Could earlier kindergarten be the achievement gap solution?

Here’s a mostly filler piece from Julia Lawrence over at EducationNews. I use it merely as a launching point for a slightly different inquiry.

During his State of the Union speech last year, President Barack Obama called for the federal and state lawmakers to work together to offer early pre-school to every child. Once the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, “every” turned out to mean more like everyone from families making 200% of the federal poverty line or less.

Some critics say that sending children to school at the age of four does not work. The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, on March 20th new results were announced from a study of nine-to-11-year-olds in New Jersey. This report found that disadvantaged children who had attended pre-school had better literacy, language, maths and science skills. And two years of pre-kindergarten were better than one.

Starting schooling early doesn’t just have academic benefits, but social ones as well. Those who begin learning at an earlier age are less likely to commit crimes and end up in prison later in life.

Let’s first remind ourselves, then remind ourselves again, that what we are talking about is earlier kindergarten for “disadvantaged” children. (And let’s also remind ourselves that when we say “disadvantaged”, what at least some of us really mean is “Black and Hispanic”.) 49% of students will always be below average, and people could be fine with that. But what drives a lot of people crazy is the fact that what passes for academic performance (as measured by the NAEP, mostly) seems in startlingly short supply in student “populations” defined in terms of their race or income. It’s especially, I think, the race thing that gets people in their gut, but as a practical matter we often focus more on the socioeconomic issues because that’s a less politically charged terrain.

So here’s what we’ve got: Student group A has crappy test scores. Student group B has good test scores. There’s a gap, and we want to close it.

What do we know? Well, we know that the typical member of Student group B gets read to at home, has access to books, has school pushed on them by their parents, has parents who themselves have at least some sort of academic disposition and training, and grows up around other students who are similarly situated. They tend not to be shot at by their classmates on a regular basis, and oftentimes it seems that their family situation is somewhat stable. There may even be a father around. They have interesting toys, and go on trips to places like museums and factories and orchards. They have a quiet place to study, and they tend to get three or four balanced meals a day.

These seem to be the relevant differences. We can call them “advantages” because they seem to give children a leg up on doing well in school, and their absence tends to hurt school performance. Typical members of Student Group A, on the other hand, don’t get these “advantages” — that’s why they’re called “disadvantaged”. A headline that says something like “disadvantaged kids do worse in school” is actually something of a truism: the reason they are called disadvantaged is because they happen to have the characteristics that we have statistically correlated with doing poorly in school, and lack the ones that we think benefit academic achievement.

By way of analogy, if it turned out that 100% of low-performing students grew up in blue-, green-, and red-painted bedrooms, while 100% of high performers grew up in yellow-painted bedrooms, growing up in a yellow bedroom would be an advantage. And those “children of darker colors” who grew up in blue, green, and red rooms would be “disadvantaged”. And it shouldn’t surprise us that, when we go looking for disadvantages in this way, that the disadvantaged don’t do as well.

Now, I’m just musing here, but it seems like the VERY FIRST thing to do if you wanted to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged kids is give the disadvantaged kids some advantages. Then they wouldn’t be disadvantaged, and if they weren’t disadvantaged, well… then at least in theory there would be no achievement gap. So how to do that? Well, “advantages” seem to track with growing up in a certain sort of family. So the most obvious way is to take the kids away from “disadvantaged” families at birth and give them to “advantaged” families to raise. No raising kids for you if you’re statistically suspect: there’s social good to promote. Trust me, that’s the way to fix the achievement gap.

That probably won’t go over so well, though. (For some reason I’m imagining cries of “cultural genocide”, although it seems pretty clear that the “advantages” we wish to promote and the “disadvantages” we wish to eradicate are profoundly cultural.) So let’s look for a less drastic solution that accomplishes more or less the same thing.

Howsabout this: If we can’t take the A-kids kids completely away from their families at birth, we just take the kids away, at an incredibly early age, and have those kids “raised” in an environment which simulates the “advantagedness” of Student Group B? In the A-Group’s cognitively formative years, we’ll give them a bright, busy, happy linguistically-charged environment that sort of will be like the environment that the B-Group already grows up in. We can call it “early kindergarten” at first, and then after that, we’ll just call it “school”. Eventually, we’ll call the whole thing “school”. And we won’t take the kids out of their homes completely — just for most of the day. Their disadvantaged parents will still be (mostly) responsible for clothing and feeding and the like, and for providing a place to sleep. This also reduces expenses.

Will that close, or at least narrow the achievement gap?

Sure. I don’t see why it wouldn’t.

Comments

  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Michael
    Problem is that some, or many, of the disadvantages are the result of behavior choices by others of the A group. You can’t call these disadvantages disadvantages without condemning the behavior choices of others of the A group.
    You lose.
    Among other things–See Magnet, “The Dream and The Nightmare”–many of B group think some of the behavior choices causing disadvantages in A group are just dan and finedy, and who are we to judge and let’s not be cultural chauvinists and judmentalists and big meanies. See the outcry in B group against illegitimacy in B group, if you can find it among those not already suspect like conservative Christians and viewers of Fox News, and the insistence among some in B group that valuing fathers is really dumb which isn’t hard to find at all.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    It won’t work.

    You’re assuming that the public sector can create the “right” environment. It can’t and we know this from the Head Start studies. And we know this because we have decades of experience with k-12. Wasn’t the purpose of public education to help the disadvantaged? How’d that work out? Horace Mann, Hello? The first priority of the public education system isn’t to ameliorate the effects of poverty; it’s first priority is to self-perpetuate – to grow in size, budget and power – to protect its members, much like k-12.

    But we’re just not getting them early enough, they scream. Right.

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    If universal pre-k could solve the achievement gap, wouldn’t there be some evidence for that happening in the states that already have universal pre-k?

