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Rich Parents Spend Much More on School Prep for Young Children

Spending on child care, toys, games, books and other early-education supports has grown significantly among the country's wealthiest families and hardly at all among its lower-income families, according to a study published in June in the American Education Research Association journal, AERA Open. 

The top 10 percent of households spent about $9,000 a year on child care and learning enrichment materials in 2010, a three-fold increase over what similar families spent in 1972. Child care was the single biggest contributor to this increase, researchers found. Spending among the bottom 20 percent of families rose by $152 to about $1,500 between 1972 and the early 1980s and then stagnated and hasn't grown since.

"Compared to the past, we now expect high-income students to come in to kindergarten or 1st grade with experiences very different from those of other children," said lead researcher Sabino Kornrich, a professor at Emory University in Georgia. "One difference that might be related is a growing gap in test scores at a very early age between wealthy children and their peers." 

Interestingly, separate research published in the same journal, AERA Open, in August showed that gap is finally narrowing. As my colleague Sarah D. Sparks reported on her Inside School Research blog this week:

Researchers Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University and Ximena A. Portilla of the research firm MDRC compared data for nationally representative samples of more than 40,000 children who started kindergarten in 1998, 2006, and 2010. They found that during that period, children from both the poorest 10 percent of families and those from the wealthiest 10 percent of families improved in early-reading and -math assessments—but students in poverty made larger improvements. As a result, poor students closed academic gaps with wealthy peers by 10 percent in early math and 16 percent in early reading.

Researchers associated with that study posit that poor parents are more aware of the importance of the early years than they used to be and more engaged with their young children in terms of talking, singing, and reading than they have been historically. Research shows that continued interaction with a trusted adult has the highest impact on a young child's development of language and critical thinking skills, both critical for school readiness.

A growing number of free smart phone applications on early child-development, a few of which we've reported on here, are also available for parents across the income spectrum. These apps, like Vroom and Bedtime Math, offer parents ideas for free activities they can do with their children to encourage early learning. Counting spoons, telling silly stories or singing the alphabet song, it turns out, doesn't cost a thing. 

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