Preschools Significantly Reduce Achievement Gap Between Rich and Poor, New Twin Study Shows

Parents always want the best education possible for their child, and new research from The University of Texas at Austin shows preschool enrollment is one of the best ways to ensure that disadvantaged kids start down the right academic path early on.

In a study published online in the February issue of Psychological Science, Elliot Tucker-Drob, assistant professor of psychology and research associate at the Population Research Center, found preschool attendance significantly bridges the achievement gap between children of low and high socioeconomic backgrounds.

To quantify the environmental and genetic influences on academic achievement, Tucker-Drob used longitudinal data from a nationally representative sample of 1,200 identical and fraternal twins born to 600 families of various incomes and ethnicities in the United States in 2001.

By studying identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes, and fraternal twins, who share 50 percent, Tucker-Drob was able to calculate genetic and environmental influences on achievement at age five separately for children enrolled versus not enrolled in preschool at age four.

Tucker-Drob found preschools help to compensate for the disadvantages children experience in low socioeconomic family environments. According to the findings, family environmental factors  accounted for about 70 percent of the variance in test scores for children who did not attend preschool, but only about 45 percent among children who did attend preschool.

Tucker-Drob then examined specific family characteristics that are often associated with achievement gaps. He found test score gaps between rich and poor, white and non-white, and children receiving high versus low-quality cognitive stimulation from their parents were all diminished among the children who had attended preschool the previous year compared to those who had not.

For children being raised in wealthier, and otherwise more advantaged, homes, there were no differences in tests scores between those who went to preschool and those who did not, Tucker-Drob found. But for children in disadvantaged homes, test scores were much higher if they went to preschool than if they stayed home.

Structured preschool settings provide children from disadvantaged families higher quality learning environments than they would otherwise receive, Tucker-Drob said. But given the high price of preschool education, they are less likely to attend.

"There are clear disadvantages associated with growing up in a poor home," Tucker-Drob said. "The very children who would benefit most from preschools are those who are least likely to be enrolled."