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Inequality at the starting gate: Social background differences in achievement as children begin school


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Inequality at the starting gate

Social background differences in achievement as children begin school

by Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkam, University of Michigan

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

Relevant theory and research
How the report is organized

Chapter 1: Social and academic disadvantage as children enter kindergarten
Details of analyses
Descriptive findings about social background and cognitive status

Chapter 2: Young children’s social disadvantage and family activities
Home demographics and family activities
Social background and demographic characteristics

Chapter 3: Understanding how social disadvantage relates to academic status
Analysis strategy
Explaining social background effects on math achievement at kindergarten entry
Comparing social background gaps in math and reading achievement at kindergarten entry

Chapter 4: Social disadvantage and school quality
Analysis strategy
Social background and school sector
Social background and school social context
Social background and school resources
Social background and school environment

Chapter 5: Conclusions and policy recommendations
At the starting gate
Social policy considerations
Disadvantage and school quality
Final thoughts

Appendix of Measures



Executive Summary

A key goal of education is to make sure that every student has a chance to excel, both in school and in life. Increasingly, children’s success in school determines their success as adults, determining whether and where they go to college, what professions that they enter, and how much they are paid.

There are many factors preventing education from serving this role as “the great equalizer.” Schools serving low-income students receive fewer resources, face greater difficulties attracting qualified teachers, face many more challenges in addressing student’s needs, and receive less support from parents. This inequality of school quality is widely recognized.

But the inequalities facing children before they enter school are less publicized. We should expect schools to increase achievement for all students, regardless of race, income, class, and prior achievement. But it is unreasonable to expect schools to completely eliminate any large pre-existing inequalities soon after children first enter the education system, especially if those schools are under-funded and over-challenged.

This report shows that the inequalities of children’s cognitive ability are substantial right from “the starting gate.” Disadvantaged children start kindergarten with significantly lower cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts. These same disadvantaged children are then placed in low-resource schools, magnifying the initial inequality.

These conclusions are based on analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K)-a recent and comprehensive data collection effort that provides a nationally representative picture of kindergarten students. We report observed differences in young children’s achievement scores in literacy and mathematics by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES) as they begin kindergarten. We also explore differences by social background in a wide array of children’s family and home conditions and activities. Our analysis leads to several conclusions relevant for education policy, including:

  • There are substantial differences by race and ethnicity in children’s test scores as they begin kindergarten. Before even entering kindergarten, the average cognitive score of children in the highest SES group are 60% above the scores of the lowest SES group. Moreover, average math achievement is 21% lower for black than for whites, and 19% lower for Hispanics.
  • Race and ethnicity are associated with SES. For example, 34% of black children and 29% of Hispanic children are in the lowest quintile of SES compared with only 9% of white children. Cognitive skills are much less closely related to race/ethnicity after accounting for SES. Even after taking race differences into account, however, children from different SES groups achieve at different levels.
  • Family structure and educational expectations have important associations with SES, race/ethnicity, and with young children’s test scores, though their impacts on cognitive skills are much smaller than either race or SES. Although 15% of white children live with only one parent, 54% of black and 27% of Hispanic children live in single-parent homes. Similarly, 48% of families in the lowest SES quintile are headed by a single parent, compared to only 10% of families in the highest quintile.
  • Socioeconomic status is quite strongly related to cognitive skills. Of the many categories of factors considered-including race/ethnicity, family educational expectations, access to quality child care, home reading, computer use, and television habits-SES accounts for more of the unique variation in cognitive scores than any other factor by far. Entering race/ethnic differences are substantially explained by these other factors; SES differences are reduced but remain sizeable.
  • Low-SES children begin school at kindergarten in systematically lower-quality elementary schools than their more advantaged counterparts. However school quality is defined-in terms of higher student achievement, more school resources, more qualified teachers, more positive teacher attitudes, better neighborhood or school conditions, private vs. public schools-the least advantaged U.S. children begin their formal schooling in consistently lower-quality schools. This reinforces the inequalities that develop even before children reach school age.

These new data are some of the most detailed ever collected for the study of children’s characteristics as they enter kindergarten. And the results are clear-disadvantaged children fall behind at a very early age, before they ever enter a classroom. Schools must be held accountable for raising achievement for all students, but this may not eliminate initial inequalities. However, initial inequalities should not be magnified by the schooling process.

There is also some evidence in the report about how these initial inequalities can be reduced. Chi
ldren who attended center-based preschool arrive at kindergarten with higher achievement, providing the potential to reduce inequality by the time students reach kindergarten. Also, reducing the inequality of school resources, which this study clearly documents, would aid in reducing the inequality that children and schools face at the starting gate.


