The development of the achievement gap during early childhood: Trends in head start



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Research in the eras before and after desegregation has highlighted a growing achievement gap between White students and their African American and Hispanic peers. While this achievement gap is now realized as a lifespan process (e.g., present during early childhood, primary school secondary school, college, and in occupational realizations), its prevalence during early childhood and the profound ripple effect that influences subsequent stages of development warrants further examination. Using a capital investment framework situated within Bandura’s (1986) Social Cognitive Theory, this study examined the antecedents of the achievement gap. Utilizing the 3-year old cohort from the Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES; USDHHS, 2013), I analyzed the nature of the achievement gap with responses from 1,713 children (NWhite= 384, NAfrican American= 654, NHispanic= 675) and parents, and nearly 500 teachers. Employing a series of quantitative techniques, I examined the extent of the achievement gap between students from different racial groups across four waves of data for three measures of achievement (i.e., logic and mathematics, spelling, and letter – word recognition). Cohen’s d analyses were utilized to examine the extent of the achievement difference between racial groups and growth curve models (single- and multi-level) were utilized to examine the influence of time variant and time invariant predictors on the development of that achievement gap.
Results from this study indicate patterns of achievement and instructional influence that do not fit within contemporary research. While no meaningful achievement gap was evidenced for spelling achievement, White students had a considerable lead in mathematics and logic and African American students had a considerable lead in letter-word recognition. Parents’ and teachers’ instructional activities differentially influenced student achievement at each wave, not only as a function of racial group, but also as a function of content domain. In mathematics and logic, teachers’ instructional activities predicted increases in achievement for African American students. While parents’ instructional activities did not predict achievement at each wave, teachers’ instruction was shown to be a negative predictor of student achievement for White and Hispanic students. In spelling, parents’ instructional activities had a distinct, incremental predictive pattern on White students’ achievement. Teachers had an incremental predictive influence on African American students’ achievement. In letter-word recognition, parents’ instructional activities were shown to incrementally enhance the achievement of Hispanic students. Teachers’ instructional activities consistently predicted achievement for African American students and showed an increasing pattern of influence on achievement for Hispanic students. Parent demographics played unique roles in predicting student achievement during the first year of Head Start for each of the achievement tests and racial group. More specifically, information not otherwise gained through measures during the time in Head Start suggests that parental demographics (e.g., income, employment, education) influence student achievement differentially for each racial group. Theoretical implications and future research directions are discussed.



Early Childhood, Achievement, Achievement Gap, Teacher Instruction, Parent Instruction