Efforts like First Book can help close achievement gap

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A new Stanford University study concludes that the achievement gap between high- and lower-income children entering kindergarten has narrowed—in spite of widening economic inequality.

The surprisingly upbeat assessment, co-authored by Sean Reardon of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, compares the achievement gaps between high- and lower-income children entering kindergarten in 1998 and 2010 using the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. The study appeared in the journal of the American Educational Research Association. The researchers found that the gap between high- and lower-income students was 16 percent smaller for reading and 10 percent smaller for math in 2010, compared with the gap in 1998.

What might be driving the change?

Using ECLS data, the researchers found that families of kindergarteners in 2010 had more books at home, read more to their kids, reported taking them to libraries and museums more often, and made greater use of educational computer games, compared with families in 1998. And much of the change might be driven by efforts like First Book, the Thirty Million Words campaign, Reach Out and Read, and other initiatives aimed at widely distributing tools in lower-income communities to promote children's development and close the achievement gap.

"There is reason to believe that increasing investment in some of these activities by low-income families may yield relatively higher returns," the Stanford University press reports. "Going from zero to 10 books may have a stronger impact on literacy readiness than going from 100 to 110 books in the home."

The authors were careful not to minimize what remains a substantial gap between rich and poor students, however. Reardon estimates that lower-income children were testing about six months behind in reading and seven months behind in math, compared with higher-income students in 2010. "But, the fact that the gap turned around suggests that these gaps are not an immutable law of nature," Reardon says.

[Stanford University Press, Mike Rose]