Inequality at School Entry

Americans’ beliefs about education are inconsistent. We recognize, on the one hand, that children neither begin nor end their education on an equal footing. On the other hand, Americans simultaneously believe that schools are places where social inequalities should be equalized, where the advantages or disadvantages that children experience in their homes and families should not determine what happens to them in school-in essence, that school is a place where children should have equal chances to make the most of their potential. There is widespread faith among Americans in the value of education for social betterment, for both individuals and the nation. Among the many institutions in U.S. society, schooling is seen by most Americans as the embodiment of meritocracy. They believe-or at least hope-that children’s experiences in our nation’s elementary and secondary schools allow them to succeed without regard to their family circumstances, their race or ethnicity, or their gender.

Despite widespread faith in the role of schooling to address or ameliorate social inequalities,we should recognize that our nation’s schools actually play a major role in magnifying such inequalities. For example, it is common knowledge that children’s school performance, including scores on standardized tests of academic achievement, is associated with their family background, particularly race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Several social scientists have written about how schools structure inequality, so that social differences in achievement actually increase as a result of children’s participation in differentiated educational experiences as they move through school.

The focus of this report is inequality. We explore social differences in academic competence among young children at the point at which they begin school. As many researchers have noted, the need to document and understand these differences has become increasingly clear in recent years:

Two important indicators of success of a society are the level of literacy of its children and youth, and the extent of disparities in literacy skills among children and youth with differing characteristics and family backgrounds. These indicators are markers of how investments of material, social and cultural resources made during the past decade have been translated into skills and competencies in the present generation: they denote the success of families, schools, and communities in producing a literate society. (Willms 1999, 72)

Rather than targeting their educational experiences in school, this report centers on social differentiation in children’s cognitive status at the point where they arrive at the schoolhouse door. Young children do not begin school as equals. Although many children have informal educational experiences early in their lives-in preschool, Head Start, or child care-kindergarten is the point where virtually all children begin their formal education. Although the age when children enroll in kindergarten is close to constant (typically, 5 years old), their cognitive status when they begin kindergarten varies considerably. Unfortunately, this status, which might be measured with appropriate tests of skills and knowledge, is associated with family background. In this report we use the U.S. government’s most current and nationally representative data, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort, to explore how American children’s social background (particularly race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, or SES) is linked with their cognitive status as they all embark on their formal school experience.

Relevant Theory and Research

Risk factors for school failure. Children’s early experiences in school represent an “especially critical but generally neglected period in research on child development” (Alexander and Entwistle 1989, 1). Among those who do investigate early schooling, there is considerable and long-standing debate about whether social background differences in school performance are a result of “cultural deprivation” (also called “social deprivation”) or “educational deprivation” (Natriello, McDill, and Pallas 1990). Current language that has considerable support among educational sociologists includes descriptors such as “at risk” and “educational disadvantage.”

But casting the debate in these terms may actually inhibit individuals from fulfilling their potential (Fantini and Weinstein 1968). Factors defining risk or educational disadvantage include race and ethnicity, poverty, single-parent family structure, poorly educated mothers, and limited English proficiency (Natriello et al. 1990). Although a study of Baltimore school children found few race differences in children’s performance at entry into first grade (Entwisle, Alexander, and Olson 1997), other research using data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) has documented substantial differences by race for elementary school children (e.g., Applebee et al. 1988), and at least one study documents substantial cognitive differences between black and white children at as early as three and four years old (Jencks and Phillips 1998). Natriello et al. (1990) estimate that about 40% of school-age children are “at risk.”

Although other researchers estimate slightly lower proportions-and there is some disagreement about exactly what factors constitute risk-virtually all agree that the proportion of the school population that is at risk of school failure is growing. Although large numbers of children have trouble learning to read, such difficulties are much more likely to occur among poor children, non-white children, and non-native speakers of English (Snow, Burns, and Griffin 1998). Virtually all researchers agree that social background factors are associated with school success. Moreover, there is general agreement that social stratification in educational outcomes increases as children move through school (Entwisle et al. 1997; Phillips, Crouse, and Ralph 1998). Social inequalities in school increase as children advance through school mainly because of differentiation in educational experiences that begin as early as first grade (with reading groups, special education placement, and retention), extend through elementary school (as ability grouping, special education, and gifted and talented programs continue), and are well recognized by high school (with formal and informal tracking, advanced placement, and the like).

Despite many studies that have resulted in widespread agreement that social background influences children’s educational experiences and successes, the association between family background and cognitive performance at the point where children enter school has received less empirical scrutiny. Many studies have evaluated the efficacy of preschool programs designed to enhance the cognitive and social competence of disadvantaged children (such as Head Start and state-financed preschool programs for low-income children). Many other studies have targeted the experiences of children in elementary school who have already demonstrated educational problems.

