Last week, the Obama Administration, in partnership with Too Small to Fail and the Urban Institute, hosted a group of federal, state and local policy makers, philanthropists, researchers and advocates at the White House for a day of shared learning on “Bridging the Word Gap.” The convening is a follow-up to the President’s call to action on early education and the word gap earlier this year.
The President and his Administration are not alone in their interest in the subject. A growing coalition across the political spectrum is devoting attention and action to children’s earliest experiences. The driving catalyst is a combination of the growing literature on developmental and brain science that has permeated public policy and public knowledge, a stubborn achievement gap, and socioeconomic-driven disparities appearing in children much earlier than any American can stomach.
So what does the word gap have to do with brain development and subsequent socioeconomic disparities? A lot. The word gap technically refers to the difference in the quantity of words a high versus low-income child hears in the first few years of life. But the word gap is really much more than that. It is a proxy for the varying levels of enriching or quality experiences children have in their early years. In this case, the quantity of words children hear is correlated with the quality of interactions they are experiencing. We know from almost two decades of research that early experiences shape brain development. If we can bridge this word gap — both in quantity and quality — and provide more children with the foundational early experiences they need to be astute learners in preschool, kindergarten and beyond, we may be able to make more progress on the stubborn achievement gap and ensuing socioeconomic disparities. But we can’t get there unless we start early — really early.