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The Early Achievement and Development Gap

Publication Date
Mar 25, 2014
By: Lindsey Hutchison, Taryn Morrissey, Kimberly Burgess
This ASPE Research Brief presents a summary of what is known about gaps in childrenтАЩs achievement and development by family income, socioeconomic status, and other factors. The brief summarizes the gaps present at different time points in childrenтАЩs development, how these gaps change over time, the factors that contribute to the gaps, and policy implications. The content originated at research meetings convened by Deborah Phillips at the Foundation for Child Development and Georgetown University. The brief was prepared by ASPEтАЩs Lindsey Hutchison, Taryn Morrissey, and Kimberly Burgess, with substantial input from Katherine Magnuson and Jane Waldfogel.

About this research Brief

This ASPE Research Brief presents a summary of what is known about gaps in childrenтАЩs achievement and development for children by family income and socioeconomic status.

The content originated at research meetings convened by Deborah Phillips at the Foundation for Child Development and Georgetown University. The brief was prepared by ASPEтАЩs Lindsey Hutchison, Taryn Morrissey, and Kimberly Burgess, with substantial input from Katherine Magnuson and Jane Waldfogel.

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation

Office of Human
Services Policy

US Department of Health
and Human Services

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The large gap in achievement and development between children growing up in poor and low-income families and their peers in more advantaged situations continues to be a concern to parents, the public, and policymakers. This brief describes research on the achievement and development gap - its origins, size, and what we know about how public policy can narrow the gap.

How early in life do we see evidence of achievement and developmental gaps?

Gaps in achievement and development by socioeconomic status (SES) begin well before kindergarten, and these gaps widen as children grow older.There are large gaps by SES at school entry, which persist, and in some domains widen, over childrenтАЩs school careers. By kindergarten entry, there is a significant gap in reading and math (1 SD) between children from very low-income families (i.e., family income in the bottom 20 percent of the distribution for the sample) and those from very high-income families (i.e., family income in the top 20 percent of the distribution). Children from very low-income families are also behind (.5 of a SD) children from middle-income families (e.g., family income in the middle 20 percent of the distribution), though less so.Like family income, parentsтАЩ education is also a factor in the achievement gap. At 24 months, there is a sizeable gap in cognitive skills (nearly .9 of a SD) between children whose mothers have a BachelorтАЩs degree, and children whose mothers have less than a high school degree.Today, the largest achievement and developmental gaps are found to be between high-income and low-income children.At school entry, Black children tend to be behind White children in reading skills (.4 of a SD) and even further behind in math skills (.6 to .8 of a SD). These gaps widen further by fifth grade (1 SD for math; .8 of a SD for reading).Importantly, while the achievement and development gaps by race/ethnicity remain large, they have narrowed over the last few decades. It is important to note that child background characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, and home language, are often confounded with differences in SES. For example, there is evidence that the Black-White gap in reading skills at school entry is reduced by half (to .2 of a SD) or more after accounting for SES.There is evidence that multiple risk factors are associated with widening gaps in cognitive skills during infancy and toddlerhood, suggesting a cumulative association. For instance, a cognitive skills gap does not appear to exist between children experiencing only low family income (below 200 percent FPL) as a risk factor compared to children experiencing low family income and one additional risk factor (racial/ethnic minority, a home language other than English, or a low level of maternal education). However, low-income children with two or three additional risk factors do appear to be substantially behind low-income only children (.6 and .9 of a SD, respectively).Gaps in achievement between children living in the poorest households and their peers living in the highest income households have widened over the last few decades. Test scores of very low-income children (those in the lowest 10 percent of income, or lowest decile) born around 1950 lagged behind those of their affluent peers (those in the highest 10 percent of income) by a little over half of a SD -- about 60 points on an SAT-type test. Fifty years later, this gap was twice as large.Experiencing poverty early in life relates to disparities in long-term social, educational, and economic outcomes. Persistently poor children (i.e., those from families with income below the FPL for at least half of their childhood years, birth to age 17) are nearly 90 percent more likely than never-poor children to not complete high school by their 20s, and are four times more likely to give birth outside of marriage during their teenage years.The gaps we have discussed so far are strongly related to the types of early experiences children have at home and in caregiving settings. Greater income can be used to purchase goods and enriching opportunities like high-quality child care and early education, whereas a lack of resources may mean lower-quality or unstable care (although there is some evidence that children just above poverty or from middle-income families may receive the lowest-quality care; see Phillips et al., 2008Children from lower income and/or lower SES families experience differences in parenting and home language, literacy, and cognitive environments.Children's differential access to educational, health care, and other opportunities by family income and/or family SES also contribute to achievement and developmental gaps. For instance, national data from 2005 and 2007 indicate that about 90 percent of four-year-olds in the top income quintile (top 20 percent) attend some kind of preschool program, compared to 65 percent of those in the two lowest income quintiles (bottom 40 percent). Similarly, about 80 percent of three-year-olds in the top income quintile attend preschool, compared to just 40 percent of those from the middle income and two lowest income quintiles (bottom 60 percent).There are potentially multiple ways to help support the development of young children (e.g., parenting or health interventions); however, the most consistent evidence for supporting children's school readiness skills surrounds high-quality early care and education (ECE) programs. Expanding ECE services or targeting intensive early services to low-income children and their families may help narrow gaps in achievement and development. A recent meta-analysis of more than 65 studies found that ECE attendance had small to moderate effects (average effect size of .33 of a SD) on children's cognitive and achievement outcomes at the program's end. Across all follow-up data collection waves, effect sizes were small (averaged .26 of a SD), with impacts diminishing over time, on average, yet persisting for ten years.Expansions in access to high-quality ECE programs may help narrow gaps in achievement and development. We know that certain groups of children - Hispanic children, those from low-income families, immigrant families, and with less-educated parents - are less likely to be enrolled in preschool than their counterparts. For other groups of children who are already enrolled in preschool at relatively high rates, such as Black children, the more salient issue is that they tend to be in lower-quality settings.


For the remainder of this brief, all of the gaps are described in SD units.


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