The odds are stacked against low-income, black and Hispanic children before they even start school.
Low-income children enter kindergarten 13 months behind their more affluent peers in reading. Black and Hispanic children are nearly seven months and 12 months behind white students in reading, respectively. The initial disparities make it difficult for disadvantaged and minority students to catch up through high school and college.
But a simple policy prescription could narrow those gaps, suggests a new paper from the Center for American Progress.
The analysis looks at how a high-quality universal preschool system could affect achievement gaps between groups of students. Less than 20 percent of black, Hispanic and lower-income students currently attend high-quality early-education programs at schools or other education centers, the study's authors estimate -- but about 24 percent of white children and nearly 30 percent of higher-income children do. White children are more likely to be enrolled in high-quality programs.
Researchers looked at how high-quality universal preschool programs have reduced achievement gaps in Boston and Tulsa, Oklahoma, to estimate what these programs could do nationwide. Tulsa and Boston are rare examples of cities that offer wide-scale, high-quality preschool to all 4-year-olds. These programs have been shown to have significant impact on children, although some critics question the methodology that goes in to determining how successful they are.
Low-income students could gain more than five months of additional reading skills by attending a high-quality preschool, according to the analysis, which would reduct their learning gap by 41 percent. Black children could nearly close their achievement gap in reading by gaining nearly seven months of learning, and Hispanic children could completely catch up to white students in reading skills before kindergarten. Results were similar for math.
The results surprised W. Steven Barnett, one of the study authors and the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
"We expected gains, but we didn’t expect such dramatic reductions in the achievement gaps for children of color, which essentially virtually erase the gap in literacy at kindergarten entry," Barnett said.
The analysis speaks to the debate around whether publicly funded preschool should be offered to all kids, or if programs should target poor students unable to afford fee-based centers.
While targeted programs have been shown to reduce achievement gaps and help learning long-term, the study says there haven't been many analyses of how universal preschool could similarly minimize these gaps.
Barnett argues that a universal preschool program could be even more powerful than a targeted program.
"Means-tested programs simply miss a lot of children," he said. "Income isn’t a constant."
Parents also may feel stigmatized if they send their kids to a program designed for disadvantaged students, he added.
"I think if you ask the question of middle-income and higher-income parents, 'Would you want to send your children to a program just for children in poverty?' many of them would say no," Barnett said. "Why do you think the answer would be different for people who just happen to be poor?"
Some argue that publicly funded preschool isn't the most cost-effective way to improve outcomes for vulnerable students, as some programs have yielded inconsistent results.
Barnett said a program must be undeniably high-quality in order to live up to its promise.
"I think one of the things that’s evident from our work is that truly high-quality programs along the lines of Boston and Tulsa are vanishingly rare. If you ask, Why don’t we get impacts from many of today's programs? ... The vast majority of what's available today does not look like Boston and Tulsa," he said.
Preschool is important in closing what Barnett describes as the "opportunity gap" between rich and poor students.
"Think of it as a relay race: Winning the first lap does not guarantee you're going to win the race. But no one wants to be behind at the first hand-off," he said."What the national data shows is children of color and low-income children are far behind when they start kindergarten and that gap -- they never catch up."
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.