Strengthening Head Start: What the Evidence Shows. Disadvantaged children lag behind throughout the school years

06/01/2003

Effective early childhood intervention is important because disadvantaged children are at great risk for poor educational outcomes throughout the school years. Data from theNational Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Early Childhood Longitudinal Study  Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K) and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are reviewed below.(16)

Children with multiple risks suffer the greatest educational disadvantage.

Achievement differences in school are greatest for children who suffer the greatest disadvantage, in particular for children whose families have multiple risk factors or receive welfare. While many of the children we are trying to reach in early childhood are in Head Start and federal and state pre-kindergarten programs, others are in child-care and home-settings.

A key set of risk factors has been repeatedly associated with educational outcomes, such as low achievement test scores, grade repetition, suspension or expulsion, and dropping out of high school. These risk factors include: (a) having parents who have not completed high school, (b) coming from a low-income or welfare-dependent family, (c) living in a single-parent family, and (d) having parents who speak a language other than English in the home. Children who have one or more of these characteristics are more likely to be educationally disadvantaged or have difficulty in school.

These same risk factors are linked to achievement disparities in reading and mathematics skills at the point of kindergarten entry.(17) Research emphasizes that achievement difficulties children experience in school cannot be attributed solely to bad schools; many children are already behind when they open the classroom door.(18)

  • Children with two or more risk factors are about three times as likely as those with no risk factors to score in the bottom 25% in reading.
  • Children from families with 3 or more risk factors typically do not know their letters and cannot count to 20. Fifty-six percent could not identify letters of the alphabet compared with 25% in the no risk group. They are about one-third as likely to be able to associate letters with sounds at the end of words.
  • Children with even one risk factor are twice as likely to have reading scores that fall into the lowest 25% of children studied compared to children with no risk factors. They are half as likely to be able to associate letters with sounds at the ends of words. Some children with one risk factor have good reading scores, but far too few. They are half as likely to score in the top quartile as children with no risk factors (16% vs. 33%).
  • In mathematics, 38% of the multiple risk group could count beyond 10 or make judgments of relative length compared with 68% in the no risk group. They were one-third as likely to be able to recognize 2-digit numerals or identify the ordinal position of an object in a series.
  • Forty-four percent of children with multiple risk factors rarely paid attention, compared to 28% of children with no risk factors.

Children are at risk for poor educational outcomes when their families receive welfare (defined as receiving welfare or having received welfare in the past). These children were significantly less competent in reading, mathematics, and social skills compared to children who had never received welfare.(19)

  • In reading, children of welfare recipients are less likely to show pre-reading competencies that include letter recognition, recognition of beginning and ending sounds, and print familiarity. Forty-nine percent of these children scored in the lowest quartile, compared to 22% of children whose families were not welfare recipients.
  • In mathematics, half of children whose families received welfare scored in the lowest quartile for mathematics, compared to 22% of children whose families had never received welfare. Twenty-three percent of children of welfare recipients scored in the top half for reading, compared to 53% of children whose families had never received welfare.
  • Children from welfare families also are under-represented in the higher performing category: Fifty-three percent of children who had never received welfare scored in the top half for reading, compared to only 24% of children whose families were welfare recipients.
  • Children of welfare recipients are also at risk for poor social skills. Kindergarten teachers rated these children as having more difficulty with forming friendships and interacting with peers compared to children whose families were not welfare recipients.
The achievement gap for disadvantaged children widens during kindergarten.

Children who start behind are likely to stay behind and get further behind. Research shows that the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged groups of children widens from Fall to Spring.(20) Global reading and mathematics scores show gains for all children in reading and mathematics scores during the kindergarten year. But a closer look shows that achievement disparities between disadvantaged and more advantaged children depend on the particular knowledge and skills assessed.

By Spring, children from homes with at least one risk factor begin to close gaps in basic skills, such as recognizing letters, counting beyond 10, or comparing the size of objects. But because their more advantaged classmates move on to acquire more complex skills, these children are even further behind by Spring in reading and mathematics skills, such as reading words or solving simple addition and subtraction problems. Moreover, despite improvements in basic reading and mathematics skills during the kindergarten year, the disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged children was not eliminated.

The achievement gap persists into elementary and high school.

Poor children eligible for the National School Lunch Program do not perform as well as more advantaged children who are ineligible for the program. Average scores for reading, mathematics and writing achievement are statistically lower for children who are eligible for the school lunch program compared to ineligible children.(21) This achievement gap continues throughout the school years.

Figures 3 and 4 below show specific competency levels in reading, mathematics, and writing for children in Grades 4 and 12.(22) Achievement disparities exist at each grade level and for each area of competency. Figure 3 shows that poorer children are not achieving at even a basic level (defined as partial mastery of material for that grade level). The percentage of children who scored below a basic level of achievement was statistically higher for children who were eligible for the school lunch program compared to ineligible children.

Figure 3.
Percentage of Children Scoring Below Basic Achievement Levels
as a Function of Eligibility for the National School Lunch Program

Figure 3. Percentage of Children Scoring Below Basic Achievement Levels as a Function of Eligibility for the National School Lunch Program.

Note. Within each skill area, all within-grade differences are statistically significant.

Equally important, poorer children are not well represented among the higher performing students. Figure 4 shows that, compared to children who were ineligible for the school lunch program, many fewer eligible children scored at or above the proficient level (combines children who scored at either the proficient or advanced level). Attaining achievement at the proficient level (defined as solid academic performance and competency over challenging material) is the target for instruction agreed upon by the National Assessment Governing Board.

Figure 4.
Percentage of Children Scoring At or Above Proficient Level
as a Function of Eligibility for the National School Lunch Program

Figure 4. Percentage of Children Scoring At or Above Proficient Level as a Function of Eligibility for the National School Lunch Program.

Note. Within each skill area, all within-grade differences are statistically significant.

In sum, the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children that are evident in kindergarten and throughout the school years begin long before children enter preschool and kindergarten.(23) There is a tremendous amount of work for early childhood programs to do, and we must ensure that those programs work for all children. Head Start is doing a good job, but more progress must be made. Now is the time to strive for excellence and to utilize all our knowledge about how best to promote childrens competencies. Ensuring that Head Start and other early childhood programs serving disadvantaged children are state-of-the-art is the challenge at both federal and state levels.

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