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Persistent gaps in kindergarten readiness between children from low-income families and their higher-income peers — which have continued as ongoing achievement gaps in later years — appear to be narrowing, new research shows. And in a related finding, another report has concluded that lower-income parents are investing more time and effort in their younger children.
The academic readiness gap between low- and higher-income children closed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading between 1998 and 2010, according to a study by Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University, and Ximena Portilla, a research associate at MDRC, a nonprofit research organization. The gap was measured through large-scale comparisons of math, reading and writing skills.
Their report, “Recent Trends in Income, Racial and Ethnic School Readiness Gaps at Kindergarten Entry,” was released Aug. 26 in AERA Open, a journal of the American Educational Research Association. The other report, which Reardon also worked on, was released simultaneously in AERA Open and is titled “Socioeconomic Gaps in Early Childhood Experiences, 1998 to 2010.”
Reardon previously found that between the 1970s and the 1990s, the readiness gap between low- and higher-income children when they entered kindergarten grew by about 40 percent.
The new findings are a startling development in an area that has for decades troubled educators, policymakers and the public — and the narrowing trend appears to also hold true for racial and ethnic minorities in some areas, though less clearly for black children.
The study found that the academic readiness gap between white and Hispanic students narrowed by about 14 percent in math between 1998 and 2010. The study didn’t measure the readiness gap in reading for those two groups.
The turnaround is particularly striking because it occurred despite increasing income inequality and racial segregation, two factors likely to lead to greater disparities, according to the researchers.
“I fully expected the gap to widen because income and economic inequality was continuing to widen over that time,” Reardon said. “The trend is actually going in the opposite direction. It’s good news but surprising news.”
The second report, “Socioeconomic Gaps in Early Childhood Experiences,” found that low-income parents were increasingly invested in their children’s education. That investment is defined as children being in childcare, by parent’s involvement in activities such as reading to children and “enrichment” field trips, the availability of home technology, and parents’ beliefs about the importance of children being ready for kindergarten.
Daphna Bassok, associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and lead author of the report, said more research is underway to “tease out the explanations for this.”
The findings appear significant, she and Reardon said, pointing to a greater focus on early education campaigns — including Too Small to Fail, Reading Is Fundamental and Reach Out and Read — that encourage parents to do educational activities with their children.
“It is an intellectual puzzle — what is going on that leads to this counterintuitive finding. Something is working in the face of rising income inequality,” said Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University.
“Over this time period there has been very strong messaging put out about the importance of early childhood, and parents in the later years were much more likely to say, ‘Oh, knowing your numbers and alphabet is really important,’” Bassok said.
Reardon said, “It does look as though parental activities may be playing a role. Not the whole role, but a meaningful chunk of the story.”
The gap is not narrowing due to higher-income children becoming less ready for school, the report said. Other research supports that conclusion, Bassok said. She said that other studies she has done, using the same set of survey data, looked at the question of whether gaps are narrowing because higher-income children are less prepared than previously. It found that wasn’t the case and, also, that children appear to be arriving at kindergarten with a deeper body of knowledge.
“It seems like kids are entering kindergarten knowing more than the 1998 wave,” she said. “There’s just a real shift on all the literacy and math things kids could do. It’s not just a narrowing gap story, but an overall rising tide story, which I think is really exciting.”
The role of preschool in closing the gap is unclear. Preschool enrollment among low-income and Hispanic children has increased markedly since the early 1990s, but the data is inconclusive and more research is needed to determine preschool’s impact on the narrowing gap, the researchers said.
“What we think might be going on is that the quality of preschool experiences these kids are getting has changed over time,” Bassok said.
The findings are hopeful also, Reardon said, because testing data show that achievement gaps in the 4th grade are narrowing at a rate equal to or faster than the gaps when children enter kindergarten. That, said Reardon, suggests that the improvements occurring prior to kindergarten are the difference, as opposed to what is happening in schools between kindergarten and 4th grade.
On a more sober note, the report by Reardon and Portilla noted, at the rate the gap has been closing, it would take 60 to 110 years to close completely.
“I don’t want to overstate this paper, it’s not like everything is solved or we’re on our way to the rapid elimination of gaps,” Reardon said.
Still, he said, the new findings point to an exciting avenue of further study.
“It is an intellectual puzzle – what is going on that leads to this counterintuitive finding,” he said. “Something is working in the face of rising income inequality.”
It appears the academic readiness gap between white and black students diminished, too, but the margin of error made it impossible to know with certainty, the report said.
The study did find that in the areas of self-control and approaches to learning — a category that includes persistence, attentiveness and ability to learn independently — the gap between black and white children closed substantially, by 30 percent.
Both reports were based on National Center for Education Research surveys of children’s academic and social skills when they entered kindergarten, comparing 17,000 incoming kindergarten students in 2010 with about 20,000 students who started in 1998.
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