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

Early Childhood Care and Education: Effects on Ethnic and Racial Gaps in School Readiness
Katherine A. Magnuson Jane Waldfogel

How Much Do Differences in Early Childhood Care and Education Matter for Racial and Ethnic Gaps in Readiness?

To sum up, racial and ethnic differences exist both in enrollment in early childhood care and education and in the quality of care received. Black children are more likely than white children to be enrolled in some form of preschool, although almost 20 percent of these are Head Start programs. Black children also may attend lower-quality preschool programs than their white peers. Although Hispanic children are much less likely than white children to be in preschool, they are also more likely than white children to be in Head Start. If Head Start programs are of lower quality or less academic in focus than other types of preschools, the high rates of black and Hispanic enrollment in Head Start may mean that these programs are doing less than they might to alleviate early achievement gaps.83

How might early childhood care and education policies narrow racial and ethnic achievement gaps at school entry? First, funds might be targeted to promote the enrollment of racial and ethnic minority children in center care or preschool. Given the current low enrollment of Hispanic children relative to white children, such initiatives could be particularly effective in closing Hispanic- white school readiness gaps. Second, additional funds might be used to increase the quality of the preschools that black and Hispanic children attend (including Head Start programs).84 The magnitude of effects will depend on how much quality is improved and on the number of children affected.

How much might such changes in enrollment and quality narrow racial and ethnic test score gaps? We conducted some back-of-the-envelope estimates that, although rough, allow us to place some bounds on the likely share of the school readiness gaps that could be closed by changing current patterns of preschool enrollment or quality. We assume at the outset that the role of incremental changes in early child care and education is likely to be limited, given the many other influences on the school readiness gaps (documented in the other articles in this volume). We do not attempt to identify specific policies that might increase center care enrollment or quality or to model the effects of specific policies. Rather, we demonstrate how changes in early childhood care and education might narrow racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness.

Increasing Enrollment
We begin by considering the potential effect, by race and ethnicity, of five different changes in enrollment (table 2). Each scenario involves boosting the enrollment in preschool of three- to five-year-olds who are not now in Head Start, prekindergarten, or any other form of preschool. Clearly, the size of the benefit from increases in enrollment depends on how much preschool improves children's school readiness. For each scenario, we draw on the most reliable research to give three different estimates of preschool effects on children's reading scores at school entry: 0.15, 0.25, and 0.65 of a standard deviation.85

In the first scenario, Hispanic children's enrollment rises from 40 percent to 60 percent to match that of white children. Depending on the size of the preschool effect, this scenario could narrow the Hispanic-white reading gap at school entry by 0.03 to 0.13 of a standard deviation. Given that the average Hispanic-white gap in reading at school entry is about 0.50 of a standard deviation, this amounts to closing between 6 percent and 26 percent of the gap.86 (Although we use the estimate of 0.50 of a standard deviation throughout the remainder of our discussion, it is important to recognize that these figures will overstate the percentage reductions if racial and ethnic school readiness gaps are in fact larger.) In the second scenario, both Hispanic and black children's preschool enrollment rates increase to 80 percent, 20 percentage points above that of white children. Such changes would narrow the black-white gap by 0.02 to 0.10 of a standard deviation (about 4 percent to 20 percent of the gap) and the Hispanic-white gap by 0.06 to 0.26 of a standard deviation (about 12 percent to 52 percent of the gap), again depending on how much children benefit from preschool.

Although both of these scenarios reduce school readiness gaps, particularly that between Hispanic and white children, it may be difficult to implement race- or ethnicity- specific policies. For this reason, we also consider the effect of increases in preschool enrollments across all racial and ethnic groups. In the third scenario, the enrollment of all children living in poverty rises to 100 percent; in the fourth scenario, enrollment for all low income children (under 200 percent of the poverty threshold) rises to 100 percent; and in the fifth scenario, enrollment is universal without regard to income. Initiatives that boost preschool enrollment without regard to racial or ethnic backgrounds (scenarios 3 to 5) would be less effective at closing racial and ethnic school readiness gaps than the more targeted initiatives (scenarios 1 and 2). In scenarios 3 to 5, the Hispanic-white gap would fall by between 0.02 and 0.17 of a standard deviation; but the black-white gap might either slightly increase (by up to 0.02 of a standard deviation) or slightly decrease (by up to 0.06 of a standard deviation).

