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Here's how parents helped narrow the school-readiness gap between rich and poor kids

Aug 29, 2016

When State of Opportunity talks about inequality, there seems to be an overwhelming amount of bad news. Income inequality is growing. Racial and socioeconomic gaps in educationhealth, and employment persist.

But new research offers up a surprising bit of good news: The gap in school readiness between rich and poor kids entering Kindergarten narrowed significantly – by 10 to 16 percent – between 1998 and 2010.

That's according to two new studies released last week in a journal of the American Educational Research Association.

This was due to improvements in the skills of low-income kids. Those improvements appear to continue at least into the fourth grade.

The findings surprised even the study's authors. Stanford University’s Sean Reardon is co-author of both studies. He told The Huffington Post:

It’s rare in some ways that you do a study where you expect bad news because all the signals are pointing in that direction, and instead you find good news. In my experience that doesn’t happen often enough...It does suggest since we’ve been able to move the gaps in the right direction a little bit, we ought to be able to figure out to keep moving them in the right direction.

Academic achievement gaps grew substantially from the 1970s to 1990s. So, what changed this decades-long trend? According to researchers, there are two likely explanations:

One is the greater availability of affordable and high-quality preschool programs for low-income families. However, 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, according to The New York Times.

But the primary reason for the modest, yet significant, change seems to be increased parental involvement in low-income families. Reardon told NPR:

We looked at the data to sort of see what parents say they have been doing with their kids over the last year. In the 2010 cohort, parents say they're doing more reading to their kids, they have more books at home. They're taking them to zoos, libraries, museums, places like that more. Their kids are doing more, playing more with computer games that are designed to teach them literacy and early numeracy skills, shapes, colors, sounds, letters, stuff like that. All of those things together we know are likely to help kids get ready for kindergarten. What's interesting is the increase in those kinds of activities is more pronounced among low income families over this 12-year period than it is among high income families.

Although these findings are encouraging, we have a long way to go. Poor kindergartners still start school a year behind their wealthier counterparts. And if achievement gaps continue to close at the current rate, it will take between 60 and 110 years before they completely close, according to researchers.

That's right, more than a century.

We're going to need to address the bigger issues, like income inequality and segregated neighborhoods, if we want substantial and lasting improvements. According to The New York Times:

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 that 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.

“It’s not like we just keep reading to our kids and it’s all going to go away," Reardon told The Washington Post.