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Could universal preschool close the achievement gap between rich and poor kids?

Lucelia Ribeiro / Flickr Creative Commons

Many low-income, black, and Hispanic students start kindergarten without the academic skills they need to succeed.

Compared to their white peers, African American and Hispanic kids are anywhere from 9 to 10 months behind in math and 7 to 12 months behind in reading when they enter kindergarten.

And low-income kids enter kindergarten 13 months behind their more affluent peers in reading.

This makes it harder for disadvantaged students to catch up later in their academic careers. These gaps in achievement often translate into lower rates of high school graduation, decreased college attendance, and lower wages as adults.

A new reportfrom the Center for American Progress suggests a simple solution could effectively narrow the achievement gaps: universal preschool. The program uses public funding to make high-quality preschool available to all families.

Researchers looked at how universal preschool has reduced achievement gaps in Boston and Tulsa, Oklahoma, both cities that offer wide-scale, high-quality preschool to all four-year-olds, and simulated the effects of nationwide participation.

Credit Center for American Progress

The study concluded:

  • By attending a high-quality preschool, low-income kids could gain five months of additional reading skills, reducing their learning gap by 41 percent;
  • black kids could gain almost 7 months of learning, nearly closing their achievement gap in reading; and
  • Hispanic students could catch up to white students in reading skills.

And results were similar for math.
Study author W. Steven Barnett told The Huffington Post:

We expected gains, but we didn’t expect such dramatic reductions in the achievement gaps for children of color, which essentially virtually erase the gap in literacy at kindergarten entry.

According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), less than 20% of black, Hispanic and lower-income students currently have access to high-quality preschool programs, compared to about 24% of white children and almost 30% of higher-income kids.

There are programs that are targeted at low-income families, but Barnett argues these programs miss a lot of students and can even stigmatize parents. He told The Huffington Post:

I think if you ask the question of middle-income and higher-income parents, ‘Would you want to send your children to a program just for children in poverty?’ many of them would say no. Why do you think the answer would be different for people who just happen to be poor?

Dale Farran, a Vanderbilt University researcher, told NPR providing low-income families with low-quality preschool is like comparing spinach to Easter grass:

It's like saying spinach is really good for you. But we can't afford spinach. But here, I've got this Easter grass. Maybe that will be just as good.

We've talked a lot about preschool here at State of Opportunity. Is it effective? Is it not? What works? How can we make it better?

But what's undeniable is that a quality education is important to give all kids the start they need to be successful. According to Barnett:

Think of it as a relay race: Winning the first lap does not guarantee you’re going to win the race. But no one wants to be behind at the first hand-off. What the national data shows is children of color and low-income children are far behind when they start kindergarten and that gap — they never catch up.

So what do you think of the idea of universal preschool?

You can read the full report from the Center for American Progress here.

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