Researcher: Opportunity Gap Is Widest In Kindergarten

May 20, 2015

The incomes of wealthy and poor American families have diverged over the past three decades, so too have the educational outcomes of the children in these families. For more on why money matters when it comes to early childhood education and success later in life, we turn to Greg Duncan. He, along with Richard J. Murnane, is the author of Whither Opportunity?, which looks at the consequences of rising inequality for America’s education. Duncan spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello.
 

Many children start their formal education in Kindergarten. To what extent does money matter before children even start school?

We know that if we compare the reading levels and math levels for high- and low-income kids, kids in the top and bottom 20 percent of the income distribution, there’s a huge gap right in the fall of kindergarten. It’s more than a year’s worth of learning in both math and reading, so low income kids are starting out well behind high income kids and that gap has increased quite substantially over the last 30 or 40 years.

And do children improve in these areas at the same rate once they’re in school?

The biggest gap is right in the beginning of kindergarten and then it grows somewhat but not too much.

What is it that affluent parents are imparting to their kids that less wealthy parents aren’t?

That’s a good question. We don’t really have an absolute definitive answer, but one of the things we discovered in the Whither Opportunity? book is that if you look at consumer expenditure surveys and see what rich and poor families are spending on their kids for what might be called “child enrichment activities”—these are things like lessons and summer camps and childcare and maybe private schools, if the parents are sending their kids to private schools—back in the 1970s, in today’s dollars, the top 20 percent of families ranked by income were spending about $3,300 per child per year on these enrichment activities. And low income families were spending about $900 per child per year.

If you fast-forward to 2005-2006, what you see is the low income families, despite the fact that their incomes have been fairly stagnant, their expenditures have increased by about $900-$1,300, but what’s amazing is what’s happening at the high end. High income families have gone from $3,300 to almost $10,000 per child per year that they’re spending on these enrichment activities. And god bless them, it’s great for parents to be spending a lot of their money on behalf of their kids, but the kind of advantages it imparts to high-income kids, coupled with the fact that high-income parents tend to be more educated, and if you have to negotiate the college application process, it’s a lot better to have someone who has been through all that. The gaps that open up in terms of expenditures translate to a significant extent into these growing gaps in achievement levels.

To what extent does time spent with parents matter?

Spending time with parents is particularly important in the very early years. When kids turn three or four, most kids, even low-income kids, are in early childhood education programs—head start, pre-K programs, or private early education programs. So both high- and low-income kids, and high-income kids more so than low-income kids, are exposed to spending a lot of time in these early childhood education environments and again there’s a difference in the quality of those environments and some have very well-regimented kind of curricula, which isn’t drill and kill, but it’s very well-trained teachers helping kids learn basic concepts versus other kinds of childcare settings where it’s more kind of keeping everyone safe and healthy but not very much in the way of enrichment. So it’s family differences, it’s childcare differences, and then once kids start school, it’s schooling differences.