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Still Struggling to Close the Achievement Gap and Educate All Children

Preschoolers could color a worksheet about flowers… or they could explore something real

Published in ChicagoNow, May 11, 2016

I adore Evanston. I’ve lived here for over 40 years. My kids received great educations in the public schools. Back in the day, I was an active school volunteer and even served on a couple of school district committees. And I was founding director of Cherry Preschool, located in the heart of Evanston. So I was really proud when Evanston was named the fifth best American city to live in as part of a survey in 2014. And when it’s downtown was rated one of ten best in 2015. And especially when ETHS won a gold medal from US News and World Report, which rated it the thirteenth best high school in Illinois.

But I could have done without Evanston’s latest “honor.” Recently, Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University and his colleagues Demetra Kalogrides and Kenneth Shores, along with Harvard University education professor Andrew Ho, shared data from new studies on racial disparities in American education. They focused on the achievement gap between black and white fourth grade students across the country, using the NAEP assessment. And Evanston came in near the top once again. But this time, it was a dubious distinction.

According to Education Week:

Some of the biggest black-white achievement gaps in the country—where black students lag their white peers by more than 1.5 full standard deviations, or four to five grade levels on the NAEP scale—in relatively prosperous university towns, like Berkeley, Calif. (home of the University of California, Berkeley); Chapel Hill, N.C. (home of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill); and Evanston, IL. (home of Northwestern University).

The achievement gap and how to narrow it has been a focus in my community as far back as I can remember. In 1989, when I was part of the Early Childhood Task Force, one of our main charges was to focus on how early childhood education could help to level the playing field for incoming kindergarteners. Parts of our report issued 26 years ago, on May 31, 1990, could be written today:

  • Up to age eight, children learn differently and need an environment that allows them to “manipulate and experiment with a variety of materials and situations.”

  • Young learners “learn by exploring, observing…they must be actively involved in all aspects of their learning, and must be able to feel a sense of achievement and self-worth.”

  • Parents of early learners need to work in partnership with educators and feel welcome in their children’s schools and classrooms.

  • Children come to kindergarten from vastly different backgrounds and at very different stages of development. These differences should be affirmed and accepted.

  • The goal of early childhood education is to create curious and active students who have “the desire to learn and to think creatively in an ever-changing world.”

The report quoted David Elkind’s (child psychologist and author of many books on child development including The Hurried Child) call for developmentally appropriate learning environments that “challenge the child’s emerging mental abilities.”

Creative thinking and critical thinking are not skills to be taught and learned. They reflect basic orientations toward the self and the world that can be acquired only when children are actively engaged in constructing and reconstructing their physical, social, and moral worlds.

Over the years, Evanston has really tried. An early childhood center housing 450 of the community’s youngest students and their families was built. Programs at the Joseph E. Hill Education Center include Head Start, Early Childhood Special Education, and Preschool for All. The center’s objective is to ensure that the children are ready for kindergarten. But these children are headed for a full-day academic kindergarten shaped by the goal of preparing children for college and career, using didactic and often developmentally inappropriate curricula and instruction. So, the thinking has been to take a similar approach with preschoolers. Yet the Report on Black Student Achievement in District 65 outlines in great detail how the achievement gap persists.

We have known forever that this is not how young children learn. The result of a didactic approach based on acquiring facts separate from meaningful context ignores most of the “how to do it” recommendations of the 1990 Early Childhood Task Force. It also contributes to widening the gap between the children of the top 2 percent and everyone else. In college towns like Evanston, Berkeley, and Chapel Hill, children of well-educated parents are likely to attend early childhood programs that follow best practice. They are also likely, as noted in a New York Times analysis, to be “constantly competing for ever more academic success. As parents hire tutors, enroll their children in robotics classes and push them to solve obscure math theorems, those children keep pulling away from those who can’t afford the enrichment.” Meanwhile, the rest of the children are learning facts and completing worksheets in a frantic effort to prepare them for a kindergarten experience that is more appropriate for late first or even second grade.

I fear educational policy makers and administrators will react to the growing achievement gap and disparity in kindergarten readiness by doubling down on what they are currently doing rather than thinking outside the box and questioning the validity of their approach to early childhood education. Twenty-six years ago, as a member of the task force, I asked a gifted administrator whose educational expertise I greatly admired for her opinion about the discrepancy between what she admitted was best practice for teaching young children and what actually happened in the classroom. I wondered, isn’t best practice, well, best? For everyone. She explained that developmental early childhood teaching was a tough sell to parents. Most parents want to see their children learning what they remember learning in school.

The problem is, most parents don’t remember being three or four or even much about what they did in kindergarten. Their frame of reference is most likely the last few years of elementary school. It is up to early childhood and kindergarten educators to help parents understand that young children learn differently from eight-year-olds. They need to play and experience life; to be read to and talked to; and to develop meaningful relationships with their teachers and peers.

Those who serve on school boards, in administration, and as teachers are caring people who have tried tackling the achievement gap for as long as I have lived in Evanston. Now is the time to try something based on research on how preschoolers and kindergarteners really learn. I firmly believe that giving every child a developmentally appropriate and meaningful early childhood education is our best shot at ensuring that all young children live up to their potential, regardless of their parents’ education level or their family income.


by Laurie Levy
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