Early childhood education is an important aspect of any child's life. Birth to three years old represent critical years when children begin to communicate and build other positive developments that are shaped through the preschool experience. Early childhood education can also produce long-term effects on academic achievement and social adjustment. According to a recent report by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), low-income young children attending high-quality programs are more likely to stay in school, go to college, and become successful, independent adults. They are also less likely to need remediation, be arrested, or commit violent crimes.1
The primary goal of early childhood education programs is to create a solid start to school readiness. "School readiness is described as a combination of experiences and care that a child has received from birth to school entry. There are five dimensions included in a child's school readiness. They are 1) physical health and well-being and motor development; 2) social and emotional development; 3) approaches to learning; 4) language and literacy development; and 5) cognition and general knowledge".2 According to the National Education Goals Panel, school readiness can also mean, "children's readiness to enter school; schools' readiness for children; and family and community supports that contribute to the readiness of children".3
As a child's first teachers, parents also play a critical role in children's early learning and school readiness by transmitting basic knowledge and skills, as well as through nurturance and cultivation of other socio-emotional developments. For example, research has shown that parent participation in childcentered activities, specifically play, is important for children's social and emotional development.4 It has also been reported that "parent participation with their children in activities such as arts and crafts is associated with children's literacy development".5
This study uses data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 (ECLS-K) to examine the role of family background and parental involvement in determining early learning outcomes of children in kindergarten. Based on a sample of 5,528 African-American, white and Hispanic kindergarten students enrolled in public schools throughout the United States during the fall of 1998,1 address several questions:
How does early academic achievement vary by race and socioeconomic status?
To what extent do differences in family background alone account for differences in early academic achievement?
Does a child's preschool setting have a significant effect on early learning?
To what extent does parental involvement, specifically parents reading to their children, improve early academic achievement?
Preschool Attendance and Kindergarten Math & Reading Scores
The two most basic academic skills acquired by school-aged children are the ability to read and perform mathematical operations. For the ECLS sample, reading and math skills were assessed during one-on-one testing sessions during the fall of the kindergarten year.6 The reading test assessed knowledge of letters and word recognition, beginning and ending sounds, vocabulary and passage comprehension. The math test assessed understanding of numbers, geometry and spatial relations.
Table 1 displays average reading and math scores of children from four types of preschool programs-relative care, non-relative care (nanny or babysitter), Head Start, and other center-based care. The average math score for children who came from Head Start or some other type of center-based care was slightly higher than the average for all students in the sample. There was also less variation between the different types of preschool care when it came to math scores than there was in the reading scores. The lowest average reading scores were for those children coming from relative care and nonrelative care and again students from Head Start were more likely to score slightly above the average. …