A new study finds that the academic gaps present at kindergarten between students from the highest socioeconomic groups and the lowest went unchanged between 1998 and 2010. That’s despite several programs that have been implemented or expanded during that time to help students living in poverty catch up to their more well-to-do peers.
“Early gaps are consequential for children, policy, and society, and it is beyond disappointing that we haven’t found the way to narrow these gaps solidly,” wrote Emma García, a co-author of the study, in an email interview with Education Week. And fixing the problem, she said, will require widescale change.
The study was published last month in collaboration with Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a nonprofit that seeks to mitigate the effects of poverty on students’ academic success.
García, who is also an education economist with Economic Policy Institute, and study co-author Elaine Weiss studied the kindergarten classes of 1998 and 2010 using the National Center for Education Statistics-Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of these students.
They found that factors such as parental involvement, parental expectations for their child’s educational attainment, and participation in prekindergarten lessened the gaps a bit, but didn’t come close to getting rid of them.
The researchers also found that in many cases, the situation had gotten worse for children in the lowest socioeconomic status in 2010 compared to 1998. For example, more of these children were living in poverty (85 percent in 2010 compared to 71 percent in 1998), and fewer of them lived in a home with two parents (55 percent versus 46 percent).
Demographic changes were also present between the two cohorts. In 2010, more of the students in the lowest socioeconomic group were Hispanic (50 percent versus 40 percent), and more of these students lived in homes where English was not the primary language (40 percent versus 31 percent).
But the number of children at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder who attended pre-K stayed about the same at 44 percent, while their more affluent peers increased their attendance levels in pre-K from 66 percent in 1998 to 70 percent in 2010.
Possible Solutions to Persistent Academic Gaps
The study also examined several programs around the country that are working to eliminate these gaps. These programs varied in several key ways. Some were privately funded, while others were government-run. But they all focused on a “whole-child” approach. In addition to working with children on improving academics, these programs also looked to do things such as make sure the children were eating proper meals and had necessary medical care.
The report argues that these programs have been able to make a difference, but they’re aren’t extensive enough to have a major impact on the country as a whole.
García makes the case for more widespread change.
“As a first step, the provision of high-quality preschool education for all children should be a fact at this stage,” García said. “We still found low pre-k participation rates, and a stagnated rate over time, for children in the low-SES group, and that is a failure of our system.”
So what will it take to get more communities on board with these strategies?
García describes it as a delicate balancing act between the need, the political will, community support, and the proper resources.
She also stresses that to close these gaps it will take much more than just changes in the world of education.
“In addition to education policy recommendations, fixing broader societal inequalities (through the expansion of health care, a stronger social safety net, and economic and policy changes that spread economic growth more broadly across the income distribution) would help to fix education inequalities, too,” she said.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.