societal concern for the welfare of disadvantaged young children and the negative effects poverty has on their academic performance. The outcome of this preoccupation largely takes the form of early childhood programs. Actually, ‘early childhood programs have been a part of the nation’s social policy landscape for decades’ (Shonkoff, 1). The main objective of such programs is to close the achievement gap between low-income students and their more privileged counterparts. Said differently, ‘childhood intervention programs’ seek ‘to diminish the social economic status disparities in the preschool years so that poor children enter school on a more equal footing to their more affluent peers’ (Brooks-Gunn, Currie, & Besharov, 3).
Early childhood programs enroll students who are between three and four years of age. These programs are sponsored by diverse organizations and institutions; oftentimes their services overlap. The most well-known is Head Start, conceived in 1965 and funded by the federal government. ‘The original planners of Head Start created a comprehensive set of services for young children that encompassed physical and mental health, nutrition, education, and social services, and included a strong parent involvement component’ (The Evaluation Exchange, 1). Indispensable components of any successful program must include the following: ‘individualized service delivery, high-quality program implementation, appropriate knowledge and skills of service providers, and positive relationships between parents and professionals’ (Shonkoff, 1).
One way which high-quality early childhood programs reduce disparities between poor and affluent children is that they provide the former with basic necessities, such as food and medical care. It is indisputable that hunger hinders learning and development; unfortunately, underprivileged children regularly attend school on an empty stomach. What’s more, they typically do not receive medical attention, the lack of which can create additional hurdles to learning and growth. It is important to mention these services first as without them, they render other efforts fruitless.
It is an intuitive statement to say that intellectual growth is severely stalled in a violent, cold, and unresponsive environment. Therefore, another important feature of first-rate early intervention programs is a safe, nurturing atmosphere. ‘High-quality programs provide children with secure and caring relationships with educators and caregivers’ (American Federation of Teachers, 4). Just like physical care, stability and warmth are prerequisites to productive learning experiences. By removing such obstacles, children are better able to engage in and learn from positive and productive activities.
Many times disadvantaged children do not possess adequate social competencies. For this reason, once physical and environmental necessities have been met, teachers can promote children’s social skills, which will prove useful in making subsequent educational encounters more rewarding and productive. In fact, ‘guidance in desirable social skills and facilitation of positive interactions between peers and adults’ (American Federation of Teachers, 4) affords children the occasion to concentrate on intellectually stimulating activities. In other words, by teaching social norms to children who otherwise are unaware of such phenomena, instructors clear paths for their students’ academic progress. This naturally leads to achievement that is more aligned with that of affluent youngsters.
Early childhood programs aim to close the achievement gap between students by offering school readiness knowledge and skills to needy children. ‘Children are better prepared for the demands of formal schooling when they are exposed to age-appropriate activities that develop and enhance reasoning, communication, and problem solving and involve extensive language and pre-literacy activities and domain-specific knowledge in areas such as math and science’ (American Federation of Teachers, 7). Research reveals that ‘many disadvantaged children entering kindergarten have heard only half the words and can understand only half the meanings that children from more economically advantaged homes can’ (The Evaluation Exchange, 5). Therefore, worthy early intervention programs deliver activities that provide sufficient instruction and participation in areas such as letter recognition, beginning sounds, numbers and shapes, task perseverance, vocabulary and background knowledge enhancement, and sustained attention (American Federation of Teachers). Moreover, they employ ‘various strategies’ in order to ‘recognize, diagnose, and treat symptoms of underachievement at an early age’ (Jennings, 4).
Overwhelming evidence indicates that school readiness training and ongoing, productive adult-child exchanges show positive results in subsequent grades, at least those levels immediately following the early childhood programs. ‘Policy research confirms’ that ‘early intervention programs have the potential to alter poor children’s achievement in elementary school’ (Brooks-Gunn et al., 3). Attempting to reveal favorable outcomes of adult-child interactions, one study revealed ‘those children, who as preschoolers, spent more time interacting with adults achieved higher scores on standardized achievement tests at the end of third grade than did their preschool peers who spent relatively more time interacting with their age mates’ (Harper, 5). By filling in knowledge and skill gaps and regularly engaging in intellectually stimulating conversations, such youngsters enter school with a firmer footing than otherwise possible.
Finally, a crucial — and possibly the most important — aspect of high-quality early childhood programs is parental participation. ‘At-risk students normally have at-risk parents. As a result, the intervention program must extend into the child’s community and home’ (Jennings, 13). As mentioned above, Head Start aims to involve parents in their youngster’s educational experiences. In fact, ‘from the very beginning, part of the logic of Head Start has been to work with the families and not just the kids’ (The Evaluation Exchange, 4). This is vital as research proves that continuity between school and home environments increases the chances of student success. The opposite holds true: conflicting school-home atmospheres can impede academic development. By encouraging parents to read to and talk with their children among other things, they conveniently reinforce educators’ attempts of developing their students’ intellectual faculties. More importantly, such interactive exchanges create within children a sense of worth, which fosters their self-esteem. Most education professional and psychologists know that children with healthy self-images succeed more frequently in school and life.
To summarize then, ‘research indicates that early childhood education helps bridge the achievement gap, reduces dropout rates and delinquency, and increases economic productivity and social stability’ (American Federation of Teachers, 4). Stellar programs are comprehensive in that they satisfy disadvantaged children’s physical, mental, emotional, and educational needs by also creating a mutually beneficial relationship between school and home. It is inspiring to note that ‘efforts to close the achievement gap have intensified in the last several years, and the experiences of districts and schools with notable successes are beginning to appear in the education literature’ (Schwartz, 6). Certainly in this area of educational and social reform, the nation is moving in a more positive and productive direction.
American Federation of Teachers (2002). Early Childhood Education: Building A Strong
Foundation for the Future. Educational Issues Policy Brief: Washington, DC.
Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, Currie, Janet, & Besharov, Douglas J. (2000). Early Childhood
Intervention Programs: What Are the Costs and Benefits? Congressional Research
Briefing Summary: Chicago, IL.
Harper, Lawrence V. (1995). Early Orientation and Later School Achievement. National Head Start Association’s Annual Training Conference: Washington, DC.
Jennings, James M. (1992). Closing the Achievement Gap: A Model for Success. Annual Meeting of the Mid-South Educational Research Association: Knoxville, TN.
Schwartz, Wendy (2001). Closing the Achievement Gap: Principles for Improving the Educational Success of All Students. ERIC Digest.
Shonkoff, Jack P. (2004). Evaluating Early Childhood Services: What’s Really Behind the Curtain. The Evaluation Exchange (10, 2).
The Evaluation Exchange (2004). Closing the Achievement Gap: Head Start and Beyond.
The Evaluation Exchange (10, 2).
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