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Understanding the Achievement Gap in Early Childhood Education

Early childhood education offers the opportunity to narrow the achievement gap for children in underrepresented groups.

Understanding the Achievement Gap in Early Childhood Education

Understanding the Achievement Gap in Early Childhood Education

For decades, inequality has been an issue that's negatively impacted the level of education children receive. From birth to adulthood, racial and socioeconomic disparities have limited underrepresented groups in areas such as school readiness, educational development, future employment, and more. As a result, everything from where a child is born to where they enroll in school can have lifelong repercussions and limitations on their future. 

In this article, we'll discuss the achievement gap in early childhood education, why it exists, its causes, and how we can close it.

What is the achievement gap?

The achievement gap in education refers to disparities in educational attainment and academic performance between groups of students. These groups can be related to race, mental and physical abilities, and socioeconomic status. The achievement gap generally refers to inequitable and unequal access to education. The most troubling achievement gaps occur between children from low-income families and wealthier families. They’re also prevalent in African-American and Hispanic children who fall at the lower end of the achievement scale than their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

A diverse trio of children playing at the table in their classroom.


Children born into and raised in poverty often face disadvantages related to their health and education. As early as 18 months, these disadvantages can show in their vocabulary development. While early childhood education programs don't necessarily create achievement gaps, they can contribute to them, further widening or narrowing the gap. Children's development can only improve with access to quality preschool programs, leading to future academic progress.

What causes the achievement gap?

Several complex and often interrelated factors contribute to the achievement gap. At the center of the issue is a combination of community, home, and in-school factors that generally impact minorities, low-income, socioeconomically challenged, and intellectually-challenged children. These disparities have led to decades of implicit and explicit bias towards these groups, resulting in a lack of adequate resources, ultimately leading to long-term disadvantages and limited educational, financial, and professional growth opportunities.

However, socioeconomic inequities are the most significant contributor to the achievement gap, as shown by the broader gap in areas where economic disparities are more prevalent. Minorities and those from low-income and low-employment areas generally make up groups in these areas. As a result, they lack access to the same opportunities as their peers from more affluent areas and families.

Why is there an achievement gap in education?

The achievement gap exists across all levels of education. Gaps may exist between groups and impact test performance, access to courses and educational opportunities, high school and college completion, and even future employment opportunities. The contributing factors vary by school, district, city, state, community, and more. 

For example, children from low-income areas often attend poorly resourced schools with limited and less challenging curricula, fewer extracurricular opportunities, little to no technological resources, and more. Additionally, children in these schools are less likely to be taught by well-qualified and experienced teachers and enroll in larger class sizes, negatively impacting their attention level. 

Studies have shown that eight areas, in particular, contribute to racial and income achievement gaps. These contributing factors are divided into two categories; those within the school’s control and those that aren’t. 

Factors within schools' control

Contributing factors to the achievement gap that are within the school's control include schoolwide factors such as low expectations for a child's achievement, a lack of rigor in the curriculum, large class sizes, tracking groups of children into a less demanding curriculum, unsafe schools, culturally unfriendly environments, and poor, or no, instructional leadership.

Additionally, there are factors within the school's control related to teachers and teaching methods, including uncertified and inexperienced teachers, an insensitivity to different cultures, poor teacher preparation, low expectations of children, and inadequate materials, equipment, and resources, including technology-based resources. 

Some factors fall within the school's control but are related to the children, such as their interest in school, their level of effort, and their feeling that they're responsible for their learning. Family support is also called into question, including families' participation in school activities, their ability to support and reinforce learning, and children's TV-watching and at-home reading habits.

Factors outside schools' control

The factors outside the schools' control contributing to achievement gaps vary from the child's background and community to education funding and family support. However, when it comes to the local community, economic opportunity for students' families, access to health and social services, community safety, access to libraries, museums, and other institutions that support students' development, and access to child care and after-school programs and facilities impact the achievement gap.

A child's background, birth weight, diet and nutrition at home, mobility, primary language, and family income level are key factors. In addition, education funding shortfalls such as state budget deficits, unfunded federal mandates, and inequities among school districts can directly impact the achievement gap. Lastly, much like the factors within the school's control, familial support for the child's learning is a factor. This includes the amount of time family members can devote to supporting and reinforcing their learning and other societal biases such as race, ethnicity, poverty, and class.

How to close the achievement gap?

Research shows that early childhood, specifically the first five years of life, significantly impacts social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. Early childhood education lays the foundation for healthy development through educational experiences. Expanding access to quality early childhood education programs can help close the achievement gap. Enrolling children in a preschool environment as early as possible exposes them to new activities, places, social skills, and a language-rich environment. In addition, more equal opportunities and access to such programs can help improve underrepresented groups' school readiness and overcome other economic inequalities.

Early childhood education programs and schools can also take several steps to close the achievement gap. For example, schools can employ qualified teachers and a staff that reflects the diversity of the children in the school. They can also ensure that children are placed in reasonably-sized classes so that each child can receive enough one-on-one attention to meet their individual needs.

As for teachers and administrators, understanding cultural differences, developmental issues, and various backgrounds can help teachers connect with the children better and provide them with the help and resources they need to be successful. Additional training and ongoing professional development can facilitate learning for children impacted by the academic gap. This will provide them with the necessary knowledge and skill set to effectively engage with children who require additional help to achieve academic success.

As a teacher, you can also encourage families to actively participate in their children's education to provide them with a support system at home. You can do this by: 

  • Inviting families to learn more about you, your teaching methods, and the childcare center. 
  • Offering them opportunities to participate or volunteer in the classroom. This can include reading to the class or helping with various activities and projects. 
  • Regularly sharing their child's progress to maintain an open line of communication and provide feedback.

Narrowing the achievement gap

Equity and equality in early childhood education are priorities, and educators and administrators should clearly understand the issue. Maintaining an open dialogue on overcoming these challenges and closing the gap is instrumental to children's futures. These underrepresented groups need individuals who will advocate for them and provide as much support and resources as possible to enhance their academic development. By providing equal opportunities for access to quality education, resources, extracurricular activities, and diverse and advanced curriculum, early childhood education professionals can help make significant improvements.

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