Children from Low-Income families at Educational Disadvantage Prior to School Entry

January 27, 2009 @ 5:00 am

For Immediate Release

January 27, 2009

New York, NY – Children born into low-income families in the US and UK in the early years of the twenty-first century are already at a sizeable disadvantage even before they start school, according to new research by professor Jane Waldfogel of the Columbia University School of Social Work and Elizabeth Washbrook of the Center for Market and Public Organization at Bristol University.

“Children from low-income families are raised in environments that do not do as much as higher-income homes to promote their cognitive and social development,” says Dr. Waldfogel. “As a result, they are more likely to begin school lagging in reading, math, and social behavior.”

Key findings from the study revealed that:

  • The quality of parenting is the single most important determinant of the ‘school readiness’ of children from low-income backgrounds in the US, accounting for between a third and a half of the gap in school readiness between low- and middle-income children.
  • Higher-income mothers interact more positively with their children when the children are as young as nine months old, suggesting a need for parenting programs that begin early.
  • Early education programs such as Head Start and prekindergarten are already helping to close gaps in school readiness but could do much more if they were expanded to cover all low-income children.

The study analyzed data on 10,000 children born in the United States in 2001 (the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Birth Cohort) and parallel data on about 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000 (the Millennium Cohort Study).  The children in both studies were followed from the age of nine months onwards, and completed tests in language, literacy and mathematics skills at ages three, four or five.

The research revealed that there are sizeable gaps in children’s cognitive ‘school readiness’, and that the gaps are of comparable magnitude in the US and the UK.  Children from the lowest income fifth of families in both countries score on average in the 32nd to 35th percentile across the tests (in contrast to middle-income children who score at about the 50th percentile).

But there are differences between the two countries in the relationship between income and cognitive outcomes among better-offfamilies. The gap between the bottom fifth and the middle fifth is smaller in the United States, while the difference between the middle and the richest fifth is much larger.    

Further analysis of the American children suggests that differences in the parenting of low and higher-income children are key to understanding the income-related gaps in children’s cognitive test scores.  The research showed that higher-income mothers interact more positively with their children when they are as young as nine months old, show greater sensitivity to their needs, are less intrusive, and provide more cognitive stimulation. These types of behaviors are then strongly related to children’s performance at the time of entry to school, in particular to language development. 

The study also found evidence that participation in Head Start (an education program targeted at low-income children) boosts the performance of the most disadvantaged children and in so doing contributes to a reduction in the school readiness gap. The authors calculate the role that expansions in Head Start and prekindergarten could play in closing income-related school readiness gaps and find that enrolling all low-income children in Head Start or prekindergarten could close between 20 and 50 percent of existing gaps.

This study was prepared for a summit on social mobility convened by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Sutton Trust, and was funded by a grant from the Sutton Trust. For a copy of the full study or to interview Dr. Waldfogel, please contact Jeannie Hii at 212-851-2327 or