Research Probes Cause of Poor Academic Achievement in Children

A team of researchers in the College of Education will use a new grant to look at why some groups of children are at risk for performing more poorly in school.

Known risk factors contribute to poor academic achievement; poverty, exposure to environmental toxins, and minority ethnicity or racial status are just a few. By identifying the challenges associated with lower academic achievement before children enter kindergarten, researchers hope to reduce systemic inequities and improve outcomes from education into adulthood.

Daniel Anderson, Leilani Sáez and John Seeley received a $50,000 grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation to launch the research project “Community Health and School Readiness: Closing the Gap.” They used the seed funding to hire a graduate student to assist with data collection, which will allow them to identify risk factors contributing to poorer academic outcomes for some groups of children.

The study will primarily examine economic gaps, especially pertaining to Oregon students. Studies have shown that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds generally perform worse in school than students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

Whatever the cause of the gaps, experts say, they lead to disadvantages not only in education but also in life.

“Part of the problem,” Anderson said, “is these gaps are actually present upon kindergarten entry.”

A primary focus of the project is promoting kindergarten readiness. Readiness will be measured by reading and math scores, as well as scores on interpersonal and self-regulation tests. Researchers hope that sending well-prepared students into kindergarten will reduce the development of achievement gaps.

Emerging research shows that early intervention in addressing achievement gaps effectively changes the trajectory of children’s lives. Confronting risk factors while children are most responsive to change leads to better long-term outcomes.

“Our project aims to help these types of prevention efforts by more precisely identifying neighborhood disadvantage and other early adverse risk factors associated with children’s underachievement in school,” Sáez said.

Right now, the team’s research is exploratory. Team members are pulling data on rates such as poverty, neglect and abuse and comparing them across geographic zones. When the data collection is complete, the team will create models to determine how social factors can predict life outcomes.

After identifying combinations of risk factors that lead to achievement gaps, the team hopes to work with existing organizations to help address children’s specific needs. Organizations like the Department of Human Services and social service agencies are effective in their interventions, but they often operate on limited resources.

Anderson, Sáez and Seeley want to identify trends that cause poor outcomes and then determine how to target resources most effectively to resolve existing risk factors.

“We’re trying to help build some sort of system where we could better target and identify where people are going to go to actually provide the services,” Anderson said.

Addressing this problem at only the community level, however, will not create change significant enough to effectively tackle the problem. Instead, researchers have found that a response from both communities and schools is necessary to close achievement gaps.

Anderson anticipates continuing to apply for funding to continue his research because it will take time to meaningfully address its causes.

“I’m just going to keep applying for funding as long as I can, so I don’t see an end in sight,” Anderson said.

—By Meghan Mortensen, College of Education