While we have a lot of discussion going on in Frankfort about budgets, facilities, jobs, economy and Race to the Top, I don’t want us to forget the best investment we could make in the long term. That investment is certainly education; however, I want to focus this blog on closing the achievement gap through investment in early childhood education.
Our friends at the Prichard Committee have shown through numerous reports that a dollar invested in early childhood can repay the state between $5 and $6 in the long term. Let us not forget the future while we are trying to balance the present.
Researchers have well-documented the achievement gap that exists between advantaged (average and above income) and disadvantaged (poverty-level income) children by as early as age 3. Researchers have documented that advantaged children have a vocabulary of more than 1,100 words by age 3, while disadvantaged children have a vocabulary of 525 words. Parent utterances to their children in advantaged homes average 487 per hour. Parent utterances to children in disadvantaged homes average 178 per hour.
Not only do advantaged children’s parents talk to them more and read to them more, they also provide more encouragement than parents of disadvantaged children. Children in advantaged homes average 500,000 words of encouragement overall and 75,000 words of encouragement from their parents by age 3. Children in disadvantaged homes receive 80,000 words of encouragement overall and 200,000 words of discouragement by age 3. Researchers documented that disadvantaged children not only hear fewer words from their parents, the words they do hear are mostly discouraging words. Researchers further documented that this vocabulary and encouragement difference impacts the children’s IQs. Children from advantaged homes had an average IQ of 117, and children in disadvantaged homes have an average IQ of 79.
All of this research points to one thing – disadvantaged children enter kindergarten at least two grade levels below their advantaged peers. These numbers are based on extensive research and represent averages. Individual parents do make a difference and can certainly create conditions better than or worse than the research averages.
However, schools have to deal with the achievement gap that already exists for children when they enter school. The option of slowing all children down until the disadvantaged students catch up is not one that schools should or will consider. The key to addressing this achievement gap comes from addressing preschool programs and addressing the vocabulary and encouragement gap.
I recently heard a CNN report that California spends more than $45,000 per year for each prison inmate. Most states spend more than $30,000 per year. The research is very clear. If we do not close the achievement gaps with our most disadvantaged students, then the odds of dropping out of school are tripled or even higher. In most of our prisons, the majority of the population are high school dropouts. Let’s connect the dots and invest now in our most precious resource – the children – and save future generations from bearing the burden of ever-increasing justice costs.