Fall means the start of school. And with it, a new class of kindergarteners enter the gladiator's arena of American schooling. But what does it mean to be ready for school?
Entering kindergarten, educators want kids to have a base level of cognitive and behavioral skills. The cognitive side is more what we think of when we think of academic achievement: shape and color perception, letter recognition, simple word pronunciation, and counting. Behavioral skills include paying attention to tasks, communicating needs/feelings, and interacting well with peers.
Unfortunately, gaps persist in which groups of students are prepared for school and those that are not. Low-income and students of color still trail their high-income and white peers in school readiness.
That could have critical consequences later in life, and possibly factor into the infamous "achievement gap" once they're in school. How ready a student is for school has been linked to academic success later in their school careers, school completion, and even adult earnings.
Sean Reardon, Professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University, says one key to understanding gaps in school readiness is analyzing how they have changed over time.
In a new study, Reardon and his colleague Ximena A. Portilla found school readiness gaps have declined over the past decade.
Reardon says he was initially puzzled at the findings. "Part of the reason we thought it would go in the other direction is because income inequality has continued to rise in the United States, residential segregation by income has been going up," he says. "What we found was that parents are doing a lot more kinds of activities with their children that would help their kids get ready for kindergarten."
Reardon thinks parents of all backgrounds are more engaged with their kids' learning earlier and earlier. He also suspects the gaps have narrowed because poor and Latino children are increasingly ready for kindergarten, rather than white students' scores going down. Other possible explanations include growing access to preschool and child health insurance.
Yet Reardon also cautions that the kids his study aren't old enough yet for us to forecast how they will do in the future. "It's a little bit early to tell if this readiness gap is going to translate into a smaller gap in things like high school test scores, high school graduation rates, and college going."