The education gap among America's youngest students

An education disaster is in the making, and it's starting before children even reach kindergarten.

Poor American kids are arriving at kindergarten with lagging academic and "noncognitive skills," such as self-control and and approaches to learning, when compared with children of high-income families, according to a new report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Those education gaps have grown increasingly noticeable in more recent generations, which may be due to demographic shifts in the American population, such as more children being born into poverty and more growing up in single-parent households.

The cost to society may end up being quite large, given that an early gap in both academic and social skills carries through adolescent and adult development. While the federal government has been investing in prekindergarten programs for poor children, that and other promising efforts may not be enough, the report's authors noted.

Home visits from nurses who can teach parents about early childhood, as well as providing better child care and higher wages for parents, could help narrow that gap, according the report.

"Investments in young children have a large public return by reducing costs to government and society," Rob Grunewald, an economist at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, said on a conference call to discuss the study. "The return on investment is as high as $16 for every $1 invested."

The study partly looked at two groups of kindergartners, those entering in 1998 and in 2010. While the group starting school in 1998 did so during a time of prosperity -- before the dot-com collapse and subsequent recessions -- the more recent group has had the benefit of new welfare and educational interventions to improve their readiness for school.

Gaps between socioeconomic groups continue to persist, with those in the poorest groups lagging far behind children from wealthier families, the study noted.

Poverty among children has been on the rise since 1999, when it hit a low of 16 percent, according to One out of five children was living in poverty in 2010, in the aftermath of the Great Recession. That's having an impact on families and their ability to introduce their children to educational concepts and social skills. When parent struggle to make ends meet, they have less time for reading, playtime or other enrichment activities.

A demographic shift is also altering the mix of children entering kindergarten, attracting more from minority and immigrant homes, the study noted. On the whole, black and Hispanic children are less ready for kindergarten, but that's due to links between minority status and social class. When socioeconomic differences are accounted for, those skills gaps between the races shrink, according to the report.

The bottom line is that living in poverty diminishes children's ability to prepare for school. The impact of more poor children who are unable to prepare for educational success may be felt in the workforce in years to come.

Kindergartners with stronger skills are more likely to be successful in their later academic careers, along the lines that "skills beget skills." Those who lack the basics may never catch up, leaving them more at risk for failing to finish high school or college, and putting them on track for a lifetime of lower earnings.

Children whose families fall into the bottom quintile of income may face struggles far beyond a lack of money. About 55 percent aren't living with both parents, compared with just 10 percent in the top quintile. Forty percent are English-language learners, compared with just 7 percent for children from the wealthiest families. Blacks and Hispanics make up the biggest share of the poorest quintile, at 30 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

"Children don't start kindergarten at the same starting point," said EPI economist Emma Garcia on the conference call. "Black and Hispanic children start with the greatest disadvantages."