By age 3, children in low-income families have smaller vocabularies than middle-class kids of the same age. This “achievement gap” persists throughout school and culminates in lower graduation rates for children growing up in poverty. I’m not offering a magic bullet to close the achievement gap. Complex problems, unfortunately, tend to require complex solutions. But I can think of two key elements to any effort to address the gap: We need to start early and we need to think broadly.
Remember, we’re seeing language deficits by age 3. We also know that those first three years are spent forming trillions of synapses — 90 percent of the brain development we’ll experience in our lifetimes. So the question is: Can a baby living in poverty have the rich experiences that encourage healthy development? We know that great early childhood education helps. Kids who participate in early childhood education are more likely to graduate high school and 2.5 times more likely go on to higher education.
People in my line of work are fond of referring to social programs as “investments.” It’s hard to think of any area were the term is more apt than early childhood. Kids in good early childhood programs achieve higher, contribute more in taxes and require less in public services. One study found that the return on investment in early childhood education is $17 for every $1 spent.
As I said, we need to think broadly and deliver services to poor families where and how they need them. For example, my community reserved some spots in high quality early childhood programs for low-income families, but we found the families that needed them most didn’t know about the program. So we used non-traditional marketing, like lawn signs, to get the word out.
Once families knew about the slots, there were still needs to be met. Most child care programs require parents to supply disposable diapers for their children. The neediest families simply couldn't afford them. It took an entire non-profit organization to address that.
Hats off to the community in Lafayette, La., that is crafting a broad-based strategy to close the achievement gap, including:
… the creation of health and wellness teams (to) help address issues as they happen, rather than just letting students move through the school system without any intervention.
I believe Lafayette is able to be smart about boosting achievement, because it isn’t getting stuck in the “blame the victim” trap that so often accompanies discussions about poverty. In an interview with The Advertiser, United Way of Acadiana Executive Director Margaret Trahan said: "The stereotype that poor parents don’t care, I know, is a myth." The Advertiser reports, "She said many parents in poverty struggle with multiple jobs, odd shifts, problems getting adequate childcare and a lack of reliable transportation."
Every family faces challenges. In poor communities, those challenges form a long and daunting list. If we want kids of all income levels to succeed, we need to find ways to scratch things off that list.