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Poorer children trail at the start of kindergarten, report finds

Children from impoverished families start school with fewer cognitive skills that are the foundation for learning math, reading and other subjects, according to a study by two U-M researchers.

In “Inequality at the Starting Gate,” School of Education Professors Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkam analyzed U.S. Department of Education survey data of more than 16,000 children entering kindergarten. The result is a book-length study published by the Economic Policy Institute that says poorer children do not have as many books, are far less likely to have computers at home, and trail behind in basic skills compared with children from higher socioeconomic groups.

For example, math and reading scores for new kindergartners from the lowest socioeconomic group are 60 percent and 56 percent lower, respectively, than those of students at the highest end, the report finds.

“We promise our children that education is the ‘great equalizer’ of society,” Burkam says. “Yet social and economic factors, and low school quality in some cases, can leave some disadvantaged children without any realistic hope of catching up. Addressing these inequalities is simply a matter of keeping our nation’s promise of high-quality schooling for all children.”

Kindergartners whose families are in the lowest fifth of the socioeconomic scale are not exposed to nearly as many enriching and learning experiences as those in the highest fifth, the study finds. Those in the lowest fifth:

* Owned an average of 38 books, compared to 108 owned by those in the top fifth, and were read to much less often.
* Were far less likely to have a computer in the home (20 percent, compared with 85 percent in the highest socioeconomic group).
* Were much less likely to have been taken to a museum, public library or a play, or to have participated in dance, art, music or crafts classes.

*Spent more hours per week watching television (18 hours, compared to 11 hours).
*Were far more likely to have only one parent (48 percent, compared to 10 percent).

The report also finds that the average achievement score for children in the highest socioeconomic group surveyed is 60 percent higher than in the lowest group. Children in low socioeconomic groups and minority children are likely to have larger class sizes and fewer experienced teachers, the study finds.

Lee points out that the gap cannot be closed just by changes made at schools.

“Disparities in children’s academic skills are substantial on their first day of formal schooling, so solutions that focus only on the school setting come too late to have as much impact as we would hope to achieve,” Lee says.

An excerpt from the report can be found at


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