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The Early Origins Of The STEM Achievement Gap (And What Can Be Done To Help)

Every year, like a drumbeat, more articles, studies and reports detail the reasons that a disproportionally low number of people of color are employed in the well paid science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions. One result has been a myriad of programs designing to attract, prepare, mentor, and retain secondary and college-age underrepresented students into the STEM fields. An interesting new study, however, suggests that solutions to this problem need to begin much earlier, prior to kindergarten in fact.

First, it should be noted race or ethnicity, per se, are not really what’s at issue in terms of students’ relative success in the STEM fields, but rather the historic and persistent lack of opportunity afforded to certain segments of U.S. society, resulting in the overrepresentation of people of color among the ranks of the poor.  And further, it is not poverty in itself, but poverty's accompanying life conditions that help to explain performance gaps that begin at home and extend into schooling and beyond.

In this case, the study’s authors, Morgan, Farkas, Hillemeier and  Maczuga, argue that “the strongest contributors to science achievement gaps in the United States are general knowledge gaps that are already present at kindergarten entry. Therefore, interventions designed to address science achievement gaps in the United States may need to be implemented very early in children’s development (e.g., by or around school entry, if not earlier) so as to counteract the early onset of general knowledge gaps during the preschool and early elementary years.”

This is not really surprising. Indeed, there is a large swath of research, written about on these pages many times (here, here, and here, for example), showing that the early acquisition of background knowledge is highly related to later academic success.  Knowledge accumulation begins from the earliest days of life. It builds through years of verbal and nonverbal interactions with parents, caregivers, and teachers, who model spoken language and help young children develop vocabulary, concepts, and theories about the world. And, as might be expected, children from more economically advantaged backgrounds typically have an early start in this process of knowledge acquisition—with a significant advantage in oral language skill and information mastery by the time they enter kindergarten.

Or, as the researchers state: 

…results from our study indicate that some groups of children enter U.S. kindergarten classrooms already far less knowledgeable about the natural and social sciences than other groups of children. These preexisting general knowledge gaps in turn strongly predict general knowledge gaps in first grade, which in turn strongly predict science achievement gaps in third grade. Then, from third through eighth grades, experiencing lower reading and mathematics achievement is predictive of these science achievement gaps’ persistence. Much of the sociodemographic science achievement gaps in the later elementary and middle school grades can be explained by modifiable factors measured during the primary grades. Overall, the strongest contributors to science achievement gaps in the United States are general knowledge gaps that are already present at kindergarten entry.

What can be done? Thankfully, the importance of developing the oral language skills and background knowledge in very young children has gained a lot of attention in recent years, championed even by one of our leading presidential candidates. One result is that an increasingly large number of free resources for parents and other early care givers are now available (here, here and here, for example), which should be disseminated as widely as possible to the parents and caregivers who need them the most.

In addition, the highest rate of vocabulary development (and corresponding acquisition of background knowledge) occurs during the preschool and early elementary years. Thus, this is a crucial time to provide age-appropriate, content-rich instruction. To help model developmentally-appropriate, language-focused, content-rich preschool curricula, the Albert Shanker Institute (ASI) developed a series of professional modules for early childhood educators, including one on early science development. This module provides training and materials in the three key areas of physical science, life science, and earth science, along with applied information for improving instruction in each area. An excerpt, including all training materials in preschool life science, can be downloaded for free from the ASI website.

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