Are Early Childhood Disparities Narrowing? the Changing Nature of Early Childhood and Its Link to Narrowing School-Entry Achievement Gaps
*Names in bold indicate Presenter
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.