How can we close readiness gaps?

This blog post is the third of a four-part series about School Readiness.

School readiness, the collection of skills and conditions children need to successfully transition into and through elementary school, is associated with numerous long-term outcomes, including academic success, positive employment outcomes, and healthy social relationships (Duncan et al., 2007; Hair, Halle, Terry-Humen, Lavelle, & Calkins, 2006; Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015). (Read the first blog post for more information>> ) Given the implications of school readiness for future outcomes, it is critical to know where readiness gaps occur and what can be done to help close them. Fortunately, research from ASR’s school readiness assessments, as well as studies conducted in other parts of the country, have greatly contributed to our understanding of what interventions and activities improve school readiness and who could most benefit from them.

Who is ready for school?

School readiness assessments conducted by ASR and national studies of school readiness (e.g., Isaacs & Magnuson, 2011) have repeatedly found certain child and family characteristics to be strongly associated with school readiness. For example, girls tend to have higher readiness than boys, and older children – even just months older – have higher readiness than younger children. In addition, we find that white children and non-English Learners are more likely to be ready for school than children of color and English Learners. Not surprisingly, children who are typically developing also have higher readiness levels than children with special needs. Finally, we know that readiness is correlated with family socioeconomic status and family structure. Children from more affluent and educated families, as well as those raised by more than one parent, are more ready for school than children from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Although these characteristics often co-occur (for example, many children of color come from low socioeconomic backgrounds), our research also shows that the each independently predict readiness. While we cannot change many of these characteristics, knowing who is more or less likely to be ready for school helps us target supports to children who need them most.

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What can we do to close the readiness gap?

Fortunately, research has also helped us identify actions we can take to support the development of children who are less likely to be ready for school. In many of our studies, the two strongest predictors of higher readiness are coming to school healthy, well-rested, and well-fed, and past attendance in a licensed early childhood education (ECE) program. Policies and programs that ensure children’s health and well-being, including free and subsidized healthcare and food and housing subsidies, can improve children’s readiness by caring for children’s basic needs, an essential prerequisite for optimal learning and development. Likewise, the wisdom of investing in ECE programs has been well-documented. Access to quality ECE not only helps close readiness gaps, but is also linked to long-term success. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend quality ECE program experience higher educational attainment and lifetime earnings, and lower rates of criminal activity and reliance on welfare, resulting in a high return on investment for communities (Elango, Garcia, Heckman, & Hojman, 2015).

The greatest return on investment, however, comes from interventions that begin at or even before birth, with programs that help parents/caregivers and families provide a healthy and enriching environment for their children (see graphic below). ASR’s school readiness studies have found a variety of family engagement activities to be positively associated with readiness, including reading with the child and using community resources, like libraries. Interventions to encourage and support family engagement can go a long way towards closing the readiness gap and preparing all children for successful outcomes later in life. As Nobel Laureate James Heckman (2014) says, “Investments that bolster the parenting capacities of families are the most effective way to promote social mobility and foster equal opportunities for all.”

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In our next and final blog post on school readiness, we will discuss how providers and policymakers use these research findings to turn the curve on school readiness in their own communities.

References

Elango, S., Garcia, J. L., Heckman, J. J., & Hojman, A. (2015). Early childhood education (NBER Working Paper No. 21766). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., …& Sexton, H. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428-1446.

Hair, E., Halle, T., Terry-Humen, E., Lavelle, B., & Calkins, J. (2006). Children's school readiness in the ECLS-K: Predictions to academic, health, and social outcomes in first grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21(4), 431-454.

Heckman, J. (2014). Going forward wisely: Remarks from the White House Summit on Early Education.  Heckman: the human equation. Retrieved from https://heckmanequation.org/resource/going-forward-wisely-professor-heckmans-remarks-from-the-white-house-summit-on-early-education/

Isaacs, J., & Magnuson, K. (2011). Income and education as predictors of children’s school readiness. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105(11), 2283-2290.

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