The evolution of class-based gaps in young children’s home environments

A good education is touted by U.S. politicians of all persuasions as the first step toward upward mobility and a better life. Yet news stories across the country frequently warn that an educational “achievement gap” is leaving an increasing number of young Americans without the education or skills to achieve even a basic level of economic security—with implications for our nation’s future economic growth and prosperity. In grappling with this issue, policymakers tend to focus their attention on educational accomplishment gaps based on race and ethnicity.

The racial gaps in test scores are narrowing, and undoubtedly deserve our attention. Yet there is an even larger skills gap between children in low and high income households, one that is sizeable before they even enter kindergarten. In fact, the achievement gap between the rich and the poor is widening dramatically, so much so that income is now a better predictor of test scores than race.

That is why the Washington Center for Equitable Growth awarded one of its inaugural grants to Ariel Kalil, Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and Director of the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy. Kalil will document and examine whether and how these class-based gaps in parenting have changed over the past 25 years, and if so, whether these changes contribute to the growing income-based achievement gap.

It is clear that the fate of low- and high-income Americans has diverged in terms of educational attainment and cognitive skills, such as memory, reasoning, perception and intuition. Can the same be said for non-cognitive skills, such as resilience, motivation and attentiveness, necessary precursors for cognitive skill acquisition? While non-cognitive skill development is just as critical for future outcomes as cognitive ability, nobody has yet undertaken the research to explore whether an income-based non-cognitive skills gap exists. Kalil’s work will do so.

Kalil will focus in particular on the parenting and home environment of preschool children. Children at this age are in the midst of a crucial developmental stage. There is a strong connection between what a child experiences early in life and how much they succeed later on. It is not only the monetary investment or quantity of time that parents devote to their child that matters, but also the quality.  Factors such as how a parent talks to their child, how much stress a parent is under, or even how many books are present in the home all have effects on a child’s future well-being.

While researchers have documented an income-based divergence in the amount of time parents spend with their child, they did not measure the quality of how that time was spent. We do know that economically advantaged parents are able to offer different home environments compared to their lower-income counterparts by committing more quality time and resources to their child’s development.  As Kalil explains in her project description, these differences may “play a role in producing growing gaps in cognitive and non-cognitive skills, producing a feedback cycle that leads to low socioeconomic mobility and further growing inequality.”

Kalil’s research will help policymakers understand whether and how providing young children with the resources they need to succeed is merely an admirable goal or one that also affects the nation’s future economic growth. Human capital—the level of skills, education and talents in our potential workforce—is one of the most important factors in long-term economic growth. Investing in understanding the ways in which inequality affects the home environment and early childhood development will not only allow us to benefit every individual child but may also affect our long-term economic stability.

November 13, 2014


Childcare & Early Education


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