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Will Pre-K Narrowing Gap Continue?

Until recently, the readiness gap between high-and low-income children entering kindergarten has been vast.  But it is narrower today than it was in the late 1990s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics ("The Good News About Educational Inequality, " The New York Times, Aug. 28).  Whether the positive trend will continue as children move into upper grades is hard to say, but I believe it is unlikely.

Whatever benefits accrue to disadvantaged children through enrollment in pre-K programs tend to fade over the years.  Nine years later, the achievement gap, on average, widens by somewhere from one-half to two-thirds ("Education Gap Between Rich and Poor Is Growing Wider," The New York Times, Sept. 22, 2015). That's because children from affluent and well-educated parents continue to receive experiences that reinforce what they learn in school. Even the best teachers are no match for factors outside the classroom.

I realize that better parenting practices can help compensate for the uneven playing field, but I don't think they can compete with the inherent advantages that children from wealthier parents enjoy ("Finally, a disturbing trend in education shows signs of reversal," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 31).  There will always be outliers whom the media will play up.  But exceptions do not disprove the rule. 

The disappointing record of Head Start that was acknowledged by the Department of Health and Human Services in a 346-page final report released on Christmas Eve 2012 was probably due to the uneven quality of the program. Nevertheless, it's extremely difficult to scale up successful pilot programs.  That's because of their low external validity.  What works in one locale doesn't necessarily work in another.  We should keep trying, but it's important to retain realistic expectations.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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