Early Childhood

Kindergarten Study Links Learning Deficits to Poverty

By Linda Jacobson — October 02, 2002 2 min read
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High-quality preschool programs, computers in the home, and policies that allow for a more “equitable distribution” of pupils from different racial and economic backgrounds across public schools can help reduce the learning deficits many children bring to kindergarten, a report set for release this week concludes.

Read an executive summary of the report, “Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social Background Differences in Achievement as Children Begin School,” from the Economic Policy Institute. The full report can be ordered for $11.95 per copy either online or by calling Zaneta Green at (202) 775-8810.

Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s ongoing study of 16,000 children who entered kindergarten in 1998, the report from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, focuses on what many disadvantaged children are lacking when they arrive at school.

For example, kindergartners in the lowest fifth of socioeconomic status came from families that owned just 38 books, compared with 108 for kindergartners whose families are in the top fifth.

What’s more, says the EPI report, titled “Inequality at the Starting Gate,” 20 percent of the poorest kindergartners have a computer in their homes, compared with 85 percent of kindergartners from the top income level. Children from poorer households, it notes, also spend more time watching television—18 hours each week, compared with 11 hours weekly for children from the highest socioeconomic status.

Expectations for Schools

Evidence of such disparities is found in children’s achievement scores once they enter school, the report says. Children in the highest socioeconomic group scored 60 percent higher in mathematics and reading than those in the lowest group, the research shows.

“We should expect schools to increase achievement for all students, regardless of race, income, class, and prior achievement,” write the authors, Valerie E. Lee, an education professor at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and David T. Burkam, an assistant research scientist there. “But it is unreasonable to expect schools to completely eliminate any large pre-existing inequalities soon after children first enter the education system, especially if those schools are underfunded and overchallenged.”

While the authors don’t blame schools for those inequalities, they note that poor children’s problems are made worse by the schools they attend.

Therefore, they conclude, policies are needed “that seek to improve all schools, so access to good schools is not confined to the affluent, to whites, to those who reside in the suburbs, or to those who are well enough informed to seek them out.”

Meredith Phillips, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the study shows that achievement gaps begin long before children enter school.

“The clearest implication [of the report] is that we really do need more educationally focused preschool,” she said.

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