For decades now, educators, researchers, and policymakers have puzzled over so-called achievement gaps—the disparities in academic performance by race and ethnicity that consistently show up on standardized tests, grade-point averages, and a host of other measures. The No Child Left Behind Act seeks to narrow these gaps by mandating standards-based tests in elementary, middle, and high school, and holding schools accountable for raising scores not just overall, but among racial and ethnic subgroups. A growing body of research, however, suggests that any serious effort to eliminate disparities at the primary and secondary school levels must also address what some researchers call the school readiness gap—the variations in academic performance and certain social skills among children entering kindergarten and first grade.
Recent studies document specific dimensions of this gap:
On average, black, Hispanic, and American Indian students demonstrate significantly lower reading, math, and vocabulary skills at school entry than white and Asian American children.
According to a seminal 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, 3-year-olds whose parents are professionals have vocabularies that are 50 percent larger than those of children from working-class families, and twice as large as children whose families receive welfare.
Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), University of California researchers have shown that fewer than 20 percent of California kindergartners from non-English speaking backgrounds score above the 50th percentile on reading and mathematics tests, a finding echoed in other states.
Many researchers today still cite an analysis in the 1998 Brookings Institution book The Black-White Test Score Gap
, in which researchers Meredith Phillips, James Crouse, and John Ralph estimate that about half of the black-white test score gap at twelfth grade is attributable to gaps that exist at first grade. Researchers have since made similar claims about gaps existing among other ethnic groups. Analyzing eight national studies of racial differences in school performance, Phillips, Crouse, and Ralph pose a bold challenge: “We could eliminate at least half, and probably more, of the black-white test score gap at the end of twelfth grade by eliminating the differences that exist before children enter first grade.”
Most researchers agree that socioeconomic status—closely associated with race and ethnicity—is one of the strongest predictors of low skills at school entry. In a 2002 study, Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkam of the University of Michigan found that at kindergarten entry, cognitive scores of children in the highest socioeconomic group were 60 percent higher than those of the lowest group.
“Most if not all early gaps are due to economic disadvantage,” says Katherine Magnuson, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who has extensively studied the issue.
Magnuson and others have argued for broad-based policies addressing parental poverty and education levels. But she and her colleagues also believe that improving all children’s access to high-quality prekindergarten programs could do a great deal to narrow early learning disparities.
Preschool vs. Prekindergarten
Predictably, the likelihood that a child will attend some kind of preschool is largely tied to socioeconomic status, according to data from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. A 2004 NIEER analysis found that while 78 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds from families with incomes over $100,000 attend preschool, less than half of children from families with incomes below $50,000 do.
When looking at preschool attendance differences by race and ethnicity, the picture is more complicated. Among Hispanics, only 23 percent of 3-year-olds and 50 percent of 4-year-olds attend preschool, according to national enrollment data. But thanks in large part to Head Start and similar state-funded programs, African American children now attend preschool in roughly the same percentages as their white peers (about 45 percent of 3-year-olds and 70 percent of 4-year-olds).
Still, attending preschool is no guarantee that a child will receive adequate preparation for kindergarten and the elementary grades, notes Jane Waldfogel, an economist at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and author of the 2006 book What Children Need
. Waldfogel draws a clear distinction between preschool—a term she uses to include everything from private day care centers to Head Start—and prekindergarten (preK) programs, which are usually connected with school districts and are specifically intended to provide a bridge to school for young children.
Based on studies she conducted using the Department of Education’s ECLS data and other sources, Waldfogel theorizes that one of the reasons why white and black children have different levels of school readiness despite similar preschool attendance rates is that they do not attend the same kinds of programs. While she acknowledges the benefits of Head Start, she says there is evidence that it does not foster the same level of school readiness as school-based preK or the best-quality private programs, which serve predominantly white children.
Patrick Galatowitsch, principal of Rolling Hills Elementary School in Orlando, Fla., which serves predominantly African American students, says he sees a real difference between students entering kindergarten from preK programs, in which goals and expectations are closely aligned with the district’s elementary schools, and those who come from less structured settings.
