Understanding the Achievement Gap
What is the “achievement gap”
and how does it form?
The term “achievement gap” originated in the 1960s, when researchers began studying the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. As Education Week explains it:
“The achievement gap shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates, among other success measures. It is most often used to describe the troubling performance gaps between African-American and Hispanic students, at the lower end of the performance scale, and their non-Hispanic white peers, and the similar academic disparity between students from low-income families and those who are better off.”
Lately, research has shown that achievement gaps are growing fastest not between students of different races, but those of different income levels. In 2012, the New York Times reported that while the achievement gap between black and white students has shrunk since the 1960s, the achievement gap between low and high-income families has grown by 40 percent.
Achievement gaps open early — often before children even reach kindergarten. That’s because children experience a period of rapid development during their first few years of life. Between the ages of 0-3, children’s brains grow to about 80 percent of their adult size, and develop more than 1 million neural connections each second.
Early talk is the key to closing achievement gaps
Of all the influencing factors in a child’s early environment, interactive talk is the strongest single predictor of a child’s IQ and school readiness, according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.
Interactive talk occurs when a child and caregiver respond back-and-forth to each other. These “conversational turns” build babies’ brains in a way nothing else can.
But children experience vastly different levels of interactive talk. In 1995, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that children from low-talk homes heard 30 million fewer words than children from high-talk homes. Follow-up studies using LENA technology have confirmed a “talk gap” that’s correlated with socioeconomic status, commonly referred to as the “30 million word gap.”
Because of these differences in exposure, children enter school with radically different levels of literacy and cognitive development. One study found that children with vocabularies of 2,500 words were learning in the same first-grade classroom as children with vocabularies of 10,000 words.
When a child starts out that far behind academically, it’s hard to ever catch up. Research tells us that a child’s vocabulary at age three predicts language and reading skills at ages 9-10, about the time they’re finishing third grade. In turn, third grade reading scores strongly predict high school graduation. That means that students who start out behind will often stay behind. There’s a clear trajectory that can be traced from early childhood to early adulthood.
Inspired by that research, our founder Terry Paul created the LENA device as a means of giving parents and caregivers objective feedback on exactly how much they talk with children.
By teaching caregivers about the importance of interactive talk and equipping them with practical strategies to increase conversations every day, our mission is to close the “early talk gap” — and consequently the achievement gap – for good.
Proving the Power of Talk: 10 Years of Research on the Impact of Language on Young Children
The past decade was seen widespread acceptance that early language plays a critical role in babies’ brain growth and in their subsequent success in school and in life. Read a summary of the latest research on the power of early talk!