The Week | Pacific Standard | Dwyer Gunn

By the time a low-income child enters kindergarten in America, they’re already woefully lagging their more advantaged peers  — 11 months behind in math and 13 months behind in reading, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

(Center for American Progress/Courtesy Pacific Standard)

The figure from the CAP report — “How Much Can High-Quality Universal Pre-K Reduce Achievement Gaps?” — illustrates the gulf between both low- and high-income children and minority and white children.

And those gaps only get wider as the years go on — to increasingly more significant effect. As James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who has spent decades studying the effects of early childhood education, told the New York Times:

“The road to college attainment, higher wages and social mobility in the United States starts at birth. The greatest barrier to college education is not high tuitions or the risk of student debt; it’s in the skills children have when they first enter kindergarten.”

But early childhood education has the potential to change all of that. The CAP report estimates that a high-quality, universal pre-K program would essentially close the reading achievement gap and dramatically reduce the math achievement gap (by 48 percent for black children and 78 percent for Hispanic kids). And politicians across the spectrum have hopped on the early education bandwagon. The Obama administration has repeatedlycalled for a universal pre-K program and has directed significant fundingto early childhood education. Hillary Clinton, a long-time champion, has also advocated universal pre-K as part of her ambitious childcare platform. Though Donald Trump has so far remained silent on the topic, a number of Republican politicians have embraced the pre-K cause.

There is, however, one enormous catch: It’s hard to build a high-quality early childhood education system, and quality matters. The CAP report estimates that only one-third of four-year-olds enrolled in a center-based program were in a high-quality classroom. Among four-year-olds enrolled in full-day programs, only 10 percent were in high-quality classrooms.

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