Study: Academic gaps persist — but haven’t widened — between high- and low-income kindergartners

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When education economist Emma Garc?a started researching the academic gaps that show up in kindergarten between low-income students and their high-income peers, she had reason to suspect the gaps had widened in recent years.

Income inequality in the U.S., for example, has been on the rise: Since 1980, incomes have stagnated for the bottom 50 percent of American adults. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent, who in 1980 earned 27 times more than the bottom 50, now earn 81 times more.

But despite that growing economic inequality, reading and math performance gaps between low-income students and their more well-off peers haven’t grown, according to a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute.

“We would have wished for these gaps to shrink,” Garc?a, one of the study’s authors, wrote in an email interview.

However, she added, we “had some reasons to hypothesize that they could have grown larger as well, so in part we were indeed surprised by the results.”

In the study, Garc?a and co-author Elaine Weiss examined the kindergarten classes of 1998 and 2010 — the earliest and most recent data available — to compare academic readiness between students in the top and bottom socioeconomic groups.

They found a few positive signs: Compared to 1998, low-income parents in 2010 tended to be more involved in their child’s education. They also had higher expectations for their student’s educational attainment, and participation in prekindergarten had increased. Those factors helped chip away at the gaps, “but do not come close to eliminating them,” the authors wrote.

Garc?a and Weiss also found that, compared to 1998, a higher share of low-income children in 2010 were living in poverty, without two parents, or in a home where the main language was not English.

“It is disappointing,” Garc?a said.

“We know how we can support early development and tackle skills gaps, and we care about these inequalities, (but the) gaps haven’t closed a bit,” she said.

The researchers didn’t end their report on a disappointing note. Instead, they highlighted a number of communities — including Vancouver, Washington — where school districts have partnered with public and private organizations to support students both before they enter kindergarten and if their families struggle with poverty in their later grades.

“Despite the fact that the circumstances, demographic trends and political leadership differed across districts, poverty was at the core in each community’s decision,” Garc?a said.

In Vancouver, for example, the number of students qualifying for free- and reduced-price meals — a common barometer of household poverty — rose to 57 percent by 2015. But several years earlier, even as the state cut its investment in public schools, district officials started spending millions of dollars on creating new, one-stop service centers for families at high-poverty schools.

Coordinators at each campus help connect families with food pantries, health care, housing assistance, employment services, early-learning and after-school programs and more.

“Lots of these families never experienced poverty in the past,” said Tamara Shoup, the district’s director of family engagement. “Just having that navigation support (to services) made a big difference.”

The district plans to expand the centers to all schools by 2020, and there are signs of success: Student mobility and absenteeism are down. Course-failure rates in middle and high school have tumbled. On-time graduation rates are soaring, especially among students of color.

The centers also have strong community support, with partner contributions totaling nearly $4?million last year.

“Launching these initiatives is difficult,” Garc?a said. “But the ongoing, successful examples can be used, if not as models, at least as inspiration to expand these strategies.”