CAP: High-Quality Universal Pre-K May Reduce Achievement Gap

child in kindergarten

(Photo: Lucélia Ribeiro, Creative Commons)

Many times children from low-income families or who are children of color begin kindergarten without the skills they need to be successful. African-American and Hispanic young people are sometimes nine to 10 months behind their white peers in math and seven to 12 months behind in reading when they start.

Achievement gaps like these are a real concern because the level of a child’s math and reading skills when they enter kindergarten are predictors of academic success in later years — and youngsters who begin kindergarten with deficits are not likely to catch up.

The Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy organization that is aimed at improving Americans’ lives, has published the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers study to offer recommendations on what can be done. Authored by Allison Friedman-Krauss, an assistant research professor at the NIEER, W. Steven Barnett, a Board of Governors professor and the director of the NIEER, and Milagros Nores, associate director of research at the NIEER, the report concludes that a universal pre-K program would carry broad benefits.

CAP says that providing early childhood education programs ensures that students will enter kindergarten with a solid academic foundation, which is a high priority for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. When a young person participates in a quality early childhood education program, it will improve the child’s development, reduce achievement gaps, and benefit the student’s future academic success, the say.

Two problems have kept high-quality early childhood education in the US almost inaccessible and extremely unequal. First, African American and Hispanic students have a low rate of access to center-based early childhood program compared to white students.

The second is that programs attended by low-income children of color are often not adequate to make a difference in improving academic readiness. Because early childhood education is so valuable, the report assesses how universal pre-school that is publicly funded could lessen the disparities in access to early learning and achievement gaps upon entry to kindergarten.

The authors explain that the elements of “quality” in early learning are not uniformly agreed upon by educators. But they attempt to define it generally as a program that hires teachers with strong educational backgrounds in child development. They also have found that effective programs use research-based curricula that meet the needs of the whole child.

Quality programs also employ teachers who engage children in well-planned, warm, and intellectually stimulating interactions. Additionally, class sizes are small, and the classroom has a variety of developmentally appropriate learning activities and materials.

The analysis found that children who gain the most from pre-K programs attend for more hours a day and more days per week. For example, students who were part of full-day programs made more progress than children who were in part-day programs. The full-day students outperformed part-day program kids in math, language, and socio-emotional skills.

Because there is no national universal pre-K program, many states have implemented their own UPK. The researchers say that while this is encouraging, a significant federal investment is necessary to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality UPK program.

They add that this should be a priority for US lawmakers so that all children get a fair chance at academic success.