  4. the most obvious way is to take the kids away from “disadvantaged” families at birth and give them to “advantaged” families to raise. No raising kids for you if you’re statistically suspect: there’s social good to promote. Trust me, that’s the way to fix the achievement gap.

    The Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study debunked that notion decades ago.  Studies of newborns show huge differences in temperament from birth; “the gap” doesn’t begin at age 4, it begins at conception.

    If the hard left really believes its claims that “race is only a social construct”, why not carry this to its conclusion and eliminate gaps by eliminating the visible differences that underlie this construct?  Give all racial minorities donated IVF embryos from White couples if they want children.  We could call this something like A Modest Proposal.

    • Ummm, it would have to have recipes, wouldn’t it?

      You do bring up an important point though. That pre-kindergarten isn’t really going far enough back if we’re to eliminate the racial gap. We need to start embracing a national dialogue about pre-natal education.

      Head Start has already demonstrated that efficacy is immaterial so what reason could anyone of good conscience advance in opposition to pre-natal education? Money must be spent to demonstrate good faith and compassion even if the money’s spent to no substantive purpose.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      As a matter of better social attitudes and policy, I’m not going to reach for the genetics explanation until every last possible alternative has been completely and utterly exhausted.

      • We call that “grasping at straws”, when we’re being nice.

        As a matter of better social policy, demanding that those on the wrong side of “the gap” clean up their own academic, occupational and other acts before having children is essentially a cure-all.  If there’s a fix and they want it, they fix it and move on; if there’s no fix or they just don’t want to, their pathology ends with their generation.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          See, now you’re making a caricature of yourself.

          There’s more to human excellence than intelligence, or even the sort of “life skills” that we value in our modern world. It’s not clear to me that the “pathologies” of which you speak aren’t extremely culture- and context-specific. I’m hardly willing to cut certain types of genetic expression out of our collective evolutionary inheritance simply because it’s not working in late 20th/early 21st century Western Civilization.

          • There’s more to human excellence than intelligence, or even the sort of “life skills” that we value in our modern world.

            Fine.  Those who possess traits incompatible with American society should be given a chance to make the most of them… somewhere else.  The American public has been asked to subsidize criminality and dysfunction for 50 years in the promise that “it would get better”.  Well, the public was lied to.  It’s not only not getting better, it’s to the point where “disadvantaged teens” are shooting 13-month-old babies in the head at point blank range because their mothers didn’t have any money to hand over right then.

            The “Great Society” failed to deliver on its promises, and it’s the major reason the country is broke.  We cannot continue with it, so we won’t.  These people are going to lose their subsidies.  You need to ask yourself, do you want this handled humanely, or via the old Four Horsemen?

            It’s not clear to me that the “pathologies” of which you speak aren’t extremely culture- and context-specific.

            Then their exemplars belong in other cultures and contexts, such as the ones from which their ancestors originated.  Why would we expect them to be happy here, where their natural tendencies get them jailed?  Let them go.

            I’m hardly willing to cut certain types of genetic expression out of our collective evolutionary inheritance simply because it’s not working in late 20th/early 21st century Western Civilization.

            The genotypes are at no risk.  There are about 40% more Africans than Europeans in the world, and Guatemala, Chiapas and Oaxaca still have their native populations.  If they can’t make it here why should Americans subsidize them, let alone put up with criminality?

            And getting back to your previous position statement:

            I’m not going to reach for the genetics explanation until every last possible alternative has been completely and utterly exhausted.

            In other words, you’ll invent explanations (meaning, scapegoats) to avoid dealing with reality.  We’ve seen this with floods of nonsense such as individualism and future time orientation being labelled “racist”.  Not only does this beg the question of how it could possibly be racist if the blank-slate hypothesis is true (it implicitly denies it!), it’s just a way of scapegoating the majority population for having the traits which create peace and prosperity.  Every time the previous claims of discrimination are refuted by evidence, new claims based on ever-more-ineffable (even unconscious) discrimination are raised.  It’s a fraud.

            This endless scapegoating of the majority for not doing enough for the minority is not just erroneous, it is utterly evil.  It is what creates the sense of entitlement that allows a 17-yr-old to consider it his right to attempt armed robbery and put a bullet through a small child’s brain when he picks a victim without money.  And you, through your “every last possible alternative” stonewalling, have done your part to bring us to this point.

  5. 1) Most disadvantaged families will see this as nothing more than free babysitting.

    2) Attendence at these types of programs by children from disadvantaged families is generally poor, thus negating any effective change.

    3) As long as a 70%+ illegitemacy rate and the “acting White” culture exists, nothing else we do will work.

    4) Education was once seen as the path out of poverty, we need to restore that ethos.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Gahrie.
      What do you call somebody who can live year after year on unearned income? Food, shelter, spending money, medical care, education.
      Independently wealthy is what we call them. Usually need about $2mill in the bank, at bottom.
      Calling some of these SES subgroups by the name of “poverty” is missing the point.

  6. J. D. Salinger says:

    Any particular reason for the gratuitous slap on Julia Lawrence’s piece in Education News which you characterize as mostly filler? Education News has both in-depth and summary type articles. It certainly alerted you do some thinking, which you took upon yourself to fault Julia for not writing what you wanted to see written, and which you then wrote.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I don’t know why you’d think that correctly identifying something as “filler” was intended as a slap. Not everything in our great wide world of the intertubes needs to be a piece of probing, deep analysis.

      I was simply letting readers know that they weren’t clicking through to anything they likely hadn’t heard before.

      There was nothing at all wrong with Lawrence’s piece. Writing a good piece of filler is an artform.

  7. So you’re saying we should take middle class and wealthy black kids and give them to poor white and Asian families?