Progress: Study finds school “readiness gap” between high- and low-income students closing

Education Week reports on a study that finds low-income students are better prepared for kindergarten than they have been in earlier generations. The “readiness gap” between high- and low-income students is closing. Education Week reporter Sarah D. Sparks writes,

For decades, as wealthy parents invested more and more time and money on enrichment for their young children, students in poverty fell further and further behind.

New research, however, suggests that the trend is changing: The children starting their first days of kindergarten may arrive better prepared than prior generations—and students in poverty will arrive at less of a disadvantage compared with their wealthier peers. Income and racial gaps in school readiness closed significantly between 1998 and 2010, according to studies in a special issue of AERA Open, a journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Here’s the link to the full research article. The authors consider a number of factors contributing to the closing of the gap – and it’s important to recognize that the gap still exists – and caution that further research is necessary. We want to highlight this excerpt from their extended discussion.

In some ways, the findings here are surprising, particularly the declines in the income gap in academic school readiness. Given the sharp increase in the income achievement gap in the prior two decades (Reardon, 2011), as well as the continued increases in income inequality, income segregation, and income gaps in parental investments in children (Bischoff & Reardon, 2014; G. J. Duncan & Murnane, 2011; Kornrich & Furstenberg, 2013; Piketty & Saez, 2013; Ramey & Ramey, 2010), one might have suspected that the income gap in school readiness would have grown as well. But the data here indicate the opposite; it has declined.

The most obvious candidate explanation for this decline is perhaps the changes in preschool enrollment patterns over this period. Both the income gap and the White-Hispanic gap in preschool enrollment rates declined since the early 1990s; the White-Black gap in preschool enrollment was unchanged over the same period (Magnuson & Duncan, 2014; Magnuson & Waldfogel, 2016). These trends are consistent with our finding here that the income and White-Hispanic school readiness gaps declined significantly, while the White-Black gap declined less (and at a rate not distinguishable from zero at conventional levels of significance).

In our foundation report we identified as a policy objective: 

Focus early learning assistance on children most at risk of entering kindergarten unprepared.

And we wrote, 

Research consistently shows that students who arrive in kindergarten behind their peers tend to stay behind them throughout their educational careers, thereby decreasing the chance that they will graduate high school prepared for additional education or meaningful careers. That’s why experts routinely trumpet the wisdom of targeted investments in early learning programs.

While the gains identified in this most recent report are modest, the trend is encouraging. And it underscores the importance on maintaining the focus on early learning programs.

The Education Week article highlights the role of parents.

The closing academic gaps, he said, are “not because schools are getting more equal, but because something in early childhood is becoming more equal,” Reardon said. “It would be great if you could have both, but we do have one.”

That equalizer appears to be parents themselves, Reardon and his colleagues found.

…”In general, what we’re learning is parents are getting the message that these early years are important,” said Rebecca Parlakian, the senior director of programs at Zero to Three, a nonprofit early-education-advocacy group, who was not associated with the studies. The group recently found 97 percent of parents believe the preschool years as a critical time for learning and brain development. “I see it as a positive sign.”