiting have proven that they can prevent the achievement gap by preparing low-income children to enter school recognizing as many words and having turned as many pages as middle class children. Programs, like The Parent-Child Home Program, which provides families with a two-year cycle of twice-weekly home visits during which well-trained, well-supervised paraprofessional staff work with 2-4 year-olds and their parents/primary caregivers to increase reading, playing, and conversation in the home, are able to build language and literacy-rich home environments that will provide children with the skills and ongoing support they need to succeed in school.
Reaching children and their parents, through intensive home visiting, before they enter school and before the gap grows too large to bridge is a very effective tool for building school readiness skills and ensuring that children are prepared to take advantage of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten opportunities. Home visiting reaches families who are not accessing needed services and resources, particularly families isolated by poverty, limited literacy, lack of transportation, and language and cultural barriers.
School reform efforts will only yield sizable benefits if children are prepared to take advantage of them. Working with children and their parents in their homes before they ever enter a classroom not only builds children’s skills, but also families’ skills and knowledge so that they can support their children as they move through school. The Parent-Child Home Program’s data shows that this early work with families, at a fraction of the cost of school reform efforts, pays off. Data from the Pittsfield, Mass. public schools demonstrates that 93 percent of low-income kindergarteners who participated in The Parent-Child Home Program and pre-k scored developmentally above their age level, compared to 69 percent of entering kindergartners who had participated only in pre-k. Randomized control trials demonstrate that the significant increases in parent-child verbal interaction experienced by Program participants directly correlates with the children’s first grade cognitive and social emotional skills, their school readiness skills. Most importantly, a longitudinal study of the Program demonstrated that students who completed two years of the Program (as two- and three-year-olds) went on to graduate from high school at the rate of middle class students nationally, 30 percent higher than the randomized control group in the community.
If we want to really make strides in bridging the achievement gap, we must start thinking outside the walls of school buildings and work with those who have the most at stake in the future of their children: their parents.