Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Are Early Childhood Disparities Narrowing? the Changing Nature of Early Childhood and Its Link to Narrowing School-Entry Achievement Gaps

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 1:30 PM
Merrick I (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Daphna Bassok1, RaeHyuck Lee2, Sean F. Reardon3 and Jane Waldfogel2, (1)University of Virginia, (2)Columbia University, (3)Stanford University
Over the past two decades, a large body of research has demonstrated the importance of early childhood as a uniquely formative period in the lifespan and therefore a period with immense potential for policy initiatives to yield high returns on investment.   Recent decades have been characterized by unprecedented policy interest in children’s early life experiences, with heightened investments in policies such as public preschool expansion and home visitation programs.  Similarly, major advocacy initiatives like the “Thirty Million Words Initiative” or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “Too Small to Fail” aim to change the early home environments of low-income children.  These efforts are predicated on the notion that gaps in early childhood exposure to enriched environments have major and long-term implications both for individual children and for society.

Despite heightened investment in improving children’s early environments, we have relatively little evidence about the extent to which children’s early experiences have actually changed over time.   Existing studies suggest that overall, parental investments, as measured by either dollars spent or time spent, have been on the rise since the nineties, and that the rate of change has been particularly pronounced among high income families (Murnane & Duncan, 2011; Ramey & Ramey, 2010).  However, these accounts do not focus specifically on early childhood and do not extend as recently. 

Two recent studies suggest that socio-economic “school readiness gaps,” measured at age five, have narrowed meaningfully between 1998 and 2010 (Bassok & Latham, 2015; Reardon & Portilla, 2015).   These encouraging findings suggest that perhaps, counter to the existing literature, in recent years socioeconomic gaps in children’s early environments have in fact narrowed.  To date no studies have examined whether this is the case.  In the current study we use two large, nationally representative datasets of kindergarten entrants to document first: how have children’s early childhood experiences changed between 1998 and 2010?  Second, to what extent have socioeconomic gaps in children’s early experiences changed over time?  And finally, did differential changes in early childhood experiences across sub-groups lead to a narrowing of achievement gaps?

We investigate changes along five dimensions of children’s early life experiences: (1) exposure to preschool; (2) active parental engagement (e.g. joint child-parent activities and outings); (3) home resources (e.g. books in the home, access to a computer); (4) parenting approaches (e.g. use of disciplinary practices); and (5) family demographics and structure (e.g. number of children in the home).  Our preliminary findings indicate large changes in some, though not all, dimensions of children’s early life experiences, generally in the direction posited to improve children’s development. Changes in frequency of family outings, exposure to a home computer, and use of harsh discipline were most pronounced for low-income children and were consistent with the hypothesis that the early environment gap is narrowing.  We are now modeling whether the changes in these experiences help account for the previously reported narrowing of school entry gaps on direct- and teacher-reported measures of children’s literacy, numeracy and social skills.