Although boosting Hispanic or black preschool enrollment rates beyond that of white children would be the most effective means of closing racial and ethnic gaps, the universal programs may offer benefits that our estimates do not capture. For example, if universal programs are of higher quality or if children benefit from attending preschools with peers of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, then our estimates may be too low.87

Improving Quality
What about improving the quality of center care that black and Hispanic children receive?88  We answer this question, again, by considering the effect of several different scenarios for quality improvement (see table 3). And, again, because these estimates will be sensitive to the extent to which quality influences children's outcomes, we provide a range of estimates, reflecting the incremental effects of increased preschool quality on children's reading skills of 0.1, 0.2, or 0.3 of a standard deviation. However, we note that to bring about such large increases in children's outcomes would involve large increases in the process and structural measures of quality, in some cases over a full standard deviation increase in the quality of care.89

The first scenario involves raising the quality of Head Start programs. Depending on the size of the increased quality effects, this scenario would reduce the black-white school readiness gap by 0.02 to 0.05 of a standard deviation (4 percent to 10 percent of the gap) and narrow the Hispanic-white gap by 0.02 to 0.04 of a standard deviation (4 percent to 8 percent of the gap). The second scenario entails raising the quality of all preschool programs (including Head Start) for currently enrolled children. It would improve the achievement of black children somewhat more than scenario 1 because they have the highest rates of enrollment in center care. But reductions in black-white gaps would still be fairly modest, ranging from 0 to 0.07 of a standard deviation, depending on whether the quality increase were universal (scenario 4) or targeted to low-income children (scenarios 2 and 3). Because Hispanic children are less likely to experience center care, raising the quality of preschools without changing current enrollment patterns would do little to narrow the Hispanic-white gap and could even increase it (scenario 4).

The estimates in table 3 lead us to conclude that even large increases in the quality of center care would have only a small effect on the black-white school readiness gap and even less of an effect on the Hispanic-white gap. However, we note that raising the quality of preschools attended only by black and Hispanic children would result in slightly larger reductions in school readiness gaps.

Increasing Quality and Enrollment
The estimates thus far have shown what could result from initiatives that either increase enrollment or increase quality. How much more effective would initiatives be if they attempted to do both? In table 4, we show estimates for three different scenarios that increase center care quality and enrollment at the same time. As in table 3, for each scenario we model the effects of a range of quality improvements, again with increases in center care and preschool effects ranging from 0.1 to 0.3 of a standard deviation.

In the first scenario, preschool enrollment of children in poverty becomes universal and the quality of programs they attend increases. We assume that before the increase in quality, preschool raised children's school readiness by 0.25 of a standard deviation (our middle- ground estimate from table 2); with the quality improvement, preschool raises school readiness by 0.35, 0.45, or 0.55 of a standard deviation.90 Universal enrollment in higher quality care of children in poverty would narrow the black-white school readiness gap at school entry by 0.05 to 0.10 of a standard deviation (that is, 10 percent to 20 percent of the gap) and would narrow the Hispanic-white gap by 0.05 to 0.09 of a standard deviation (10 percent to 18 percent of the gap). In the second scenario, enrollment in preschool becomes universal for children from families with household incomes below 200 percent of the poverty threshold. Such a change would narrow the black-white school readiness gap by 12 percent to 24 percent, and the Hispanic-white gap by 20 percent to 36 percent. The third scenario, universal enrollment and higher-quality care for all children regardless of family income, would do little to close racial and ethnic gaps, primarily because white children would also benefit from this change.

As table 4 shows, initiatives that substantially raise both enrollment in and the quality of center care for low-income children could narrow racial and ethnic school readiness gaps considerably, reducing black-white gaps by up to 24 percent and Hispanic-white gaps by up to 36 percent. In addition, table 2 indicates that race- or ethnicity-specific increases in enrollment—in particular, increasing the enrollment of Hispanic children but not that of white children—could also narrow school readiness gaps. Other changes would also improve black and Hispanic children's school readiness, but would not reduce racial and ethnic gaps much, because they would also improve white children's achievement. If raising black and Hispanic children's school readiness regardless of their relative levels of achievement is a goal, then these changes should be considered.