Surprising reversal: School readiness gap narrows between rich and poor kids

Research findings released today depart from the usual bleak news about the academic prospects of American children born into low-income families: The gap in kindergarten academic readiness between high- and low-income students narrowed by 10 percent to 16 percent between 1998 and 2010.

The significant narrowing comes after decades of a widening gap that caused education advocates to fear the United States was at risk of producing a permanent underclass. The school readiness gap for cohorts of children born in the mid-1970s and mid-1990s had grown by about 40 percent. This sharp reversal of that trend appears to verify the value of early childhood programs, but may also show low-income parents understand the importance of reading to their young children and developing their cognitive skills.

Schools actually narrow the achievement gap; it's what affluent children get before they start school that gives them significant academic advantages over the children of the middle class and the poor, according to the research. These new findings suggest poor parents better understand their critical role in getting their children ready to learn in school.

Researchers looked at nationally representative data from the National Center for Education Statistics and compared the reading, writing, and math skills of about 17,000 incoming kindergarten students in 2010 to 20,000 students from 1998. To look at the income gap, the authors compared students from families at the 10th and 90th percentiles of the income distribution.

The research published today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association, surprised Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University. Reardon conducted the study with Ximena A. Portilla, a research associate at MDRC.

"Given that income inequality in the United States has continued to rise in the 2000s, we expected the gap in school readiness would also continue to grow, but instead it has narrowed,” said Reardon in a statement. “This suggests that the income achievement gap is malleable; it can be reduced.”

Reardon's research on the relationship between academic achievement and family income found an increased link between family income and children's academic achievement, noting in earlier studies, "The income achievement gap does not appear to be a result of a growing achievement gap between children with highly educated and less-educated parents. In fact, the relationship between parental education and children's achievement has remained relatively stable during the last 50 years, while the relationship between income and achievement has grown sharply. Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children's achievement."

According to the official summary:

The study also found that between 1998 and 2010, the white-Hispanic gap in kindergarten readiness narrowed by about 14 percent. The white-black readiness gap appears to have narrowed as well, but the margin of error was too wide for the study to conclude so with certainty. Unlike income achievement gaps, the white-black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps have declined considerably over the last four decades. The recent narrowing of the kindergarten racial readiness gaps described by Reardon and Portilla represented a continuation of this trend.

Reardon and Portilla noted that other data—from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—show that the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps in fourth-grade test scores likewise narrowed between the same cohorts of children. The NAEP data do not include information on students’ family income, so it is not clear if the narrowed income gaps in kindergarten persisted.

Nonetheless, “racial academic achievement gaps in fourth grade declined at roughly the same rate as kindergarten entry gaps,” said Reardon. “This suggests that the primary source of the reduction in racial achievement gaps in fourth grade is the reduction in kindergarten readiness gaps, not a reduction in the rate at which gaps change between kindergarten and fourth grade.”

Despite the narrowing of kindergarten readiness gaps in recent years, they remain large. The authors noted that, at the rates that gaps declined in the last 12 years, it would take another 60 to 110 years for them to be completely eliminated.

Based on research from another AERA Open article published today, Reardon said that changes in parental involvement in education may have contributed to the change in income-based and race-based kindergarten readiness gaps.

Here is a video of Reardon discussing the findings:

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.