The following is a shortened and edited version of a New York Times article:
In the fall of 1998 and again in 2010, the National Center for Education Statistics sent early childhood assessors to 1,000 public and private kindergartens to measure their reading and math skills. They asked children to identify shapes and colors, count, identify letters and sound out words. They also surveyed parents to learn about the children’s experiences before entering kindergarten.
The authors of New York Times’ The Good News About Educational Inequality (Sean F. Reardon, professor of education at Stanford; Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work at Columbia; and Daphna Bassok, associate professor of education at the University of Virginia) and social scientist Ximena Portilla used this data to track changes in the differences in academic skills between low-income and high-income children entering kindergarten.
From 1998 to 2010, the school readiness gap narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading. The gaps that remain are still vast. But this represents a sharp reversal of the trend over the preceding decades.
The gap in school readiness narrowed because of relatively rapid improvements in the skills of low-income children, not because the skills of children from high-income families declined. Both poor and affluent children entered kindergarten in 2010 with stronger reading and math skills than in the late 1990s. School readiness gaps between racial groups have also improved.
These improvements appear to persist at least into fourth grade. By 2015, when those kindergartners were in fourth grade, their math and reading skills were roughly two-thirds of a grade level higher than those of their counterparts 12 years earlier. This was true for children of all racial and ethnic groups and for poor and non-poor children alike.
School readiness gaps have narrowed partly because it is easier now for poor families to find high-quality, publicly funded preschool programs for their children. Today 29 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschools, up from 14 percent in 2002.
While the quality of the typical preschool program may have improved, as recently as 2004 most poor children attended public preschools that were far inferior to those available in affluent communities. Changes in children’s homes may have mattered most. Tracking the experiences of young children over time, researchers found that both rich and poor children today have more books and read with their parents more often than they did in the ’90s. They are more likely to have computers, Internet access, and computer games focused on reading and math skills. Their parents are more likely to spend time with them, taking them to the library or doing activities at home.
But in many ways, the lives of rich and poor parents haven’t become more equal. Among families with school-age children, income inequality grew by roughly 10 percent from 1998 to 2010; economic segregation grew by 20 percent. We suspect the school readiness gap is narrowing in part because of the widespread diffusion of a single powerful idea: that the first few years of a child’s life are the most consequential for cognitive development. Less than a century ago, mainstream magazines routinely advised new mothers that intellectual stimulation of babies was harmful.
Low-income families may now be adopting these parenting practices as a result of public information campaigns like Reach Out and Read, the Too Small to Fail initiative and local efforts which aim to teach parents simple ways to help their children build the vocabulary and cognitive skills that form a foundation for success in school.
Poor children still enter kindergarten nearly a year behind their richer peers. Changes in parenting are not going to be sufficient to sustain or speed this progress, although more paid leave would help. Economic inequality still constrains poor children’s horizons. Low-income and middle-class parents still struggle to find affordable, high-quality preschools. The elementary, middle and high schools rich and poor students attend differ markedly in resources and quality. And it isn’t clear that the recent reductions in school readiness gaps will automatically translate into greater equality in high school, college and beyond.