Journal Issue: School Readiness: Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps Volume 15 Number 1 Spring 2005
Closing the Gaps: What Works and What Doesn't
What does this issue tell us about how to close the racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness? We've learned that some strategies that might seem obvious turn out to be less promising than expected. Although child health, for example, is an important determinant of school readiness and of the racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness, increasing poor children's access to Medicaid and state child health insurance is unlikely to narrow these gaps because poor and near-poor children are already eligible for public insurance. The problem is that not all eligible children are enrolled. And increasing enrollment may not be the answer either: socioeconomic disparities persist in Canada and the United Kingdom despite universal public health insurance. Similarly, given the importance of socioeconomic factors, it might appear that the best way to close the gaps in school readiness would be to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in parents' economic resources. Programs such as the earned income tax credit (which supplements the earnings of low-income parents), the minimum wage, and the child tax credit increase low-income families' economic well-being. Making the child tax credit refundable for those who do not earn enough to pay taxes would do even more to raise the family incomes of poor and minority children. To date, however, there is no strong evidence that increasing parental income positively affects the school readiness of children.
Helping parents further their education might also appear to be an effective strategy. Increasing the schooling of all black and Hispanic mothers by one or two years, for example, would significantly narrow the school readiness gap of their children. But to date few interventions have been able to produce such gains in maternal schooling. Although more intensive programs might enjoy more success, they may not be cost effective. In sum, although programs that increase the socioeconomic status of families are likely to reduce economic disparities and make a modest impact on racial gaps, we believe that approaches that directly address the child and parental behaviors that contribute to school readiness will prove more effective.
One such strategy that holds long-term promise comes from the nascent field of neuroscience. Researchers are making great strides in understanding how the brain develops and what aspects of experience help or hinder the process. Educational interventions are already able both to raise children's scores in tests of reading and to increase activity in the brain regions most closely linked with reading. The areas of the brain that are most critical for school readiness may thus prove quite responsive to effective therapeutic interventions—even making it possible to tailor particular interventions for individual children. Although this field is in its infancy, such tailoring may one day make educational interventions quite effective in closing racial and socioeconomic gaps in readiness and achievement.
For the present, however, we believe that by far the most promising strategy is to increase access to high-quality center-based early childhood education programs for all low-income three- and four-year-olds. Such a step would measurably boost the achievement of black and Hispanic children and go far toward narrowing the school readiness gap. So what should these programs look like? First and foremost, the education component of these programs must be of high quality. This means having small classes with a high teacher-pupil ratio, teachers with bachelor degrees and training in early childhood education, and curriculum that is cognitively stimulating. Few of the child care centers and Head Start programs that now serve low-income children meet all of these standards.
Second, the new programs should train teachers to identify children with moderate to severe behavioral problems and to work with these children to improve their emotional and social skills. Although such training is now being provided by some Head Start programs and some preschool programs, it is not available in most center-based child care programs.
Third, the new programs should include a parent-training component that reinforces what teachers are doing in school to enhance children's cognitive and emotional development. Examples of such training would include encouraging parents to read to their children on a daily basis and teaching parents how to deal with behavioral problems. Improving parental skills would have important multiplier effects on what teachers were doing in the classroom.
Fourth, the new programs should provide staff to identify health problems in children and to help parents get ongoing health care for their children. Including an annual home visit as part of this service would allow staff to further screen for serious mental health problems among parents. Although some Head Start programs and child care centers in low-income communities do link parents with health care services for their children, these programs do not include a home visit, nor do they address the health needs of parents.
Finally, the new programs should be well integrated with the kindergarten programs that their children will eventually attend so that the transition from preschool to kindergarten is successful for children, parents, and teachers. Again, to have their greatest impact, high-quality programs must aim at saturating the classroom and the community and changing multiple aspects of the child's environment.
We know that high-quality early childhood programs exist. And the best research confirms that they make great headway in closing racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness. The problem is that these programs reach only a small proportion of low-income children. Decades ago, this country made a commitment to do the unthinkable—to put a man on the moon. Today our aim is both more and less lofty. We know how to help a child begin school ready to learn. We know how to begin to close racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness. We simply must decide to do so.