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Journal Issue: School Readiness: Closing Racial and Ethnic Gaps Volume 15 Number 1 Spring 2005

Introducing the Issue
Cecilia Elena Rouse Jeanne Brooks-Gunn Sara McLanahan

Introduction

Although racial and ethnic gaps in educational achievement have narrowed over the past thirty years, test score disparities among American students remain significant. In the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 16 percent of black and 22 percent of Hispanic twelfth-grade students displayed “solid academic performance” in reading, as against 42 percent of their white classmates.1 Similar gaps exist in mathematics, science, and writing. In response to such findings, policymakers have devised high-profile education initiatives to help schools address these disparities. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, for example. explicitly aims at closing achievement gaps. And such policies are important. As Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, two highly regarded social scientists, conclude, “reducing the black-white test score gap would probably do more to promote [racial equality] than any other strategy that commands broad political support.”2

To date, policymakers and practitioners have focused most attention on the gaps in achievement among school-aged children. And yet by many estimates sizable racial and ethnic gaps already exist by the time children enter kindergarten. Indeed, according to one report, about half of the test score gap between black and white high school students is evident when children start school.3

Why is so much attention focused on school-aged children? One reason is the lack of data on younger children. Many large and detailed surveys include only older children, and school-based administrative data necessarily exclude preschoolers. A second reason is that federal, state, and local policy focuses on public education, which has traditionally started with kindergarten. Finally, until recently the lives of preschool children were largely viewed as falling under the purview of the family and outside the scope of public policy.

Nevertheless, research findings and common sense both suggest that what happens to children early in life has a profound impact on their later achievement. The behavioral and academic skills that children bring with them to school not only determine how schools must spend resources but also potentially affect disparities in outcomes. And some analysts argue that attending to disparities in the early years is likely to be cost effective. As Nobel laureate James Heckman notes, evaluations of social programs targeted at children from disadvantaged families suggest that it is easier to change cognition and behavior in early childhood than in adolescence.4

This issue of The Future of Children shines the spotlight on school readiness. In its broadest sense, school readiness includes the readiness of elementary school teachers and staff as well as of children and parents. Yet although schools must be ready for the children who arrive at their doors, in this volume we focus on the skills of the children themselves.