Learning Gap Still Too Large a recent front-page headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The now familiar, seemingly intractable differences in academic performance between white students and students of color in Minnesota remain. It isn’t because white students have gotten smarter; it’s because students coming from communities of historic poverty and trauma are doing that much worse.
Almost every article on the topic talks about schools’ lack of progress in addressing this issue. As the CEO of an elementary school serving these very children, I struggle with how to address reading and math performance. Our strategies include higher-than-average teacher to student ratios (1 to 8); before, after, and during school tutoring; and high parent engagement. Our students who perform best are those who have been with us since birth, whose learning has been nurtured and supported by consistent, reliable, and sensitive adults in a stable environment. And, significantly, those whose parents have been supported through job changes, neighborhood shootings, and family tragedies.
Solving the achievement gap requires us to start from the very beginning of a child’s development:
- Before birth, the genetic blueprint that specifies the location and function of cells, organs, and other physical structures directs development. The health of the mother and her experiences influence the expression of that genetic blueprint.
- Once a baby is born, development is transformed into boundless interactive processes between the baby and her environment. Critical is the presence of at least one consistent, sensitive and protective relationship to help navigate the things she is too young to manage on her own and to help her build her own sense of confidence and esteem.
School success isn’t about the outcome – being able to read. School success is being emotionally ready and able get along with others, manage feelings, direct attention and enjoy learning. These foundational skills happen in the everyday moments of singing songs, playing peek-a-boo, and having a snack in the presence of consistent and sensitive caregivers. It is through stable relationships within an enriched learning environment –at both home or at childcare – that infants, toddlers and preschoolers become school ready.