06 October 2009

Just When Does the Achievement Gap Start?

Research on early brain development suggests that the human brain is partially completed in utero and continues to develop long after birth. Although infants are born with all the neurons they will ever have, the connections between neurons, or synapses, have not been established at birth. Most synapses are formed in the first 3 years of life. However, synaptic pruning continues into the teenage years. Brain synapses connect and are pruned in response to external stimuli. This means that the brain develops in response to children’s relationships and their environment. This is important because the accuracy and effectiveness of synaptic connections will determine how effectively the brain will function as children grow to adulthood (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004).

A child’s ability to develop effective cognitive, social and emotional skills in early childhood is dependent on the accuracy and effectiveness of their synaptic formation. Early brain development is crucially linked to later development because it provides the foundation upon which all of the more complex skills and abilities will be built (Thompson, 2001, Spring/Summer; Cunha & Heckman, 2007, May).

Children growing up in diverse economic and family circumstances do not have equal access to the relationships and environments that will support their early brain and mind development. This is critical because it means that their foundational skills, which will enable them to develop more intricate traits and abilities as they grow, are fundamentally different.

Ramey & Ramey (2004) discuss differences in the early childhood experiences of different groups of children in order to determine when it is possible to see a gap opening in the cognitive abilities of disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers. Their research, conducted over the last 30 years on participants in the original Carolina Abecedarian Project and subsequent cohorts of participants, has established that poor children and their more advantaged peers have demonstrable differences in their cognitive abilities beginning at 18 months of age.

At 18 months, disadvantaged children scored an average of 18 points lower than their more advantaged peers on the Mental Development Index of the Bayley Scales of Infant Development. Disturbingly, without intervention, this gap persisted and grew as the children in the study progressed to kindergarten. By the time they reached the kindergarten classroom, more advantaged children were an average of 2.5 years ahead of their disadvantaged peers developmentally (Ramey & Ramey, 2004, October). Multiple other studies that have tracked cohorts of young children have demonstrated the same early achievement gaps between poor and non-poor children and their persistence as children grow up (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007, Table 110; National Center for Education Statistics, 2007, Table 111; Barnett, 1996)

However, there is good news. Children who get access to high quality early childhood programs, like the Abecedarian Project, end up doing about as well as their more advantaged peers in early childhood. The Abecedarian Program provided disadvantaged children with high quality, full time child care from 6 weeks to 3 years of age, regular home visiting to help provide support and information for parents, access to economic supports like free diapers, free food and free transportation, full year pre-kindergarten from 3 years old till school entry. The gains that children in the program made, versus their peers who were not enrolled, persisted as the children grew into adulthood.


Barnett, W.S. (1996). Lives in the Balance: Age-27 Benefit-Cost Analysis of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. Monographs of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, 11. Ypsilanti, Mich.: High/Scope Press.

Cunha, F. & Heckman, J.J. (2007, May). The Technology of Skill Formation. American Economic Review, 97, 2, 31-47.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). Table 110. Mean reading scale scores and specific reading skills for fall 1998 first time kindergarteners, by time of assessment and selected characteristics: Selected years, fall 1998 through spring 2004. Digest of Education Statistics. [Accessed September 2009] http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_110.asp

National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). Table 111. Mean mathematics and science scale scores and specific mathematics skills of fall 1998 first-time kindergartners, by time of assessment and selected characteristics: Selected years, fall 1998 through spring 2004. Digest of Education Statistics. [Accessed September 2009] http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_111.asp

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved [August 21, 2009] from www.developingchild.net/pubs/wp/environment_of_relationships.pdf

Ramey, C.T. & Ramey, S.L. (2004, October). Early Learning and School Readiness: Can Intervention Make a Difference? Merrill Palmer Quarterly, 50, 4, 471-491.

Thompson, R. A. (2001, Spring/Summer). The Growth of the Brain. The Future of Children: Caring for Infants and Toddlers 11, 1. [Accessed September 2009]. http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=44&articleid=186&sectionid=1212

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