Inequality of Achievement Among Early Elementary Students Can Widen in Later Years
by Joe Savrock (February 2008)
Elementary school children exhibit a wide range of academic achievement levels. The great inequality of educational achievement among children is shaped by various factors, according to Katerina Bodovski, assistant professor of educational theory & policy at Penn State.
Bodovski’s research focuses on the experiences of elementary school children and the factors—related both to schools and to families—that have a significant effect on educational achievement. She says that there are numerous factors that are behind the differential in children’s experiences: “Parental characteristics, such as their education and occupation, family income, family structure, and parental activities with children in and outside of home influence children’s behavioral and cognitive readiness for school. Also, as it has been long found, time on task and effective instructional methods that boost student engagement with learning shape educational outcomes.”
Bodovski teamed with George Farkas, Penn State professor of sociology, to co-author two recent articles in scholarly journals in which they report findings on how mathematics readiness levels relate to subsequent achievement growth and the efficacy of instruction and engagement in producing such growth. The studies appear in The Elementary School Journal (“Mathematics Growth in Early Elementary School: The Roles of Beginning Knowledge, Student Engagement, and Instruction,” vol. 108, no. 2, Nov. 2007) and the Journal of Early Childhood Research (“Do Instructional Practices Contribute to Inequality in Achievement?: The Case of Mathematics Instruction in Kindergarten,” vol. 5, no. 3, Oct. 2007).
To carry out the two studies, Bodovski and Farkas used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), a nationally representative dataset maintained by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In the 1998–99 academic year, NCES collected base-year data on a cohort of more than 21,000 students who were in kindergarten at the time. Since then, NCES has been tracking the students, who now have reached middle school. The ongoing nature of the ECLS-K provides researchers with data to study the relationship between various factors and school performance over time.
Bodovski and Farkas found that students who began with the least knowledge exhibited the smallest gains in later years. This situation sets the stage for the knowledge gap among students to widen even further over time. “We found that students who began with the lowest achievement showed the least growth over this period,” said Bodovski. “Students in the lowest group received the most time on instruction but had the lowest engagement with instruction.”
Bodovski noted that time on instruction increased achievement for all students equally. But the effect of engagement was strongest among the lowest-performing group. “The lower engagement of the lowest-performing group explained more than half of their lower achievement growth in grades K–3,” she said.
“If inequality in mathematics achievement is to be reduced, teachers must make greater efforts to improve the beginning knowledge and academic engagement of this group,” she added.
Bodovski and Farkas also reported that children who are enrolled in full-day kindergarten programs show greater gains in mathematics learning than those enrolled in half-day programs.
Bodovski also is examining different parenting practices and their effects on early school achievement. “In particular, parental school involvement, children’s participation in extracurricular activities, educational trips taken with a family member, and the number of children’s books at home are associated with better engagement and achievement in both math and reading,” she explained. “Further, student engagement—being interested in learning, being organized, paying attention in class, and the like—has a strong and significant association with achievement.”
Bodovski’s current work is focused on further understanding of the relationships between different aspects of student behavior and educational achievement in elementary school, and how these are influenced by family practices and school settings. She is looking at these processes among different groups of children defined by social class, race, ethnicity, and immigration status.