Could Earlier Kindergarten be the Achievement Gap Solution?

One of the approaches strongly considered for closing the achievement gap between low-income students and their more economically advantaged peers is moving up the time when kids begin kindergarten, the Economist reports. The current kindergarten start time for American students is between ages 5 and 6, and among the developed countries that is considered rather late. Now some programs – aimed specifically at those from poorer families – are springing up to teach kids the rudiments of English and mathematics as early as 3 and 4.

Students from lower-income families already tend to begin their schooling later than other kids, and some think that this kind of late start could have an impact on the entirety of their academic careers. Children from families on welfare already display a troubling knowledge gap by age 3, when they know on average just 525 words compared to those from non-welfare families that know over 1,100.

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.

Yet, the benefits of early childhood education programs – like the most popular, Head Start – are debatable. There have been studies that show that whatever advances Head Start students make are lost by third grade.

These findings are typically used by early kindergarten critics to prove that investing in these kinds of programs is a waste of money and resources better used elsewhere.

The sniping focuses on a study that found the educational gains from Head Start had petered out by third grade. Opponents say this proves that pre-school is a failure. In fact, it demonstrates what everyone has known for a long time: that Head Start is failing to deliver the level of cognitive improvement that children in better pre-schools achieve. The problems stem from its absence of oversight. Some providers have had decades of funding, though they have not had to produce any evidence that they were teaching well. This is changing. Mr Obama’s administration has so far required 254 of 1,600 grant recipients to reapply for their money. The results have not yet been announced.