Jamie Zibulsky Ph.D.

Book Smart

The Exposure Gap: Connecting the Dots

Universal pre-k can address our nation’s achievement gap.

Posted Feb 06, 2014

There are some hot topics in education that people bring up time and time again. For decades now, a great deal of attention has been given to the achievement gap observed between relatively advantaged students and relatively disadvantaged students. When we talk about the achievement gap, we are talking about a divide between two groups of students, and one which grows bigger each year children spend in school. This divide separates children whose families are fairly affluent and who attend schools in safe communities, with generally well-trained teachers and strong academic instruction (children who, it should be noted, are predominantly Caucasian and Asian) and children (predominantly of African-American and Latino descent) whose families are relatively poor and who attend school in unsafe communities, where resources are scarce and teachers face many more challenges. I’m skimming over many nuances of this complex issue, because my goal in this post is to connect this topic with another one that has recently gotten a lot of attention.

The topic of universal pre-kindergarten, a policy issue that has been brewing at the state level for many years, has recently become a national issue. As Gail Collins wrote in the New York Times last week, preschool has gotten hot (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/30/opinion/collins-how-preschool-got-hot....).

More and more, people seem to recognize the value of ensuring that all children have early access to the types of learning environments that lead to later life success, and I am very excited that conversation about this topic is getting louder and longer. For more about my thoughts on the issue, take a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkFiijEWjYc.

But I am going to zip right past the details of this debate as well, because what I’d like to do is connect the dots between these two topics. Labeling the discrepancy between high-performing and low-performing students an achievement gap puts the responsibility for this outcome on the children. If what we are measuring and labeling is children’s output and performance (their achievement), then our focus during evaluation is on them. And when we are not satisfied with their output or performance, we – to varying degrees, and perhaps inadvertently – blame them for their underachievement.

However, one of the main reasons many people support the idea of universal pre-kindergarten programs is the widespread recognition that “children from low-income families are less likely to have access to high-quality early education, and less likely to enter school prepared for success” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/13/fact-sheet-preside...). In other words, it is very clear that the achievement gap stems from disparities way beyond the control of individual children.

What we call an achievement gap truly begins as an exposure gap. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are – on average – spoken to less in their homes, have fewer books in their homes, communities, and local libraries, and attend schools where they are given fewer opportunities than their more advantaged peers to engage in language and literacy activities. These kids are exposed to way less, educationally. (And, on a tangent, exposed to way more in terms of stress and challenging life experiences: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/protecting-children-from...)

There is power in the terms that we use to discuss these issues, and I wonder if shifting our focus from achievement (output) to exposure (input) would help adults keep their attention where it should be – on creating environments that provide all children exposure to positive role models, a wide variety of books and conversations, and the many other essential ingredients in early childhood education. We have the power to shape children’s educational trajectories from the time that they are born and for years before measures of achievement become intractable to change. I hope we start to take the opportunity to do so.