Dive Brief:

  • Between 2010 and 2017, there was a decline in new kindergartners’ academic skills, particularly in math — a finding that could be linked to the impact of the 2007-2008 recession, according to the authors of a new study published in the journal Educational Researcher. “It is likely that the timing of the Great Recession had some impact on children’s early home environments for some cohorts more than others,” they wrote. 

  • But changing demographics, such as an increase in children with non-English-speaking parents, and the implementation of the Common Core standards could also be to blame, they suggested. 

  • The study, however, also includes a positive trend: Black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps declined during that time period — even when taking school poverty into consideration. This is a continuation of the same pattern seen between 1998 and 2010.

Dive Insight:

The analysis, led by researchers at NWEA, a nonprofit assessment organization, and Margaret Burchinal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, covers a large sample — over 2 million kindergartners. The study is only descriptive and doesn’t answer why any of these trends occurred. The sample is also not random or nationally representative because it’s made up of schools that use NWEA assessments. 

Another limitation is the size and diversity of the sample increased significantly over time, so it’s hard to compare children in the earlier cohort to those in the later years. 

But the findings still raise questions about the effects of the previous recession on young children’s preparation for school at a time when states are headed into another economic crisis and some have already pulled back on plans to increase spending on early-childhood education.

The National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual State Preschool Yearbook provides a historical view of how publicly funded early learning programs took a hit during the Great Recession. “Preschool spending declined, quality standards slipped and teacher pay was cut,” W. Steven Barnett, NIEER founder and senior co-director, said in April with the release of the most recent yearbook, adding the same thing could happen again.

The new NWEA study’s authors note that between 2010 and 2014, children’s skills in math and reading were stable, but they began to drop off between 2014 and 2017, especially in math. That could be because children entering school in those later years were born during the recession and its aftermath. They also draw a connection to trends seen in 4th-graders’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — small gains in math between 2011 and 2013 and declines between 2015 and 2017. NAEP data also shows sharper drop offs for lower-performing students. 

Other researchers have also attributed those achievement declines to the economy.

“With parents jobless, stressed out and struggling to make ends meet, it’s not hard to imagine that the little ones would get less care and attention in all the ways that we know matter to their cognitive and social development,” Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote last fall. He references work by Kirabo Jackson, a professor at Northwestern University who wrote that cuts in per-student spending and declines in NAEP scores followed similar patterns. 

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