Fixing education inequalities will require fixing broader societal inequities

Every serious education research study concludes with a series of recommendations for further research and implications for education policy. Our recent paper comparing skills gaps among kindergartners an “academic generation” apart is no exception. What is perhaps different is how important we think major changes to policies outside the realm of education are to improving the education system itself.

In Reducing and averting achievement gaps, we show that there was a large gap in preparedness between high and low social class students who began school in the fall of 2010. Furthermore, this gap changed very little over the prior twelve years. And it’s not only a matter of math and reading skills—there are similar gaps in social and emotional skills, which interact with and inform those traditional academic abilities.

We recommend that our counterparts in the field take up questions that arose in the course of conducting this work—like, to what degree do these gaps persist and change as children progress through elementary school and beyond, and what explains the lack of change over the past decade?

The third part of our paper draws on studies of a dozen communities that have embraced a range of strategies to mitigate the impacts of poverty at the district level—including very early support for children and their families, efforts to engage parents as partners in their children’s education, pre-K and improved kindergarten transitions, enriching, whole-child curricula, and wraparound health and nutrition services through the K–12 years. Our case studies highlight how feasible, and successful, this kind of comprehensive enrichment and support can be.

All of the policies we highlight would certainly help all children are better prepared when they enter kindergarten. But our finding that gaps in reading skills actually widened a bit between academic generations, while others either stagnated or only narrowed slightly, gave us tremendous pause. This near-total failure to shrink enormous gaps in reading, math, and social and emotional skills between children of low and high social class was over a period in which public investment in pre-K programs grew substantially and in which researchers produced extensive new information about child development and real-world evidence on what worked and what didn’t. Moreover, over this period, parents with low-level jobs and very low wages seemed to have acted on that information, by reading more to their children, playing more with their children, expecting more for their children’s educational attainment, and engaging in a range of enriching activities.

There is only so much that parents raising children in very disadvantaged circumstances can do to counter those disadvantages. Our data illustrate how thoroughly policy decisions we have made as a society have cemented that disadvantage and impeded those parents’ ability to alleviate it. Children in the lowest fifth social-class who began kindergarten in 2010 were much more likely than their low social-class counterparts in 1998 to be living in poverty (85 percent vs. 71 percent). They were also much more likely to live with just one parent (up from 46 percent to 55 percent), and to live in households in which English was not spoken (just above 40 percent vs. 31 percent in 1998, suggesting that many are immigrants or children of immigrants).

Wages for these parents—like those of the vast majority of Americans—were stagnant over this period. So those making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour in 1998 were likely to still be making that same wage—worth much less in real dollars—in 2010. But at least parents living at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in 1998 had a booming economy to cushion that blow. With virtually-full employment and demand for workers strong, many fewer parents had to settle for so little. Children entering kindergarten in 2010, in contrast, were born during the worst recession and slowest recovery in nearly a century. Their parents struggled to find any work at all, even part-time minimum wage jobs, which many cobbled together to make ends meet. And thanks to 1996 welfare reform legislation, only a small minority were eligible to receive any cash assistance whatsoever, and those who did received far too little to provide the basics for their children.

While we applaud parents’ taking seriously research telling them how important it is to read to their children, talk to them, and play with them, it is unfair—and, as the persistence of the gaps we found demonstrates, unrealistic—to pin everything on them. If, as a country, we want to narrow the gaps in reading, math, and social and emotional skills—gaps that exist when low social class students enter kindergarten, and dog them throughout their academic careers—we need to ensure that many fewer children grow up in such deprived contexts. So beyond investing in the education system, we urge the expansion of health care, and a much stronger social safety net that boosts incomes for vulnerable families through policies such as unemployment insurance, Social Security disability insurance, cash assistance, the earned income tax credit, and the child and dependent care tax credit.

If we are serious about closing these gaps, we will need to combine investments in both schools and society more broadly with economic and policy changes to spread economic growth more broadly across the income distribution. Because until we tackle the huge inequities at the core of these early gaps, we will continue to live with them.