News from EPI Efforts to Close Achievement Gap Must Begin Much Earlier, New Report Shows

Monday, September 30, 2002

Nancy Coleman, Karen Conner or
Stephaan Harris at (202) 775-8810


Disadvantaged Children Start Kindergarten Trailing Behind

Children from impoverished families start kindergarten at a tremendous disadvantage, trailing behind other children in the basic skills that are the foundation for learning math, reading, and other subjects, according to a new report written by two University of Michigan education experts and published today by the Economic Policy Institute. The report, Inequality at the Starting Gate, demonstrates a pressing national need to refocus and redouble efforts to close the gap well before children start school.

For this book-length study, authors Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkam analyzed information from a nationwide U.S. Department of Education survey of more than 16,000 children at the point where they enter kindergarten. They found that children from the lowest socioeconomic group arrive at school with fewer cognitive skills than children from the higher groups.

Starting Gate paints a clear picture of how children’s vastly disparate lives and family resources directly affect their test scores when they enter school. The lives of disadvantaged children are marked by a relative dearth of many of the learning and enriching experiences that are commonly associated with childhood. Compared to children from the families in the highest fifth of socioeconomic status (SES) – measured by income and the parents’ occupations and education levels – the kindergartner whose family falls in the lowest fifth:

  • Owned just 38 books, compared to the 108 owned by the top fifth, and was read to much less often (63% versus 94% were read to 3 or more times a week).
  • Was far less likely to have a computer in the home (20% versus 85%)
  • Was much less likely to have been taken to a museum, a public library, a play, or to have participated in dance, art, music, or crafts classes.
  • Spent the most hours per week watching television (18 versus 11 hours)
  • Was far more likely to have only one parent (48% versus 10%) and to have moved around more. (Over 48% of the most impoverished children have lived in at least three different homes by the time they enter kindergarten, while over 80% of children from the families of the highest socioeconomic status have lived in no more than two homes.)

“For everyone who cares about giving every child a fair chance to succeed, this study is very important,” said Lawrence Mishel, EPI’s president. “It shows us tangible evidence of the gap that poverty creates for children. If we are serious about closing the achievement gap and leaving no child behind, we must do more and we must do it earlier.”

The report examines children who are at risk for school failure by exploring the tie between social background and academic skills. The authors look at a variety of factors, including family income, parents’ education and occupation, non-English speaking households, the number of children in the home, participation in learning activities, time spent watching television, and parental involvement in play and learning activities. The report notes, for example, that:

  • The average achievement score for children in the highest socioeconomic group surveyed is 60% higher than in the lowest group.
  • Children who attended center-based child care before kindergarten show higher achievement, yet only 20% of low-SES kindergartners are likely to have attended, compared to 65% of upper-SES kindergartners.
  • Low-SES and minority children are likely to experience larger class sizes, less outreach to smooth the transition to school, and fewer prepared and experienced teachers.
  • Fourteen percent of low-SES kindergartners live in non-English speaking households, whereas only 5% of their upper-SES peers do.

Starting Gate underscores that children do not begin their education as equals. Math and reading scores for new kindergartners from the lowest socioeconomic group are 60% and 56% lower, respectively, than those of students at the highest end. The report has implications not only for how children from disadvantaged backgrounds can be assisted, but also for what role schools, especially ones that serve predominantly low-income children, and educator training can play to turn back the tide of inequality.

“Disparities in children’s academic skills are substantial on their first day of formal schooling,” Lee said, “so solutions that focus only on the school setting come too late to have as much impact as we would hope to achieve.”

Lee and Burkam point out that the problem can be compounded when children from impoverished backgrounds enter schools with fewer resources, bigger classes, and fewer qualified teachers.

“We promise our children that education is the ‘great equalizer’ of society,” Burkam says. “Yet social and economic factors, and low school quality in some cases, can leave some disadvantaged children without any realistic hope of catching up. Addressing these inequities is simply a matter of keeping our nation’s promise of high-quality schooling for all children.”

Although the report discusses the achievement gap between white and minority children, the research makes it clear that socioeconomic status, not race or ethnicity, is the most important factor explaining why some students aren’t prepared for school. For example, only 9% of white kindergartners were classified in the lowest socioeconomic bracket, compared to a third of African-American kindergartners who were identified in the same category.

The authors analyzed the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), a representative picture of five and six-year-olds nationwide who began kindergarten in 1998. Starting Gate is drawn from the lives of more than 16,000 children with test scores and whose parents provided full information about race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

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The Economic Policy Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan economic think tank founded in 1986. The Institute is located on the web at