The Education System Is Rigged Against Low-Income Students, Even In Kindergarten

Students born into poverty enter kindergarten at a disadvantage to more affluent peers. As they advance through the grades, they receive lower test scores. They’re more likely to drop out and less likely to enter higher education. 

The all-too-familiar cycle, in some ways, is getting worse, according to data in a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The report, titled, “The Condition of Education 2016,” is the 42nd of its kind, produced under congressional mandate by The U.S. Department of Education’s data branch, the National Center for Education Statistics. It outlines the latest data on everything from public school enrollment to the median earnings of degree recipients. 

The report starts with a troubling fact. Low-income students often arrive in kindergarten without a “positive approach” to learning — a mindset that allows them to pay attention in class, follow rules and show excitement for learning. Data collected from kindergarten teachers shows that students from lower socioeconomic households are less likely to demonstrate a positive approach to learning than middle-class and affluent students, which makes it harder for them to excel academically.

“In the early years, even before formal schooling begins, children from socioeconomically disadvantaged households typically have less access to resources that have been associated with learning, such as books and educational toys in their homes and quality preschool settings, than do students from more socioeconomically advantaged households,” the report says. 

Students less likely to demonstrate positive approaches to learning have lower average reading and math scores when they enter and leave kindergarten. They have lower average scores by the end of first grade, and again at the end of second grade.

But there were bright spots for lower-income students. The positive relationship between learning approaches and academic gains is particularly strong for low-income students. That means those students who do have positive learning behavior tend to make meaningful academic gains. 

“Students who were performing at the lower end of that learning behavior scale who never exhibited [positive] behaviors, their gains over time were not as strong as those who exhibited those behaviors often,” said Grace Kena, an author of the report. “Even more interesting, those gains over time were greater for students from lower socioeconomic status households, so having those positive learning behavior skills mastered was helpful to students and most helpful to” students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the early years, even before formal schooling begins, children from socioeconomically disadvantaged households typically have less access to resources.

Overall, more students are graduating from high school, although black, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native students are still less likely to get degrees than white and Asian American/Pacific Islander counterparts. After graduating, students from low-income households are more likely to enroll in an occupational certificate program or an associate’s degree program. They are significantly less likely to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program. Students who have high grade-point averages or took advanced high school math courses — like calculus or precalculus — are more likely to enroll in a postsecondary institution. 

The impact of educational disparities between affluent and low-income students, as well as between white students and students of color, loom large. In 2014, 20 percent of American children under the age of 18 were living in poverty. That’s 1 percentage point lower than 2013, but 5 points higher than 2000.

Meanwhile, public school enrollment of students of color, especially Hispanic and Asian and Pacific Islanders, is increasing rapidly. Students of color disproportionately come from low-income families and are relegated to schools with fewer material resources and less-experienced teachers

Still, interventions that boost positive learning approaches appear promising, Kena said. 

“While you do see these patterns, it does bring some promise that there are things that seem to help improve” outcomes for some children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, said Kena. 


Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email [email protected].


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