Starting Kindergarten Behind

In a recent article (PDF) Greg J. Duncan, Katherine Magnuson, and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal examine the effects on poverty on school readiness. They compare how good kindergarten kids are in basic skills like recognizing letters, counting, basic shapes and word sounds, breaking down the results by income. The results are pretty staggering:


Low income and poor kids start kindergarten systematically behind their peer. Less than 20% of poor kids can be considered proficient recognizing letters, compared to more than 70% for middle class families. This is a huge disparity than exist before most children enter the public education system - and it persists, or even widens, over time.

What are the causes of this gap? The authors review the evidence in depth; Brookings has an excellent post today assessing this issue. The main question is, of course how poverty affects this disparity, and what steps can be taken to reverse this gap. Their policy recommendations:


  • Focus on early childhood poverty: If it turns out that poverty is most devastating in early childhood, then increasing the cash flow to families with very young children is a good investment. In a recent policy brief, for example, we proposed making the Earned Income Tax Credit more generous for children under the age of 5.
  • Tie cash to behaviors: One way to deliver cash assistance is by using cash payments to reward positive behaviors such as children’s school attendance or preventative health care. New York City’s Family Rewards program, for example, ties cash rewards to several indicators of children’s education, preventative health care, and parental employment.
  • Don’t cut family income: If higher income expands opportunity, then the reverse is also true. The authors warn that “reductions in the generosity of programs such as the EITC can be expected to reduce children’s success.

That is - addressing poverty is important, but we also need to invest in pre-K education. The legislature just took some bold steps in this direction this year - and we should  keep moving towards universal access to pre-K.


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