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The kindergarten-readiness gap between low-income and high-income students has not closed in a generation, even though parents are more involved than ever in their children’s education and state-funded pre-K, nutrition programs, and prenatal care are more accessible now than in the late 1990s.
That is the major finding of a new report by the Economic Policy Institute, in which researchers Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss analyzed kindergarten readiness data for socioeconomic groups in 1998 and 2010 to see if gaps in academic readiness have shrunk over time. The researchers found that large gaps for both reading and math performance between kindergarteners of high and low socioeconomic status were nearly the same in 1998 and 2010 even though there are more anti-poverty programs than ever before.
The researchers said that means the effects of poverty are more difficult to alleviate than policymakers may think.
“There is only so much that even comprehensive, well-designed programs can do to mitigate the pressures and effects of disadvantage and low social class,” said researcher Emma Garcia in a statement.
Although there is evidence that parental involvement and programs like high-quality pre-K can help close the achievement gap, the report suggests that health care and educational programs can not fully allay the effects of poverty. “While such activities as parental time spent with children and center-based pre-K programs cushion the negative consequences of growing up in a [low income] household, they can do only so much,” wrote the authors. The stubbornness of the gaps is a “matter of serious concern,” they said.
Although communities may see benefits from offering comprehensive support, the researchers said “to really eliminate the inequalities that begin at the very start of children’s life, we must tackle severe economic inequality head on.” That means investing in social reforms outside of education, Garcia explained in an interview, including unemployment insurance, Social Security disability insurance, and cash assistance. “Education gaps are the results, the consequence, of a combination of factors…education policy and interventions, public policies, and even economic policies,” she said.
The persistent kindergarten achievement gap may partly be explained by worsening conditions for low-income children, which may have canceled out any positive impacts of pre-K programs and community services. More than 84 percent of children in the lowest socioeconomic quintile of the federal data used for the study lived in poverty in 2010, compared to 71.3 percent in 1998. Nearly 55 percent of low-income children did not live with two parents in 2010, compared to 45.6 percent in 1998. Despite the growth in state-funded pre-K nationwide since 1998, low-income children were just as likely to be attending center-based prekindergarten in 1998 as in 2010. (Garcia said since then, prekindergarten offerings have most likely grown, but their data does not account for that).
One positive aspect of the findings is the increased involvement of low-income parents in their children’s education. There was growth in the number of books at home for low-income children, as well as an increase in the number of activities parents reported participating in with their children.
“Lower social-class parents are actually doing more to prepare their children for school than ever before,” said researcher Elaine Weiss in a statement. “But their efforts are simply not enough to counteract the ill effects of poverty and inequality, which have worsened, even as parental efforts and whole-child policies have increased.”
That doesn’t mean states should shy away from offering public preschool, summer enrichment programs, or mental health and nutrition programs, the authors said. The fact that the kindergarten readiness gap did not increase even as income inequality grew shows that parental investment in children’s education and increased access to pre-K programs may have stopped the gap from widening.
“We do not say [preschool] is not making a difference,” Garcia said. “We are saying that’s not enough, so we need more.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education and sign up for our weekly newsletter.