“We see lots of incoming students with very poor social, academic, and listening skills,” Galatowitsch says. “Many of these children spend their prekindergarten years … in settings which lack structure and tend to be more play than learning environments. Thus the children learn that school is play. This makes a difficult adjustment to the more structured and academically focused kindergarten experience” (see sidebar “Are Schools Ready for Children?”).
Galatowitsch adds that children who enter kindergarten directly from at-home care often need extensive remediation. “We really see the benefit of a high quality preK experience,” he says.
PreK and the Gap: Long-Lasting Effects
A 2004 study conducted by Magnuson, Waldfogel, and Christopher Ruhm of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, paints a complex picture of the overall effects of prekindergarten on school readiness. Like a host of researchers before them, Magnuson, Ruhm, and Waldfogel found preK participation to be associated with significantly higher reading and math skills at school entry, narrowing gaps if not fully closing them. They also found, however, that these advantages were long-lasting for children from low-income homes, many of whom were African American, Latino, or from immigrant families.
“All children certainly seem to benefit from attending prekindergarten, but these are the kids who seem to benefit even more,” Waldfogel says. “Expanding access to preK looks like a really promising way to go [to narrow school readiness gaps].”
Waldfogel’s assessment was backed up this spring by a NIEER study of children who attended full-day preK programs in New Jersey. The study, which included 339 children randomly assigned to either full-day or half-day preK programs, found that the children who had attended full-day preK outperformed the others on literacy and math assessments, and that these gains held through at least the end of first grade. Moreover, the full-day preK programs were found to narrow skill gaps between children from upper- and lower-income homes.
Prekindergarten has enjoyed slow but steady growth in recent years as more states and municipalities recognize the benefits of free and equal access to early schooling. According to the latest NIEER data, the number of U.S. children currently served in state-funded prekindergarten now tops 800,000, about 17 percent of the nation’s 4-year-olds and significantly more than the number of 4-year-olds attending Head Start. All but a dozen states now offer some form of state-funded prekindergarten, and eight states—Arkansas, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee—fund preK on a par with K–12 schooling (based on spending per child enrolled), according to NIEER statistics. Still, only one state, Oklahoma, offers universal preK for all 4-year-olds, and quality varies widely from state to state and from program to program, NIEER researchers say.
A few school districts have begun to examine specifically how prekindergarten can be integrated with children’s other early learning experiences (see sidebar “School District Meets the Gap Head On”). Orlando’s Rolling Hills Elementary, for example, is one of a growing number of schools to incorporate preK education with the early elementary grades as part of a preK–3 continuum model, which aligns both academic and social development goals under a common structure for children in preschool through grade 3. Such alignment, some research has shown, is associated with less “fade out” of children’s skills from year to year and fewer behavior problems as children move between systems with different goals and structures.
Magnuson, Ruhm, and Waldfogel, for example, found that children who attended preschool (broadly defined) had more behavior problems on average than those who didn’t, but this pattern did not hold true among the children who attended preK programs in the same schools where they attended kindergarten.
We thought that was an important finding in terms of alignment and continuity,” Waldfogel says. “[School-based] prekindergarten gets them ready not just in reading and math, but in the important component of behavior.”
The Individual Child
Considering issues of both access and continuity seems essential if districts are going to undertake any serious effort to close later achievement gaps. But it is also important to remember that subgroup differences are merely averages, and that there are high- and low-scoring students within all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, cautions the University of Wisconsin’s Magnuson.
False assumptions about minority children based on skin color “or their last name,” Magnuson adds, can lead to low expectations, which in turn can lead to tracking, only serving to widen the very gaps educators are working to narrow.
“There’s so much variation within all of these groups,” she says. “It’s critical that we treat each child as an individual.”
Michael Sadowski is an assistant professor of education in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard Colleg
This article is part of an ongoing series on the education of children from preK through grade 3, made possible through the support of the Foundation for Child Development.