Four promising factors to close opportunity gaps among children of color – Early Learning Network
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Four promising factors to close opportunity gaps among children of color

Smiling children in preschool setting

Four promising factors to close opportunity gaps among children of color

The global Black Lives Matter movement has pushed us all to listen more, reflect deeply and take responsibility for our part in ending violence and racial injustice against Black communities and other marginalized communities of color.


The murders of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black citizens at the hands of police, cannot be met with silence and inaction.


Social inequities begin in the earliest years of life — and will continue if we do not make meaningful changes in the systems, policies and structures that perpetuate racism and White privilege in America.


As early childhood education researchers and scholars, we are in a unique position to contribute evidence-based solutions to close early opportunity gaps and pinpoint specific policies and practices that ensure all children are provided high-quality learning experiences and environments to reach their potential.


This is especially critical for Black children and other children of color who have been systematically oppressed for generations, particularly in education — the very system that promises them equal and equitable opportunities.


Since 2016, network teams across the country have been working to understand, explore and identify malleable factors — factors we have the ability to change — that narrow early learning gaps and help children maintain the preschool boost through early elementary school.


But far more work is ahead of us to shift from documenting gaps to closing them, especially for our students who have been placed at risk due to institutional inequities.



Closing opportunity gaps: What we’re learning


Early Learning Network researchers have identified four important factors, each with a set of actions, that may help eliminate or reduce early opportunity gaps based on race and income:


1. Teaching diverse learners requires cultural competence.


Research shows culturally responsive teaching practices are especially important for children of color and may help boost academic achievement and decrease inequities.


Consider these actions to build cultural responsiveness in the classroom:

  • Seek training and gather resources to gain self-awareness of one’s own culture and implicit biases, and focus on ways to change attitudes and behaviors.
  • Build awareness of children’s cultural backgrounds and acknowledge and affirm differences.
  • Ensure curricula and instructional approaches are rigorous and culturally responsive, especially for children of color.
  • Maintain high expectations for all students.


2. Parenting and home practices can encourage learning in a culturally responsive context.


Evidence shows parents who engage in at-home learning activities play a big role in children’s academic success by supporting early cognitive, language and social-emotional development.


Consider these actions to foster children’s learning at home and support positive parent-child interactions:


  • Focus on activities that build alphabet knowledge and counting skills, such as counting the number of things you can see and touch, sorting materials by size, color or shape, and talking about money.
  • Focus on activities that build language and problem-solving skills, such as reading books together, telling stories, defining and discussing new words, playing with blocks and puzzles, and reading books involving numbers and shapes.
  • Parents from communities of color may talk to their young children about racism and inequities, tell stories and engage in cultural traditions that build their racial identity and self-confidence in ways that benefit them in the classroom.


3. Home-school connections may reduce certain achievement and behavior gaps.


Building strong connections between home and school through respectful, accessible and strengths-based parent-teacher communication is an effective way to reduce disparities in education.


While connections between home and school tend to be weaker for parents of Black and Latinx children, it is critical to improve these relationships. Network researchers have found that better home-school connections may reduce gaps between Black and White children in math and problem behavior.


Consider these actions to strengthen home-school connections:


  • Communicate through regular home-school notes using positive and encouraging language that is accessible to parents.
  • Hold regular meetings to discuss children’s academic performance and social-emotional learning, addressing strengths, needs and priorities at home and school.
  • Ask parents their preferred way to communicate (e.g., in person, Zoom, phone call, text or email) and make accommodations to fit their schedule and language needs.


4. Learning environments must be enriching and responsive for all students, especially for children of color.


School and classroom environments, specifically the processes and practices used within them, are critical to supporting children’s learning, development and socialization.


High-quality classroom environments, especially those with high instructional support and positive relationships between students and teachers, are associated with improved academic and language skills.


In pre-K classrooms, evidence shows race-based achievement gaps may be reduced by teaching and supporting a range of both simple and more complex skills. Basic (constrained) skills include things like learning numbers, counting, letters, and sounds. More complex (unconstrained) skills include things like vocabulary, comprehension, critical thinking, and problem-solving.


Consider these actions to create enriching learning environments that build critical skills:


  • Ensure children master constrained skills, which are foundational for future learning.
  • Increase time spent in unconstrained instruction that promotes more complex skill building.
  • Increase the level of content pre-K students are exposed to, particularly in math.
  • Increase time spent in instructional domains of math and language/literacy.
  • Provide opportunities for teachers and students to form close, trusting relationships.


Next Steps


Considering the trauma and losses students are experiencing due to COVID-19 and the racial unrest, particularly felt by Black and Latinx children and families, it may be easy to lose sight of hope. But there are promising ways to build a more equitable education system for our youngest learners.


As early childhood researchers, we have to dig deeper to identify malleable factors and re-structure education to better meet the needs of Black children and other children of color. It is also imperative to share these findings in authentic and meaningful ways with the practice and policy communities to make real changes.


Moreover, researchers are called to expand the scope of their investigations. Traditional research, led predominately by White researchers, often does not fully capture what Black families and other families of color are doing at home to foster learning and development.


As a network, we will continue listening, learning and leveraging this national platform to help inform policies and practices that will eradicate racism in education and ensure that all children are prepared for school and life.



Dig Deeper


Time Well Spent: Home Learning Activities and Gains in Children’s Academic Skills in the Prekindergarten Year
Meghan P. McCormick, JoAnn Hsueh, MDRC; Amanda Ketner, Christina Weiland, University of Michigan; Catherine Snow, Harvard University; Jason Sachs, Boston Public Schools.


Trajectories of Achievement Gaps Starting in Pre-K: Identifying Malleable Factors to Close the Gap for All Learners
Early Learning Network Teams (IES PI Meeting)


Student-Teacher Relationships and Classroom Quality: Implications for Children of Color
Hannah Kerby, Rachel Schumacher, Susan Sheridan, Natalie Koziol and Amanda Witte, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Iheoma U. Iruka, UNL and HighScope Educational Research Foundation.


Paper in review: Examining Malleable Factors that Explain the End of Kindergarten Racial/Ethnic Gaps
Iheoma U. Iruka, HighScope Educational Research Foundation; Susan Sheridan, Natalie Koziol, Rachel Schumacher, Hannah Kerby, Amanda Prokasky and Dong-ho Choi, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.