When inequality is the topic, it can seem as if all the news is bad. Income inequality continues to rise. Economic segregation is growing. Racial gaps in education, employment and health endure. Our society is not particularly fair. But here is some good news about educational inequality: The enormous gap in academic performance between high- and low-income children has begun to narrow. Children entering kindergarten today are more equally prepared than children were in the late 1990s.
We know this from information collected over the last two decades by the National Center for Education Statistics. In the fall of 1998 and again in 2010, the NCES sent early childhood assessors to roughly 1,000 public and private kindergartens across the United States. They sat down one on one with 15 to 25 children in each school to measure their reading and math skills. They asked children to identify shapes and colors, to count, to identify letters and to sound out words. They also surveyed parents to learn about the children’s experiences before entering kindergarten.
Working with the social scientist Ximena Portilla, we used this data to track changes over time in “school readiness gaps” – the differences in academic skills between low-income and high-income children entering kindergarten. What we found is surprising. From 1998 to 2010, the school readiness gap narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading. The gaps that remain are still vast. But even this modest improvement represents a sharp reversal of the trend over the preceding decades.
It’s worth noting that the gap in school readiness narrowed because of relatively rapid improvements in the skills of low-income children, not because the skills of children from high-income families declined. Research one of us did with Scott Latham at the University of Virginia showed that both poor and affluent children entered kindergarten in 2010 with stronger reading and math skills than their counterparts did in the late 1990s. School readiness gaps between racial groups have also improved: Both the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps narrowed by roughly 15 percent from 1998 to 2010.
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These improvements appear to persist at least into fourth grade. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that by 2015, when those kindergartners were in fourth grade, their math and reading skills were roughly two-thirds of a grade level higher than those of their counterparts 12 years earlier. This was true for children of all racial and ethnic groups and for poor and nonpoor children alike.
What’s behind these surprising developments? One possibility is that school readiness gaps have narrowed because it is easier now for poor families to find high-quality, publicly funded preschool programs for their children. Today, 29 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschools, up from 14 percent in 2002. Greater availability of affordable preschool programs – particularly if they are high quality – may be part of the reason poor children are starting to catch up to their affluent peers.
Changes at home
It is unlikely, however, that preschool enrollment is the primary explanation. Although more poor children today attend preschool than those in the 1990s, enrollment rates dipped in 2010, perhaps because of rising unemployment after the Great Recession. And while the quality of the typical preschool program may have improved, as recently as 2004, most poor children attended public preschools that were far inferior to those available in affluent communities.
It may be changes in children’s homes that have mattered most. Tracking the experiences of young children over time, we found that both rich and poor children today have more books and read with their parents more often than children did in the ’90s. They are far more likely to have computers, internet access and computer games focused on reading and math skills. Their parents are more likely to spend time with them, taking them to the library or doing activities at home.
The children of the rich have always had more of these opportunities than poor children. What has changed is that low-income children are now getting more of what the political scientist Robert Putnam calls “’Goodnight Moon’ time” than they did in the 1990s. That’s excellent news.
But here’s the puzzle: In many ways, the lives of rich and poor parents haven’t become more equal – far from it. Among families with school-age children, income inequality grew by roughly 10 percent from 1998 to 2010; economic segregation grew by 20 percent. How is it that the school readiness gap is nonetheless narrowing?
We suspect that in part this happened because of the widespread diffusion of a single powerful idea: that the first few years of a child’s life are the most consequential for cognitive development. This idea is commonplace today, but it wasn’t always. Less than a century ago, the historian Julia Wrigley notes, mainstream magazines routinely advised new mothers that intellectual stimulation of babies was harmful.
Now we know better, the result of decades of scientific research about brain development, poverty and the long-term effects of high-quality preschool programs. But low-income families haven’t always had the same information about the unique importance of early childhood. Indeed, part of why the achievement gap grew in the 1980s and 1990s was that rich families rapidly increased their investment of both time and money in their children’s cognitive development.
Why are low-income families now adopting these parenting practices? It may be partly a result of public information campaigns like Reach Out and Read, the Too Small to Fail initiative and local efforts in cities like Providence, Rhode Island, which aim to teach parents simple ways to help their children build the vocabulary and cognitive skills that form a foundation for success in school.
In conjunction with public investments in home-visiting programs and high-quality preschool programs, these campaigns represent an effort to ensure that our knowledge about the unique importance of early childhood helps everyone. Like a new medical innovation that is first adopted by the wealthy but then becomes commonplace, the emphasis on public and private investments in young children has helped turn a benefit for the rich into an equalizing force in society.
A long way to go
As encouraging as this new evidence is, we have a long way to go. Poor children still enter kindergarten nearly a year behind their richer peers. Even if school readiness gaps continue to narrow at the rate they did between 1998 and 2010, it would take another 60 to 110 years for them to be completely eliminated.
Changes in parenting are not going to be sufficient to sustain or speed this progress, although more paid leave would help. Economic inequality still constrains poor children’s horizons. Low-income and middle-class parents still struggle to find affordable, high-quality preschools. The elementary, middle and high schools that rich and poor students attend differ markedly in resources and quality. And it isn’t clear that the recent reductions in school readiness gaps will automatically translate into greater equality in high school, college and beyond.
If we don’t do something about these larger problems, the progress we have made toward equality in early childhood may prove only a brief respite from ever-widening educational inequality. “Goodnight Moon,” for all its charm and power, is no substitute for comprehensive social policy.
The New York Times
Sean F. Reardon is a professor of education at Stanford; Jane Waldfogel is a professor of social work at Columbia; and Daphna Bassok is an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia.