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A pre-K student works on a writing assignment in a DC classroom. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

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.

Related: New research finds “Magic 8” preschool practices

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.

“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.”

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).

Related: African-American boys who tell better stories as preschoolers may learn to read more quickly

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.”

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  1. The report on the Economic Policy Institute study on the learning gaps between SES tiers leaves those of us with an interest in the education of children living in poverty with serious concerns. It appears that, once again, an assumption is being made that learning gaps, such as kindergarten readiness, are something that happens between birth and school and, once a child reaches school, the schools will correct those gaps with pre-school programs and the children will be ready to compete with their more well off peers. At worse, the schools will create programs to alleviate the learning gaps by third grade.

    That approach might work if the learning gaps were, in fact, something that developed between birth and school. The University of Kansas study indicating the children of two professional parents hear 30,000,000 more words by age three than do the children of a single, welfare mother readily explains the early learning gaps. As an aside, it is disheartening to see the EPI’s findings of an increase of children living in poverty and with single parents.

    All of this talk of “failing” schools, which are virtually all located in high poverty areas, assumes learning gaps are created in the schools once a child arrives and the schools have the resources to mitigate these gaps by developing programs specifically addressing children in poverty. It is faulty thinking.

    The gaps, like kindergarten readiness, are created in the home. That 30,000,000 word difference does not stop when the children reach school. Some children go home to their wealthier, more educated parents and others go home to their poorer, less educated parents. A child has roughly 5500 waking hours per year and spends less than 1000 of those hours involved with school. The remaining 4500 hours are under their parents supervision. Even with school, the wealthier children are still hearing 15 to 20 million more words that the needier children. That is the primary source of the learning gaps.

    This was validated by the Johns Hopkins University study of Baltimore schools in which it was found the largest growth of learning gaps did not even occur during the school year. The gaps grew most during the summer when all children tend to regress but needier children regress more.

    The concept of “failing” schools was created by the George W. Bush administration in its rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and adding the moniker, No Child Left Behind. Ironically, ESEA was created by the Johnson administration in his War on Poverty as a means of helping needy children. Bush used the program to place the blame for learning gaps on the schools. Since the schools are not the source of the gaps, all of the NCLB and, later, the Race to the Top monies have had no impact whatsoever on closing the learning gaps. This is validated by the National Assessment of Education Progress data from 2003 to 2012 indicating, while scores overall increased modestly, no change occurred in the gaps.

    It would be nice if, as the EPI researchers suggest, if we, as a society, faced poverty head on and lead the inordinate number of adults living in poverty to a better place. In a book, Poverty & Despair vs. Education & Opportunity cowritten with Al Colella, Ph. D., we found moving adults out of poverty to be a monumental task. First and foremost, in this country, there is little political will to do so. We maintain people in poverty by seeing people do not starve, have some housing and medical care but we do nothing to get them out of poverty. Secondarily, there are the circumstances in which the poor are living and trying to survive. Many are hardworking but for minimal wages. Others may have various addictions. Most are poorly educated. All are highly stressed. The programs needed to move these adults from where they are to reasonably well educated with employability skills are monumental in the resources that would be required. This is not to say, and the book expands on the fact, that the costs of maintaining people in poverty as we currently do are not, in themselves, monumental.

    What to do? If we focus on the children, we have an opportunity to see to it these children do not fall into the same dismal circumstances as there parents. We need pre-school programs from very early on to level the playing field for the needier children. We need extended school day and school year programs to afford these children of some of the learning the more affluent children are receiving by virtue of having been born to wealthier parents. We need to understand, throughout schooling all the way to college, the wealthier children are being educated by their parents more so than the needier children. We need to understand, a fatal lack of understanding in the current renditions of the ESEA, that in the 900 or so hours allotted to all children for their schooling each year, needy children will not be able to keep up with their peers on the curriculum provided by the school and also catch up on what the more affluent children are learning at home. And to force these children into studying only what is being tested so as to minimize the so-called learning gaps by cutting back on art, music and recess is a travesty.

    The number of children living in poverty is growing because we have not addressed how to educate them so they do not create another generation of poor. It is a national disgrace that this country has the highest number of children living in poverty of all the industrialized countries. Our schools are not failing. Our public schools are the solution not the problem.

  2. Schools holding constant for poor kids against a deteriorating society with deepening inequality means that the schools are getting somewhat better since it has been clear for a half century that test scores are very strongly related to conditions outside of school. Back in the mid-20th century we knew we had to address poverty and racial discrimination to make real changes but that was forgotten by the 1980s as the conservative assumption that schools could do it by themselves and should be harshly punished or dissolved became the basis for a generation of policies that have failed massively.

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