The seeds of the achievement gap in science are planted before a child has ever set foot in an elementary school, according to a new study.
The new report out this month looks to explain why white, upper-class eighth-graders tend to perform much better in science than their low-income and minority peers.
Unfortunately, the answer involves a series of factors beyond any child's control. By the time they enter kindergarten, white, affluent students already have a much larger general knowledge of science than their minority classmates, the study shows. This gap follows white and black students beyond elementary school to middle school, where more affluent students substantially outperform their peers on measures of science achievement.
The authors of the study -- from Pennsylvania State University and University of California, Irvine -- based their findings on a nationally representative sample of over 7,000 kids who entered kindergarten in 1998. Data on the children, maintained through the National Center for Education Statistics, was collected until 2007.
The study's findings could have insidious consequences for the country. Employees of color are already vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. As growing wealth disparities continue to divide the country, low levels of science achievement have the potential "to derail the nation’s long-term global competitiveness," the study says.
Researchers decided to explore this topic after hearing alarm over "declining global competitiveness because of increasingly low levels of engineering and science and technology and mathematics-related work and degree completion," said Paul Morgan, associate professor in the education policy department at Penn State and author of the study.
Even though science achievement gaps begin early, Morgan believes schools can help address these disparities.
"We need to have some sort of coordinated attempt," Morgan said. An effort "that involves parents, preschool teachers and policymakers working together to help address these disparities that emerge so early."
To help close these gaps, Morgan recommends that parents ask their toddlers more questions about their surroundings and verbalize their observations. Indeed, low-income children "typically experience comparatively fewer early opportunities to learn about the natural and social sciences, in part because their parents often have lower educational levels and therefore less science knowledge themselves as well as fewer resources available to direct toward the children’s cognitive and academic growth," the study says. They also typically have less access to high-quality preschool.
“Science achievement gaps are themselves mostly explained by underlying inequities that we, as a society, too often tolerate or simply decide not to fully address,” Morgan said in a press release.
Teachers should tailor instruction to young students who are coming into school with low levels of science knowledge, said Morgan. While these types of programs exist for literacy gaps, it's "new territory" for science.
"We may need to give greater attention to these achievement gaps in science much earlier than we’ve been doing so far," Morgan said. "If we’re waiting until elementary or middle school that’s maybe waiting too long."
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