We can close the gap in academic performance between low-income children and their more advantaged peers—by recognizing that the gap is rooted in experiences that take place long before a child enters kindergarten.
By age four, an 18-month gap is apparent between an impoverished child and his more affluent peers. That gap is still present at age 10 and continues throughout high school. Once established, gaps in school-readiness skills are difficult, and more costly, to remedy.
Young children need both cognitive and social skills to enter school with the confidence, motivation, persistence and curiosity that will prepare them to be successful learners. The social and emotional skills (or “soft” skills) which a child acquires before age 5—the capacity to control her behavior or impulses, the ability to get along with other children or seek out and accept help—are just as important as academic skills in preparing her for school.
Math skills at kindergarten entry (the ability to recognize numbers, problem solve, use reasoning skills, and apply knowledge) are increasingly seen as an even better predictor of later academic success than early reading ability. Yet there is a significant gap in achievement in math performance between low-income and higher-income children.
Early language and literacy development is also a key component of school preparation, and differences in vocabulary growth between children in low-income families and high-income families begin to appear as early as 18 months. By age 3, the average child in a low-income household knows fewer than half as many words as a child in a high-income household.
Poor child care worsens the problem. Studies show that only 30% of infant-toddler care is adequate or better. A startling 10% is unacceptable. Early Head Start, our nation’s best program for infants and toddlers living in poverty, reaches less than 3% of the eligible population. Our most vulnerable children spend the years most critical to their brain development without access to the high-quality care that could most dramatically impact their lives.