Inequality in Reading and Math Skills Forms Mainly Before Kindergarten: A Replication, and Partial Correction, of 'Are Schools the Great Equalizer?'

41 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2017 Last revised: 21 Oct 2018

See all articles by Paul von Hippel

Paul von Hippel

University of Texas at Austin - Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

Joseph Workman

University of Missouri at Kansas City

Douglas B. Downey

Ohio State University (OSU) - Department of Sociology

Date Written: September 12, 2017

Abstract

When do children become unequal in reading and math skills? Some research claims that inequality grows mainly before school begins. Some research claims that schools cause inequality to grow. And some research—including the 2004 study “Are Schools the Great Equalizer?”—claims that inequality grows mainly during summer vacations.

Unfortunately, the test scores used in the Great Equalizer study suffered from a measurement artifact which exaggerated estimates of inequality growth. In addition, the Great Equalizer study is dated and its participants are no longer school-aged. In this article, we replicate the Great Equalizer study using better test scores in both the original data and in a newer cohort of children.

When we use the new test scores, we find that variance is substantial at the start of kindergarten, and does not grow, but actually shrinks, over the next two to three years. This finding, which was not evident in the original Great Equalizer study, implicates the years before kindergarten as the primary source of inequality in elementary reading and math. Total score variance grows during most summers and shrinks during most school years, suggesting that schools reduce inequality overall. Changes in inequality are small after kindergarten and do not replicate consistently across grades, subjects, or cohorts. That said, socioeconomic gaps tend to shrink during the school year and grow during the summer, while the black-white gap tends to follow the opposite pattern.

Keywords: Inequality, Replication, Measurement, Scaling, Childhood, Summer Learning

JEL Classification: I24

Suggested Citation

von Hippel, Paul and Workman, Joseph and Downey, Douglas B., Inequality in Reading and Math Skills Forms Mainly Before Kindergarten: A Replication, and Partial Correction, of 'Are Schools the Great Equalizer?' (September 12, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3036094 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3036094

Paul Von Hippel (Contact Author)

University of Texas at Austin - Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs ( email )

2315 Red River, Box Y
Austin, TX 78712
United States

Joseph Workman

University of Missouri at Kansas City ( email )

5100 Rockhill Road
Kansas City, MO 64110-2499
United States

Douglas B. Downey

Ohio State University (OSU) - Department of Sociology ( email )

Columbus, OH 43210-1172
United States

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