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Young Children Held Back by Social Class, Study Finds

Children enter kindergarten with academic and "soft skills" gaps that can be linked directly to their socioeconomic status, says an economic policy group that examined federal data on kindergarten students.

In its new report, Inequalities at the Starting Gate, the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute found that race-based gaps in skills such as reading, math, eagerness to learn, persistence, and focus shrink significantly when socioeconomic status is taken into account.

About 46 percent of black children live in poverty, the study noted. Sixty-three percent of Hispanic ELLs live in poverty.

Emma García, an economist at EPI and the author of the report, said that there is an economic imperative to addressing these academic and non-cognitive skills gaps. 

"Not doing anything is going to be more costly than doing something," she said. "We are compromising so much human capital by not making sure children are ready to learn and can develop fully when they go to school."

The report's title is a deliberate allusion to a 2002 report, also published by the Economic Policy Institute, called Inequality at the Starting Gate. That study drew on the experiences of children who started school in 1998.

The new study, released Wednesday, showed that the disparities extend to non-cognitive skills in addition to language arts and math. The Economic Policy Institute gathered data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten, which focused on children who started school in 2010. The federal data offers a rich set of measures on the sampled children, such as print familiarity, letter recognition, and number sense.

Teachers and parents were also asked to evaluate the children on non-cognitive skills, such as self-control, curiosity, and creativity. Those factors were not evaluated in the children who were part of the 1998 study. Researchers were also able to separate Hispanic children into those who speak English at home and those who are English-language learners—a distinction not available in the 1998 data set.

The findings on the minority childrens were calculated as standard deviations from the performance of white students. For example, the unadjusted reading scores of young black children lagged white children by about 0.24 of a standard deviation—a significant difference, Garcia said. But when the scores were adjusted by socioeconomic status, the gap shrank to 0.07. 

Sometimes, even with the adjustments, there were still statistically significant differences, García said. The data set only gathers certain information on children, such as parent-education level, household income, and family structure. Additional, unmeasured factors could also be driving some differences, she said. 

The institute argues that closing the wide disparities will require a two-pronged approach. For one thing, disadvantaged families need more access to programs such as home visiting, high-quality child care, and preschool, it says.

 But the institute also says stronger policies also have to be implemented that cut down on the number of poor people in the country. In its view, that would require increasing the federal minimum wage (currently $7.25 an hour), boosting employment opportunities, and reforming corrections policies that lead to many poor children growing up in a one-parent household, because the other parent is in jail.

"There are many policy strategies that we know reduce poverty," said Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, an initiative to reduce education gaps. Weiss and García co-authored a summary of the inequality research, focusing on policy prescription. 

"We need parents in this country to be able to focus on playing with their kids and reading to their kids. They don't need to be stressing over how they can feed their children and keep a roof over their heads," Weiss said. 

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