As early as when children enter kindergarten, there are already significant achievement gaps as a result of socioeconomic status. In fact, socioeconomic status is the single largest factor influencing children’s school readiness, according to Inequalities at the Starting Gate: Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills Gaps between 2010–2011 Kindergarten Classmates. In the report, EPI economist Emma García uses national data from a group of students who entered kindergarten in 2010 to show the link between children’s school readiness and children’s race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The report expands on existing evidence linking parents’ economic resources to children’s school readiness by showing that, in addition to gaps in cognitive skills such as math and reading, gaps in noncognitive skills like persistence, self-control, and social skills exist between socioeconomically disadvantaged and advantaged children.
“Key foundations for learning are established from birth, and it’s likely that early disadvantages will pose serious challenges to students throughout their academic careers,” said García. “When we see achievement gaps emerge so early between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and when we consider all of the other cumulative disadvantages associated with low social class, it becomes apparent that in order to address such inequalities, we need to rethink not only education policy, but also social and economic policies.”
Gaps between the reading and math skills of white and minority children shrink when adjusting for socioeconomic status. While one-fourth of the entire studied cohort lived in poverty, almost half of black and Hispanic children (46 percent) and almost two-thirds of Hispanic English language learners (63 percent) lived in poverty. In addition to living in poverty, minority children face disadvantages that include living with one parent (as 65 percent of black children do) and lacking access to preschool (as 53 percent of Hispanic children do). This confirms that poverty and other conditions associated with being a minority child, not race in and of itself, are responsible for disadvantages in school.
Race does influence differences in parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of children’s noncognitive skills. According to their parents, black children exhibit a relatively high degree of self-control. Teachers, meanwhile, perceive black children to have substantially less self-control than white students. In contrast, though teachers perceive no disadvantage, both Asian and non-English speaking Hispanic parents give their children low scores on approaches to learning or social skills compared with how white parents score their children.
“Socioeconomically disadvantaged and minority students are more likely to go to under-resourced schools and schools that are racially and economically segregated. These schools must work even harder to make up for early disadvantages,” said Elaine Weiss, National Coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education. “If we want to preserve the promise of equal opportunity and social mobility through education, we need to invest in policies that will make children less poor and boost parents’ capacity to support their children’s education at home. We also need to equip schools to better meet their needs.”
Weiss and García coauthored a companion piece, Early Education Gaps by Social Class and Race Start U.S. Children Out on Unequal Footing: A Summary of the Major Findings in Inequalities at the Starting Gate, which focuses on the policy implications of this paper’s findings.
In order to address gaps in school readiness, we need to combine policies that mitigate the effects of growing up poor with those that reduce our poverty rate long term. García recommends addressing these gaps through education policies such as expansion of high quality preschool and child care, as well as home visiting programs. Broader policy recommendations include boosting jobs and income, and exploring other reforms to enhance family stability and well-being.