How to Close the Achievement Gap

Article excerpt

Byline: Mona Mourshed and Fenton Whelan

The world's best schools offer important lessons about what works.

All over the world, your chances of success in school and life depend more on your family circumstances than on any other factor. By age three, kids with professional parents are already a full year ahead of their poorer peers. They know twice as many words and score 40 points higher on IQ tests. By age 10, the gap is three years. By then, some poor children have not mastered basic reading and math skills, and many never will: this is the age at which failure starts to become irreversible.

A few school systems seem to have figured out how to erase these gaps. Finland ensures that every child completes basic education and meets a rigorous standard. One Finnish district official, asked about the number of children who don't complete school in her city, replied, "I can tell you their names if you want." In the United States, KIPP charter schools enroll students from the poorest families and ensure that almost every one of them graduates high school--80 percent make it to college. Singapore narrowed its achievement gap among ethnic minorities from 17 percent to 5 percent over 20 years.

These success stories offer lessons for the rest of us. First, get children into school early. High-quality preschooling does more for a child's chances in school and life than any other educational intervention. One study, which began in the 1960s, tracked two groups of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. …