Magazine article The American Prospect

Kindergarten-Plus. (Where We Stand: A Commentary on Public Education and Other Critical Issues)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Kindergarten-Plus. (Where We Stand: A Commentary on Public Education and Other Critical Issues)

Article excerpt

How can we explain the achievement gap between poor children and more advantaged children? School critics usually assume that the schools are to blame, and blaming schools is easier than admitting that poverty affects the education of children in this wealthiest of nations.

Now, there's no question that we need to continue to improve the underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded schools that most poor children attend. But if Americans are serious about closing the achievement gap--and I believe they are--then our leaders must stop ignoring the evidence of poverty's corrosive impact on achievement.

Thanks to some good, new national and international studies, we now know that the achievement gap for poor children as a group is established before they even begin school. For example, when the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) studied a nationally representative sample of children just entering kindergarten, it found that the poor children, on average, were significantly behind other children academically, socially, and in terms of their health. NCES also bund that, while the poor children had substantially closed the gap by the end of their kindergarten year, a gap remained, and it often widened as the children went on in school. There are several reasons for this.

First, although most poor children make huge strides during kindergarten, other children are progressing, too. That's great, but unlike their more advantaged peers, poor children fall back academically during the summer because they usually don't have access to the academically enriching vacation experiences that middle-class children take for granted--museum visits, organized sports, camping, etc.

So, it is necessary to accelerate dramatically the pace of learning for poor children who are behind or they will never catch up, even though they learn as much and progress as rapidly as other kids during the school year. Disadvantaged children are just as smart as middle-class kids. But they need more time and opportunity for learning.

Two Important Summers

The best solution to this problem is obvious--universal access to high-quality preschool, with priority given to poor children. The AFT has been pushing hard for this, but our nation is so far behind on early childhood education that it's not easy to get where we need to go, especially in today's economy.

However, we can make a "down payment" on quality preschool by extending the kindergarten year for disadvantaged children. …

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