There is widespread evidence that poor children in the US do not have a fair start in life. By age 2, there is a 6 month gap between children of low and high socioeconomic status in processing skills that are important for language development. By age 4, children in very poor families will have heard 30 million fewer words than their better-off peers. These differences persist. Variations in high school test scores between low and high-income children can be predicted from elementary school performance. As a result, many campaigns have focused on the importance of early years intervention in improving a child's life chances.
In addition, academic research into the high returns to investing in young children has influenced a policy shift. James Heckman, a Nobel-prize winning economist, has argued that if the foundations of cognitive and non-cognitive development are not set early on, there will be nothing to build upon in teenage years. He points to the seminal Perry pre-school project, an early intervention program designed to improve the outcomes of disadvantaged African-American youth in the 1960s. The return to intervening at such a young age is estimated to be between 7 and 10 per cent, calculated as the sum of private gains (e.g. staying on in education and earning a higher wage) and social gains (e.g. costs saved from reduced crime rates). President Obama has therefore emphasised the importance of early intervention in reducing inequality.
But there is a danger that such rhetoric leads to older children being forgotten. This blog does not dispute the evidence that early years intervention is important. But the US is not at the point at which all children start school equal. Furthermore, some schools are failing to help them catch up. An emphasis on mainstream standardised testing is detrimental to those who are not used to such discipline. Disadvantaged students are more likely to be disengaged, and have less drive, motivation and self-belief, leading to higher drop-out rates.
In addition, things are getting worse for older children, who neither appear as cute as babies nor as vulnerable as the elderly in advocacy campaigns. As mentioned in last week's blog, if you are a high-school drop out, your chance of being employed is at its lowest level since records began (in 1970). The likelihood that you are out of the workforce altogether is at its highest level for over a decade. Worse, the US schooling system is not even equipping its average student with the skills necessary to succeed in today's information economy. In a wider test of attributes of 15 year olds - the Programme for International Student Assessment - the US ranked 27th out of 34 countries. US students are, it would appear, unable to "think outside the box".
What we need to do is borrow the early years philosophy - which focuses on cognitive development - and apply it to young people, disadvantaged or otherwise. The standardised testing approach leaves little room for the development of critical thinking and challenge. Finland, by contrast has all but eradicated standardised tests, opting for a more equitable and relaxed school experience. If we made school more enjoyable and inclusive then, in theory, students from every background could flourish, not just those who benefited from early years intervention. By doing so, we can increase the likelihood that all students finish high school more equally than they started.