The Achievement Gap is Not a Problem While no reasonable opponent of early childhood education can deny the existence of an obvious achievement gap in education, by totally ignoring the fact that the academic playing field is not level, they’re perpetuating a serious myth of omission. If you ignore the achievement gap and its causes, it makes it a lot easier to argue against early education spending. We know that kids who get off to a bad start in school have a hard time making up the ground, and while teachers make a big difference, they can’t control what happens outside the classroom. Consider some facts: New advances in neural development show that children’s brains grow and develop 85 percent of their full capacity by the time they are 5 years old.
In those first few years of life the very architecture of the brain is determined by the child’s environment. Toxic stress, like abuse, limited nutrition, unstable housing, dangerous neighborhoods, and economic instability, puts downward pressure on emotional growth and overall brain development (in some cases actually reducing the size of certain parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, which are involved in impulse control and regulation; read: the ability to pay attention and learn in a classroom).
Vocabulary growth among children exposed to these stressors, often from working-class and low-income families, falls far short of their higher-income peers’. For example, children from low-income households have a vocabulary that is half as developed as high-income children, a trend that becomes evident as early as 36 months of age.
These early disparities translate into a well-recognized achievement gap among students in this country. Black and Hispanic students, who suffer disproportionately in communities with toxic stress, consistently score lower on tests for reading and math, and by the third grade — as these gaps in academic success grow — the vicious cycle of poor performance is in full swing.
It’s no wonder, then, that high school dropout rates are 3 percent higher for African Americans and a whopping 10 percent higher for Hispanic and Latino children compared to their white classmates. Opponents of early education reform dismiss, or worse, willfully ignore this evidence when talking about education. When all else fails, they start a new attack line with Myth 2, arguing that early education is completely ineffective.
Myth #2: Early Learning is Ineffective Mountains of research in the last decade point to early education as the best way to counteract the toxic stress that leaves many kids at such a disadvantage, but there are plenty of opponents on this point too. Which brings us to Myth #2: Early learning is ineffective.
This dubious myth comes from studies that supposedly show little overall achievement among students who’ve gone through early learning programs. In particular, early education opponents have been harping on a recent government study on Head Start that found that the benefits of the program largely disappear after the third grade — the so-called “fade out” phenomenon.
If preschool has no lasting effect there’s no reason to fund it, some will argue. The problem is that opponents simply misinterpret the study they are using to attack early education efforts. For example, “fade out” doesn’t mean that programs like Head Start are ineffective.
Look carefully at the Head Start study: “In terms of children’s well-being, there is…clear evidence that access to Head Start had an impact on children’s language and literacy development while children were in Head Start”.