The Early Gap

Wooden train set

A new study shows that the gap between privileged and unprivileged children when it comes to STEM starts even earlier than we thought.
Image: Shutterstock

It’s a statistical fact that fewer women and people of color wind up in careers in STEM fields, those jobs that make up the backbone of economic progress. While the disparity has causes at every level of education, a huge one has been revealed much earlier than expected–before kindergarten.

A study done by researchers at Penn State University involving nearly 8,000 young students indicates that minority children (minority here including girls) entered kindergarten with low levels of general knowledge. And those who start behind stay behind.

These five-year-olds were asked questions like “What do firemen do?” and “What do planes and trains have in common?” Those who could answer them at that age were likely to score much higher on science tests in higher grades than those who couldn’t.

The research found that general knowledge of that kind was a much more accurate signpost of how well a student would do later in life than reading and math scores. The links are not entirely solid, but they suggest that young children who have more questions answered for them at home before school begins will do better all their lives.

With this in mind, it seems that the links to class and gender are obvious. Minority children are more likely to have parents who work, often multiple jobs. Less time with their parents means fewer educational opportunities while very young. And girls are statistically less likely to have childhood questions answered by parents of any gender than their brothers.

General knowledge is a vague metric to measure, which is why Paul Morgan and his fellows used such a large study sampling. But their findings are a good piece of evidence to help us adjust the way we educate every student.

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