Narrowing the “hope gap:” City Connects and lessons from Norway

Boston College Professor Eric Dearing has just published a research paper on student achievement gaps in Norway, and his research shows that countries – including Norway and the United States – aren’t doing enough to close these gaps.

Fortunately, Dearing says, programs like City Connects can help close these gaps because of the way City Connects Coordinators work with students, by assessing strengths and meeting needs. 

Before he became a professor in the Department of Counseling, Developmental & Educational Psychology at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, Dearing was a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard’s School of Education and Harvard Medical School where his mentor was the late Stuart Hauser, M.D. 

“Hauser had a collaboration with some Norwegian researchers that I had known about, and after I arrived at Boston College, he called and said, I’ve got a group of researchers from Norway, would you come over and give a presentation and then come to dinner with us?

That invitation led to a global collaboration. 

“I was already doing a lot of work on poverty and child development in the United States,” Dearing says. “And while Norway is different from here – it has very different social policies – it also has child poverty.” 

Much of Dearing’s research in Norway has looked at that country’s universal early childhood program. Among Dearing’s findings, “the availability of high-quality child care beginning at that age is reducing early achievement gaps in Norwegian communities.” 

His recent research paper – The Widening Achievement Gap Between Rich and Poor in a Nordic Country, co-written with Norwegian colleagues and published by the American Educational Research Association – studies “a decade of achievement gaps for fifth-, eighth-, and 10th-grade students in Norway.”

Even though Norway is “an egalitarian country with a homogeneous educational system,” Dearing and his colleagues write, they found large achievement gaps “between students at the 90th and 10th percentiles of parental income and between students whose parents have at least a master and at most a high school degree.”

The gap was “equivalent to about 2 to 2.5 years of schooling,” and increased by grade level.

Over time, the income-level gap increased, while the gap based on parental education remained the same, because while income and education are closely linked in the United States, they are not as closely linked in Norway, where pre-college education is strong and social programs buffer the impact of earning a lower income. 

“Our wealth gap in the U.S. is roughly twice as large as Norway’s, but theirs is still big,” Dearing explains. And both countries, along with many others, need to close these gaps. 

 “Countries need to be concerned,” Dearing says. “It’s not just about the fact that the differences in earnings are getting bigger. It’s not just that even when you control for income, there are still growing differences. It’s because families who have enough are getting more opportunities; and families who don’t have enough are not able to get access to opportunities.”

This is a moral problem and an economic one because children who grow up without key opportunities tend to have more health problems, earn less as adults, and, as a result, generate less in tax revenues. 

Research conducted by Dearing and others does suggest that universal early childhood programs do close some of these gaps, but they can’t do this work alone. 

That’s where City Connects comes in. City Connects fills opportunity gaps with services, supports, and enrichment programs to ensure that no matter how much money or education their parents have, students have many opportunities to be successful. 

“When children have that abundance of opportunity, they also have hope and they have self efficacy,” Dearing says. “City Connects and other programs help by strategically tailoring a plan of enrichments for children.” 

“A lot of what City Connects does is narrow the hope gap, narrowing that gap in opportunity and helping students find a niche where they have talent and they can thrive – which is what we see wealthy parents do for their children.”

Another benefit of City Connects, Dearing adds, is that it builds on national strengths. 

“In the United States, we have been reluctant to use the state to help support families,” especially compared to Norway and other European countries. “One unintended, positive consequence of this is that we have a flourishing community of nonprofit organizations that want to support children and families. 

“City Connects is taking advantage of this by connecting these organizations to children and families. It’s a brilliant part of City Connects, the recognition that we have these wonderful nonprofits and they just need help connecting to children.” 

There is much more work to do to identify and close achievement gaps. Dearing is currently working on a study of the United States to identify the number of opportunities that children have based on factors including where they live, where they go to school, what afterschool programs they participate in.

Like Dearing’s work in Norway, this research promises to provide more insight into the work City Connects does to provide children with the opportunities they need now to have lifelong success in the future.

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