Goodnight, pre-K gap

A study pops an inequality myth in finding American kids are not only better prepared for early schooling but those from lower-income or minority homes saw a reduced gap with white kids. One probable cause: better qualities of character.

Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Educator Shynecsa Blevins makes valentine photo frames with Tristan Lewis and Karlie Lewis during an after-school 'Love for Learning' night of activities with parents and children at the Byrd First Class Early Learning Center in Selma, Alabama.

For at least a half century, the United States has tried to better prepare young children for kindergarten, especially those from poor and minority households. The results have been rarely encouraging. The gap in readiness for school among children by both race and income seemed as gloomy as Eeyore. That is, until researchers, sifting through national data from 1998 to 2010, discovered otherwise.

Not only did children in general start school better prepared during that period but also the poorest children made larger gains than those from wealthier families, according to Sean Reardon of Stanford University and Ximena Portilla of the research firm MDRC, authors of a new study. In particular, Hispanic children reduced the gap with whites by 14 percent. And on certain measures, black children reduced the gap with whites.

If this recent trend toward an equal start in education keeps improving, other research shows that the next generation will have a greater chance of earning higher incomes and living better lives.

These new data raise the hope that parents, schools, and society at large are doing something right for children below the age of 5. But exactly what is still not clear. Some experts point to poor parents realizing the importance of reading to children, watching educational shows, and using digital devices for learning. Family life might be more stable and loving. Others point to better Head Start programs and other federal aid to poor families. More research is needed to know for sure.

In a new book, “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why,” author Paul Tough contends that “soft” skills like perseverance and self-control are crucial for poor children entering school. “These qualities, which are also sometimes called character strengths, have in recent years become a source of intensifying interest and growing optimism among those who study child development,” he writes.

Reducing academic gaps is only one indicator of educational success. In some schools, both white and minority children score far below the national norms. The gap is near zero and thus meaningless. What counts is an upward trend in overall academic readiness, especially for the disadvantaged.

If similar data since 2010 confirm that this trend has continued, then Americans must look hard at what works in early-education reform. With more perseverance and self-control – or just what kids need – the US can perhaps make the greatest progress on poverty and inequality.

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