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Kindergarten Assessments May Impact Instruction… but Inequality Matters Even More

In an unsurprising finding that will, sadly, have a limited impact on policy, a study by Economic Policy Institute researchers Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss found that “…children who start behind stay behind—they are rarely able to make up the lost ground.”  The study, which tracked the performance of  two academic cohorts, the kindergarten classes of 1998 and 2010, on both cognitive and noncognitive skills found that:

…large performance gaps exist between children in the lowest and highest socioeconomic-status (SES) quintiles and that these gaps have persisted from the 1998 cohort to the 2010 cohort. The positive news is that the gaps have not grown, even as economic inequalities between these two groups of students have grown. The negative news is that the gaps have not narrowed, despite the fact that low-SES parents have substantially increased their engagement in their children’s early education.

Mss. Garcia and Weiss note that this persistent gap in cognitive and non-cognitive performance denies those in the lower SES quintiles the same kinds of opportunities as those in the top quintile. The authors conclude:

The undeniable relationship between economic inequalities and education inequalities represents a societal failure that betrays the ideal of the “American dream.”

But the finding and the conclusion are nothing new. This conclusion led to the War on Poverty in the 60s, a War that was ultimately lust because of underfunding. It was initially underfunded because we needed to divert money to the misbegotten war in Viet Nam, was subsequently underfunded because of various austerity measures, and eventually fell prey to the Reagan mantra that “Government is the Problem”. Mss. Garcia and Weiss offer a cogent but naive solution to the problem:

Greater investments in pre-K programs can narrow the gaps between students at the start of school. And to ensure that these early gains are maintained, districts can provide continued comprehensive academic, health, nutrition, and emotional support for children through their academic years, including meaningful engagement of parents and communities. Such strategies have been successfully implemented in districts around the country, as described in this report, and can serve to mitigate the impact of economic inequalities on children’s educational achievement and improve their future life and work prospects.

Since “greater investments” inevitably means “more revenue” which ultimately requires “higher taxes” the chances of these recommendations being followed by the GOP led Congress and DeVos led USDOE are minuscule at best and most likely impossible. One would hope that their grounding in research would be persuasive, but again, given the GOP led Congress and DeVos led USDOE any research-based findings are unlikely to gain traction. Indeed, in the eight years of Democratic Party leadership we witnessed little to no movement toward either “greater investments in pre-K programs” or an emphasis on “comprehensive academic, health, nutrition, and emotional support for children through their academic years”. Instead. like their like-minded GOP legislators, the Duncan-led USDOE advocated market based solutions to inequality, believing that offering choices and charters was preferable to providing the funding needed to invest in Pre-K or provide “…comprehensive academic, health, nutrition, and emotional support for children through their academic years.”

Until we acknowledge that more funding is needed for the kinds of programs and services advocated by Mss. Garcia and Weiss the inequities they observed will persist indefinitely… and the betrayal of the ideal of the “American dream” will persist as well.

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