When inequality is the topic, it can seem as if all the news is bad. Income inequality continues to rise. Economic segregation is growing. Racial gaps in education, employment and health endure. US society is not particularly fair.
But here is some good news about educational inequality: The enormous gap in academic performance between high- and low-income children has begun to narrow. Children entering kindergarten in America today are more equally prepared than children were in the late 1990s.
We know this from information collected over the last two decades by the National Centre for Education Statistics. In the autumn of 1998 and again in 2010, the centre sent early childhood assessors to roughly 1,000 public and private kindergartens across the United States. They sat down one on one with 15 to 25 children in each school to measure their reading and maths skills. They asked children to identify shapes and colours, to count, to identify letters and to sound out words. They also surveyed parents to learn about the children's experiences before entering kindergarten.
Working with the social scientist Ximena Portilla, we used this data to track changes over time in "school readiness gaps" - the differences in academic skills between low-income and high-income children entering kindergarten. What we found is surprising. From 1998 to 2010, the school readiness gap narrowed by 10 per cent in maths and 16 per cent in reading. The gaps that remain are still vast. But even this modest improvement represents a sharp reversal of the trend over the preceding decades.
It's worth noting that the gap in school readiness narrowed because of relatively rapid improvements in the skills of low-income children, not because the skills of children from high-income families declined.
Research one of us did with Mr Scott Latham at the University of Virginia showed that both poor and affluent children entered kindergarten in 2010 with stronger reading and maths skills than their counterparts did in the late 1990s. School readiness gaps between racial groups have also improved: Both the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps narrowed by roughly 15 per cent from 1998 to 2010.
These improvements appear to persist at least into fourth grade. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that by 2015, when those kindergarteners were in fourth grade, their maths and reading skills were roughly two-thirds of a grade level higher than those of their counterparts 12 years earlier. This was true for children of all racial and ethnic groups and for poor and non-poor children alike.
What's behind these surprising developments? One possibility is that school readiness gaps have narrowed because it is easier now for poor families to find high-quality, publicly funded preschool programmes for their children. Today, 29 per cent of four-year-olds are in state-funded preschools, up from 14 per cent in 2002. Greater availability of affordable preschool programmes - particularly if they are high quality - may be part of the reason poor children are starting to catch up to their affluent peers.
It is unlikely, however, that preschool enrolment is the primary explanation. Although more poor children today attend preschool than those in the 1990s, enrolment rates dipped in 2010, perhaps because of rising unemployment after the Great Recession. And while the quality of the typical preschool programme may have improved, as recently as 2004, most poor children attended public preschools that were far inferior to those available in affluent communities.
It may be changes in children's homes that have mattered most.
Tracking the experiences of young children over time, we found that both rich and poor children today have more books and read with their parents more often than children did in the 1990s. They are far more likely to have computers, Internet access and computer games focused on reading and maths skills. Their parents are more likely to spend time with them, taking them to the library or doing activities at home.
The children of the rich have always had more of these opportunities than poor children. What has changed is that low-income children are now getting more of what the political scientist Robert Putnam calls "Goodnight Moon time" than they did in the 1990s. That's excellent news.
But here's the puzzle: In many ways, the lives of rich and poor parents haven't become more equal - far from it. Among families with school-age children, income inequality grew by roughly 10 per cent from 1998 to 2010; economic segregation grew by 20 per cent. How is it that the school readiness gap is nonetheless narrowing?
We suspect that, in part, this happened because of the widespread diffusion of a single powerful idea: that the first few years of a child's life are the most consequential for cognitive development. This idea is commonplace today, but it was not always so. Less than a century ago, the historian Julia Wrigley notes, mainstream magazines routinely advised new mothers that intellectual stimulation of babies was harmful.
Now we know better, the result of decades of scientific research about brain development, poverty and the long-term effects of high-quality preschool programmes. But low-income families have not always had the same information about the unique importance of early childhood. Indeed, part of why the achievement gap grew in the 1980s and 1990s was that rich families rapidly increased their investment of both time and money in their children's cognitive development.
Why are low-income families now adopting these parenting practices? It may be partly a result of public information campaigns like Reach Out and Read, the Too Small to Fail initiative and local efforts in cities like Providence, Rhode Island, which aim to teach parents simple ways to help their children build the vocabulary and cognitive skills that form a foundation for success in school.
In conjunction with public investments in home-visiting programmes and high-quality preschool programmes, these campaigns represent an effort to ensure that our knowledge about the unique importance of early childhood helps everyone.
Like a new medical innovation that is first adopted by the wealthy but then becomes commonplace, the emphasis on public and private investments in young children has helped turn a benefit for the rich into an equalising force in society.
As encouraging as this new evidence is, there is still a long way to go. Poor children still enter kindergarten nearly a year behind their richer peers. Even if school readiness gaps continue to narrow at the rate they did between 1998 and 2010, it would take another 60 to 110 years for them to be completely eliminated.
Changes in parenting are not going to be sufficient to sustain or speed this progress, although more paid leave would help. Economic inequality still constrains poor children's horizons. Low-income and middle-class parents still struggle to find affordable, high-quality preschools. The elementary, middle and high schools that rich and poor students attend differ markedly in resources and quality. And it isn't clear that the recent reductions in school readiness gaps will automatically translate into greater equality in high school, college and beyond.
If something is not done about these larger problems, the progress the US has made towards equality in early childhood may prove only a brief respite from ever-widening educational inequality. Goodnight Moon, for all its charm and power, is no substitute for comprehensive social policy.
NEW YORK TIMES
Sean F. Reardon is a professor of education at Stanford; Jane Waldfogel is a professor of social work at Columbia; and Daphna Bassok is an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'Mind the gap: Fighting inequality in education'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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