A recent report from the Brookings Institution – “Starting School at a Disadvantage: The School Readiness of Poor Children” – concludes that high-quality early education has great potential for narrowing the school readiness gap between children from families with incomes below the poverty line and children from higher-income families. Of three interventions that researchers examined, preschool programs had the greatest positive effect on school readiness.
The gap researchers studied is large. “Poor children in the United States start school at a disadvantage in terms of their early skills, behaviors, and health,” the executive summary begins. “Fewer than half (48 percent) of poor children are ready for school at age 5, compared to 75 percent of children from families with moderate and high income, a 27 percentage point gap.”
Researchers used the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort to analyze school readiness. ECLS-B follows a nationally representative sample of children born in 2001 through kindergarten entry in 2006 or 2007. “School readiness is measured by combining direct assessments of early math skills and early reading skills with overall health status taken from parent surveys and two behavioral measures drawn from kindergarten teacher reports (learning-related behaviors, such as paying attention, and externalizing or problem behaviors, such as disrupting others),” the report notes. “Children are rated as ‘school ready’ provided they do not score ‘very low’ on any of these underlying measures; ‘very low’ is defined here as poor/fair on health, and more than one standard deviation below average on the academic and behavioral measures.”
Poverty is not the only factor to influence school readiness. Other factors, the study notes, include preschool attendance, maternal depression, parenting behaviors, parents’ education, prenatal exposure to tobacco and low birth weight. The report states that the likelihood of being school ready is:
- Nine percentage points higher for children attending preschool, controlling for other family characteristics.
- Ten percentage points lower for children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy.
- Ten percentage points lower for children whose mothers score low on supportiveness in parent-child interactions.
Researchers simulated the effects of three interventions to improve school readiness: preschool, smoking cessation programs for pregnant women, and nurse home visiting programs to pregnant women and infants. “Preschool programs,” they concluded, “offer the most promise for increasing children’s school readiness.”
School readiness, as the report emphasizes, has implications that reach beyond children’s success in kindergarten.
“School readiness has effects beyond the first few months of kindergarten; children with higher levels of school readiness at age 5 are generally more successful in grade school, are less likely to drop out of high school, and earn more as adults, even after adjusting for differences in family background,” the report notes. “Entering school ready to learn can improve one’s chances of reaching middle class status by age 40 by about 8 percentage points, according to a recent analysis that uses linked data sets to track success from birth to age 40.
“With growing awareness of the importance of early years, federal and state governments have expanded their investments in young children,” the report continues. “Even so, early childhood programs receive much less funding than public education. Moreover, early interventions are at risk for funding cuts, as federal and state budgets are squeezed by rising spending on health and retirement costs and falling tax revenues.”