Access to high-quality pre-school is crucial to giving Latino children the necessary literacy tools, says a new study. (Photo/Getty Images)

Latino access to preschool key in narrowing Hispanic-white gap, says study

Latino children are currently not enrolled in preschool programs in sufficient numbers, yet a new study finds that equalizing access to center-based preschool could close the Hispanic-white school readiness gap by 26 percent, according to findings in the current issue of The Future of Children, a joint Princeton/Brookings journal.  The new issue focuses on “Literacy Challenges for the Twenty-First Century.”

As society becomes more information-based, argue the authors, successful “reading skills” go beyond being able to read technically. “Almost all U.S. students can ‘read’ by third grade, if reading is defined as being proficient in basic procedural word-reading skills,” say the authors of a chapter on literacy patterns in U.S. children. But when assessing reading comprehension, “only about a third of U.S. students in middle school possess the knowledge-based competencies to ‘read’ in this sense,” the report says.

The Latino-white achievement gap has narrowed in the last few decades, say the researchers. The promising news is that while Latino children with limited English and less access to preschool start out with a Latino-white gap, the gaps narrow or stabilize after a few years. Moreover, in the Latino community, the size of the Hispanic-white gap varies.  Reading scores are typically lower for Hispanics of Mexican or Central American origin and for first- or second-generation immigrant students or those who speak Spanish at home than for Cuban or Puerto Rican children or those who speak English at home.

What worries the researchers is that the socioeconomic literacy gap has widened.  Students from low-income families enter high school with average literacy skills five years behind those of high-income students, says a chapter on literacy patterns.  In fact a Brookings analysis found that if the “academic success rates of lower- and higher-income children were roughly equal at the end of elementary school, the lifetime incomes of children from lower-income families could grow about 8 percent, or roughly $83,000, over their careers.”

Correcting gaps and providing a strong basis for Latino students’ success in literacy and reading comprehension — regardless of socio-economic status —  has to start at the lower grades, say the authors.  One of the ways to narrow this gap, especially among Latino children, say the authors, is for children from non-English-speaking or low-income households to have access to high-quality pre-schools which provide parental education, home-visiting services, and high-quality center-based education and care.

Columbia University’s Jane Waldfogel and Katherine Magnuson found “equalizing access to center-based preschool, in which Hispanic children are significantly underenrolled, could close as much as 26 percent of the Hispanic-white gaps, with improvements in Head Start closing another 4–8 percent,” saying the role of early childhood education and care was very important in explaining Hispanic-white gaps in school readiness.

Other policy recommendations include improving the content of the reading in the primary grades, so students can learn about current events and start learning comprehension and analyses, teaching subject-specific literacy skills, as well as school reform initiatives, better educational ‘infrastructure’ (more data and curriculum and professional development for teachers), perhaps Common Core State Standards to insure learning goals, and  most importantly, programs to attract the top college graduates to become teachers.

“Unless the United States can markedly improve the literacy skills of today’s minority children the labor force of the future will have lower literacy skills than the labor force of today,” say The Future of Children editors and authors.

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