Closing the Achievement Gap Through Quality Learning Experiences: The Importance of Being Early

Our nation faces a persistent education achievement gap, marked by a vast difference in the academic performance of children in underserved and more advantaged socioeconomic groups. The results of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, show that nearly half (48%) of fourth grade students who received a fully subsidized school lunch were below a basic level of reading proficiency, compared to 17% of the students who were not eligible to receive a subsidized lunch.

The cost of the achievement gap is extremely high. A study by McKinsey & Company estimates that the gap has cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars in economic output, and that “each of the long-standing achievement gaps among U.S. students of differing ethnic origins, income levels, and school systems represents hundreds of billions of dollars in unrealized economic gains.”

Educators, policymakers, and others have appropriately considered a wide range of approaches to solving the complex problem of closing the achievement gap, examples of which include changing teaching and disciplinary practices, increasing school funding, and providing additional support to disadvantaged families. A new study co-authored by the economist James Heckman, and the growing body of research on brain and cognitive development, illuminate three key reasons why providing quality learning experiences early in the lives of children is an essential component of the solution.

1.     Rapid brain development occurs during the early years.

Studies published by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child inform us that between birth and age three, the human brain develops in remarkable ways that differ from the development that takes place during any other stage in life. During this critical period, the brain forms a foundation for all later learning, health, and behavior.

A child’s experiences during the first three years of life affect the strength of that foundation. High quality interactions between children and their caregivers during this period are especially vital for children’s development of vision, hearing, language, and higher cognitive skills. This makes it important for children under three who spend time away from their parents during the day to interact with skilled caregivers who engage children in “serve and return” and other behaviors that support healthy brain development.

The opportunity to support healthy brain development does not end at age three, but providing early quality support can contribute to a child’s continued development and success in later years, and avoid the cost of remediation when children miss those opportunities.

2.    The achievement gap begins before kindergarten, and when left unaddressed, continues beyond high school

Although studies of the achievement gap in the U.S. typically focus on school performance, research indicates that the gap begins long before school starts. A recent report by Child Trends concludes that in Washington, DC, the gap begins in infancy. The report details how “glaring inequities” in economic status, health, and other aspects of well-being contribute to disparities in early learning and development among the approximately 9,000 babies born each year in our nation’s capital.

Similarly, a study by psychologists at Stanford University found that by age 18 months, “significant disparities” in language proficiency between infants from disadvantaged and more advantaged backgrounds were already evident. By age 24 months, there was a six-month gap between the groups in “processing skills critical to language development.”

Over time, these disparities can worsen and have long-term adverse consequences that persist into adulthood. Without intervention, underserved children who start school behind their more advantaged peers continue to lag behind them in later years in school, are more likely to drop out of high school, and face greater employment challenges.

3.    Quality early learning experiences help close the achievement gap and yield lasting benefits

New research by James Heckman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California provides powerful evidence that making quality learning experiences available to underserved children early in life supports their cognitive and social-emotional development, helps close the achievement gap, and benefits them for years after school ends.

Heckman’s research analyzes the long-term benefits of two identical preschool experiments conducted in North Carolina in the 1970s that focused on disadvantaged African American children. As part of the experiments, one group of children (the treatment group) received quality, early childhood-center-based care that included nutrition, access to health care, and early learning, from ages eight weeks to five years. The other group of children (the control group) received either lower-quality center-based care or in-home care during the same period.

The Heckman study examined the effects of these experiments on the participants through age 21. It found that participants in the treatment group had “significantly better life outcomes”—as measured by their cognitive and social-emotional development, high school graduation rates, years of education, health, adult employment, and adult income—than participants in the control group (though the results were different for females and males). Consistent with the Harvard brain development research, Heckman states that “the defining characteristic of a high-quality program, more than a certain staffing ratio or training regimen, is empathetic adults who engage meaningfully with their young charges, giving them personalized attention as they grow and develop.”

The Heckman study also found that:

  • Early exposure to quality care and engaged caregivers from birth gave participants a boost in IQ that endured through the final measurement at age 21.
     
  • IQ gains occurred early in the lives of the participants, with most of the growth in cognitive skills taking place by age three.
     
  • Providing quality care to children from ages zero to five resulted in clear benefits to the public, including reductions in health care costs and crime. Overall, providing quality care produced a 13% per year return on investment, which is significantly higher than the 7-10% return on investment associated with preschool programs for three- to four-year-olds.

Heckman asserts that these results present “very strong evidence for supporting this kind of program going forward.” He stated, “The data speaks for itself. Investing in the continuum of learning from birth to age 5 not only impacts each child, but it also strengthens our country’s workforce today and prepares future generations to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.”

At Inner City-Inner Child, we see the impact of early education every day, and are proud to provide these benefits of early childhood education to low-income families and children in DC. Our early-learning programs set children on the road to future success which, as this study demonstrates, has a ripple effect that lasts well beyond our classes. To learn more about our programs, click here.


For more than two decades, Inner City-Inner Child (ICIC) has supported early childhood education in Washington, DC through arts education programs and early childhood development training. We provide quality arts integration and early childhood development programs that serve low-income families in DC. ICIC also provides arts-focused professional development programs for teachers who work in early childhood centers and school-based early childhood education programs in DC. In addition, we engage low-income DC parents in child development activities that help them create learning experiences at home.