Around Massachusetts, wide-eyed kindergartners step into classrooms this week. For lots of youngsters, the start of school feels like a fresh new beginning, yet many from low-income households begin the year already playing catch-up with their more affluent peers.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the so-called “achievement gap,” or disparity in academic skills, between rich and poor kids grew by an estimated 40 percent. The danger of an early achievement gap is that it persists through higher grades, with poorer children consistently lagging behind their more affluent peers.
But now, for the first time in decades, researchers have detected a reversal of that trend: Low-income children are entering kindergarten with stronger reading and math skills than before, moderately narrowing the achievement gap with students from higher-income households.
“Because income inequality and segregation have continued to grow, we expected that we would see a continuing or flattening out of the pattern. We certainly didn’t expect to see the gap narrowing over this time period,” says study coauthor Sean Reardon, a professor in the School of Education at Stanford University.
Despite the good news, there is still a long way to go. If it continued to narrow at the current rate, the kindergarten school readiness gap would not be entirely eliminated for another 60 to 110 years, Reardon estimates.
He and coauthor Ximena Portilla evaluated data collected by the US Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. In 1998 and 2010, early childhood assessors from the ECLS sat down with children at roughly 1,000 kindergartens around the county to measure students’ academic skills at the start of the school year.
Comparing information from those two years, Reardon and Portilla were surprised to find that by 2010 the school readiness gap between the rich and poor had narrowed — by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading. Gaps between racial groups, which have been declining for the last decade, continued to decline: White-black and white-Hispanic gaps decreased by roughly 15 percent across both subjects.
In a second paper in the same journal, Reardon and other colleagues examined why the income achievement gap appears to be narrowing. Again using ECLS data, they found that children who entered kindergarten in 2010 read more books, played more educational computer games, and engaged with their parents more than children in 1998.
“There have been a lot of public awareness campaigns and efforts to encourage people to spend more time reading to kids, talking to them with a lot of vocabulary, and taking them to the library and museums,” says Reardon. Another cause may be expanded and better-funded public preschool programs.
Since the most recent ECLS data is from 2010, the team can only hope that the narrowing trend is continuing. Reardon is concerned that, with rising income inequality and segregation, the reversal is only a short-term hiatus from an ongoing widening. “There are a lot of reasons to worry that this is too stiff a wind to sail against for very long.”
According to Jill McCarroll, associate project officer of the ECLS, there are plans to begin studying a new class of kindergartners, but the government has yet to decide when such a study would begin.