Social background and young children’s development. A few carefully designed studies have focused on very young children’s development of l
anguage skills (e.g., Hart and Risley 1995; Huttenlocher, Haight, Bryk, and Seltzer 1991). Such studies often require repeated and regular observations in children’s homes to investigate family dynamics that are associated with infants’ and toddlers’ vocabulary development. These studies demonstrate quite conclusively that mothers’ speech (its frequency, elaboration, and verbal interchanges with children) is closely linked to young children’s vocabulary development. Moreover, early vocabulary development is strongly associated with later school performance. One study, in which researchers observed mother-child interactions every month for the first two years of children’s lives, concluded that the elaboration of mothers’ language interactions with their young children was strongly differentiated by social class (Hart and Risley 1995). Moreover, socially linked language development observed in very young children was found to be quite stable throughout elementary school (i.e., schooling did not ameliorate these socially based language differences developed in infancy). Intergenerational transmission of language was substantial.

Socioeconomic gradients for children and youth. Several relevant articles in a recent international and multidisciplinary volume explore the strength and variation in socioeconomic gradients, or slopes (e.g., Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, and Britto 1999; Case, Griffin, and Kelly 1999; Willms 1999). Case et al. explore SES differences in numerical competency that emerge at the same time that differences in biological and/or neurological development lead to differential higher-order cognitive functioning. Using international data, Willms observes that countries with high average literacy scores among youth tend to have shallow gradients, that is, youth from lower socioeconomic backgrounds also demonstrate relatively high literacy. Furthermore, he offers additional evidence to support the essential link between SES effects and context (including family, community, and schools) that results from “segregating low-status groups from mainstream society…by their place of residence in most cities worldwide” (Willms 1999, 90).

Brooks-Gunn and her colleagues found certain large (albeit selective) associations between family income and children’s attainment:

Most noteworthy is the importance of the type of outcome being considered. Family income has large effects on some of the children’s ability and achievement measures, but large effects on none of the behavior, mental health, or physical health measures represented by the dozen developmental studies (1999, 107).

Moreover, they contend that very poor children are especially disadvantaged, far more than children at or just above the poverty threshold.

Two especially relevant studies. A recent study by Phillips, Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebenov, and Crane (1998) is particularly relevant to the research in this report. There are three similarities between this report and theirs: (1) both focus on children of about the same age, (2) both examine how children’s cognitive performance is associated with social background, (3) both aim to explain the link between social background and cognitive performance by other family factors. Although Phillips and her colleagues (1998) used different data and different measures of family background, they examined the magnitudes of black/white test-score gaps on two different measures of cognitive performance for 5- and 6-year-olds and how those gaps were influenced by taking into account measures of family background (including that of grandparents), parents’ attitudes and behaviors, and mothers’ IQ and school performance. Initial score differences by race were greatly reduced when these factors were controlled. The study described in this report takes a similar approach.

A study by Stipek and Ryan (1997) is also especially relevant to this report, mostly in terms of the first two of the three similarities shared with the Phillips et al. (1998) study. A difference from the study by Phillips and colleagues is that the Stipek and Ryan study focused on the social background factor of SES instead of race. However, besides examining cognitive performance as children begin kindergarten, these researchers explored such outcomes as performance gain, self-confidence, attitudes toward school, expectations for success, and preference for challenge. Although economically disadvantaged children scored lower on initial cognitive performance, SES-related differences remained steady over the first two years of school. Moreover, there were few differences related to disadvantage on other outcomes.

How the Report is Organized

As the title implies, this report is about social inequality. We focus on children who are at risk for school failure, based on several aspects of their social backgrounds (particularly race and social class). However, instead of focusing on schooling per se, we target children at an important stage of their intellectual and social development: the point at which all of them begin their formal schooling in kindergarten. We make use of an important new source of data on a nationally representative sample of kindergarten children to examine how social disadvantage is associated with cognitive skills in reading and mathematics. Our organization of the report around young children’s performance on standardized tests of academic achievement suggests its important connection to education, although we do not explore children’s experience or performance in school. The report is organized into five chapters, and although none is tied directly to children’s experiences in school, the analysis in each successive chapter moves closer to school. The chapters build on one another, and analyses in successive chapters also become somewhat more complex analytically.

Chapter 1, which is descriptive, examines the magnitude of social background differences in cognitive skills, as well as the association between race and social class among these children. Chapter 2 links social background to other aspects of family demographic characteristics and behavior. Chapter 3 examines whether (and how) the link between social background and cognitive status may be “explained” by taking into account the aspects of children’s family behaviors and demographic characteristics explored in the previous chapter. This approach is similar to that taken by Phillips, Brooks-Gunn, and their colleagues (1998). Chapter 4 comes closer to considering schooling and investigates how children are mapped to the types of elementary schools where they attend kindergarten, based again on their social backgrounds. In particular, we define the schools according to an array of school quality indicators. In Chapter 5, we discuss possible implications of our results for social policy.

To listen to a news conference with the authors and other experts on early childhood education and equality, click here.