Extensive research demonstrates that children’s social class is one of the most significant predictors of their educational success. As early as kindergarten, children of high socioeconomic status (SES) are better prepared to learn than their low-SES peers—a difference that translates to achievement gaps throughout children’s time in school.
In Education inequalities at the school starting gate: Gaps, trends, and strategies to address them, EPI researchers Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss analyze gaps in kindergarten readiness across socioeconomic status and changes to these gaps over time. Their analysis shows little change in SES-based gaps in readiness between children who entered kindergarten in 1998 and those who entered in 2010—an “academic generation” apart.
The authors point to evidence that today’s parents are acting upon increased evidence of the impact of children’s early years on their performance in school. There is more information available about effective programs to support children’s development—such as access to prenatal care, state pre-K programs, health screenings, and nutrition programs. Parents are more likely to read to their children and have greater expectations for their children’s educational attainment—factors associated with higher academic achievement. However, national economic trends have counteracted these greater parental efforts and policy improvements.
“There is only so much that even comprehensive, well-designed programs can do to mitigate the pressures and effects of disadvantage and low social class,” said Garcia. “Indeed, some communities are seeing benefits from offering comprehensive supports, but to really eliminate the inequalities that begin at the very start of children’s life, we must tackle severe economic inequality head on.”
García and Weiss point out that children entering kindergarten in 1998 were living in a booming economy, whereas children who started kindergarten in 2010 were born during the worst recession and slowest recovery in nearly a century. Indeed, 71 percent in 1998 of low-SES students lived in poverty in 1998—a share that rose to 85 percent in 2010.
“Lower social-class parents are actually doing more to prepare their children for school than ever before,” said Weiss. “But their efforts are simply not enough to counteract the ill effects of poverty and inequality, which have worsened, even as parental efforts and whole-child policies have increased.”
In a series of case studies, the authors outline efforts by schools and communities to counteract the effects of low social status on academic achievement, including:
- High-quality early childhood education
- Programs that support students’ physical and mental health, and nutrition
- Enriching, hands-on classroom experiences
- After-school and summer enrichment programs
- Parent and community engagement
At the same time, the authors recommend policies beyond investing in the education system, including a much stronger social safety net that boosts incomes for vulnerable families through policies such as unemployment insurance, Social Security disability insurance, cash assistance, the earned income tax credit, and the child and dependent care tax credit.