The first day of kindergarten is a milestone in any kid’s life. And while it might look like the antsy, bouncy kindergartners who fill a first-day classroom are all starting off on the same page, research shows that a startling gap already exists between low-income kids and their more advantaged peers. An Annie E. Casey Foundation report finds that this learning gap starts well before school does. It’s evident as early as 9 months, in fact, when research shows a gap in cognitive development between babies in low-income and higher-income families. And these early differences in cognitive skills compound as kids go through school and even into adult life, as kids with low school readiness can get stuck in a perpetual game of catch up.
As a Brookings report notes, children with high levels of school readiness at age 5 “are generally more successful in grade school, are less likely to drop out of high school, and earn more as adults, even after adjusting for differences in family background.”
Closing this gap right from starting gate is the one of the aims of the federal government’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which announced a total of $280 million in grants to Pennsylvania and five other states last month.
Part of Pennsylvania’s $51.7 million grant will go towards creating 50 “community innovation zones.” These zones will serve the lowest performing elementary schools in the state with the goal of boosting family supports and strengthening relationships between early childhood education programs, school districts, and networks of community organizations. It will also fund high-quality professional development for early learning educators.
The Race to the Top grant is an exciting development for the state’s early learning system, but several Pittsburgh organizations have been hard at work serving youngsters and their families long before the state’s win.
The Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, or PAEYC, supports care and education for kids from birth until age 9 by providing professional development, community resources, and advocacy. PAEYC also looks for creative ways to promote digital literacy in early childhood education. It recently partnered with the CREATE Lab and the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University to create Message From Me, a project that places small, hands-on kiosks equipped with microphones, video cameras, and email into classrooms. These let kids ages 3 to 5 send recorded messages about their school days to their parents.
“The technology is great,” Michelle Figlar, who leads PAEYC, told Remake Learning last October. “But the goal of the project—to increase communication among parents, teachers, and young children and improve language development—is what’s primary. Especially in very low-income neighborhoods, where we know from the research that learning vocabulary is very important—that is a beautiful way of using technology.”
Like Figlar noted, vocabulary is a critical aspect of the school readiness gap. An often-cited study published in the 1990s observed 42 families across different socioeconomic backgrounds and found kids from low-income families heard about 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers by age 3. The kids’ language skills at 3 predicted their skills through when they were 9 and 10.
“Once children become independent and can speak for themselves, they gain access to more opportunities for experience,” wrote the study’s authors. “But the amount and diversity of children’s past experience influences which new opportunities for experience they notice and choose.”
A summer project from the Kingsley Association, Baby Promise, introduces parents and their young kids to new experiences with technology and familiarizes them with how technology can be used meaningfully for learning. The project offers instructional home visits for kids ages birth to age 3 and summer day camps for kids 3 to 6. Like Message From Me, tech is a key component of the Baby Promise project, but more important are the connections educators make with parents well before their kids are enrolled in school.
Carnegie Science Center is also to exposing young kids to experiences with meaningful technology. The Center’s Hello, Robo! program brings a full set of kid-friendly robotics to 132 Head Start preschool classrooms. (Head Start is a federal program that promotes school readiness for kids from low-income families.) The program also includes visits from Carnegie Science Center staff, who spark kids’ curiosity about the kid-programmable, bumblebee-shaped robots.
Learning begins much earlier than the first day of kindergarten. Ensuring kids start school with a good footing, through both Race to the Top initiatives and the work of Pittsburgh organizations, will help them start school with the skills they need to stay on track for a secure economic future.
Photo/ Sarah Gilbert