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KIDS COUNT Reports Bright Spots, Though Inequities Remain

Published:  July 10, 2013

Last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its annual KIDS COUNT Data Book for 2013. While the report contains a few bright spots for children, authors find that few children from poor families are attending early childhood programs of the highest quality.

Education was one of two areas of study that saw gains. The report attributes “some modest but hopeful signs of recovery and improvement for America’s children and families” to an improving economy.  The report’s authors also saw some improvement over the past five to six years in children’s health, but note more troubling implications of the trends in the domains of economic well-being and family and community.  

The KIDS COUNT report looks to four indicators that span a child’s educational experience, from preschool through high school graduation. It measures:

  • how many children didn’t attend preschool
  • how many fourth-grade students are not proficient in reading
  • how many eighth-graders are not proficient in math
  • how many high school students fail to graduate on time

In each, children saw modest gains over previous years. As seen in the graphic below, 54 percent of children didn’t attend preschool, down slightly from 56 percent. Sixty-eight percent of fourth-graders were not proficient in reading, down from 70 percent, and 66 percent of eighth-graders were not proficient in math, down from 72 percent. In 2010, 22 percent of high schoolers didn’t graduate on time, down five points from the 2005-06 school year. Though the numbers themselves are still high, all four categories trended the right direction.

kidscount1.png

Source: KIDS COUNT

The trends are especially encouraging when seen in the broader context of the report — many of Kids Count’s other categories have seen declines over past years. However, the absolute numbers leave much to be desired. Of special interest to us here at Early Ed Watch is the large number of students not attending preschool, a fact the report itself laments. The authors write,

“Only a small percentage of poor children participated in programs of sufficient quality and intensity to overcome the developmental deficits associated with chronic economic hardship and low levels of parental education. Clearly, we are far from ensuring that all children have the opportunity to enter kindergarten ready to succeed.”

Indeed, this analysis may even understate the problems of access to quality early childhood education because it does not include the wide variety of levels of access that students have to full-day kindergarten programs, nor does it address the quality of the preschool programs that students do attend.

Beyond the education-specific measures, the other KIDS COUNT indicators provide important information about factors beyond the classroom that affect children’s lives in important ways. As the authors note, the early years of a child’s life offer a uniquely fruitful moment to build children’s cognitive and social-emotional skills.

But the side effects of poverty pose a significant threat to those children’s healthy development. As the authors explain, “the experience of poverty and related risk factors — such as poor parenting, inadequate nutrition, frequent moves and changes in nonparental caregivers, insufficient cognitive stimulation and unsafe environments — can actually suppress brain development and have lasting effects.” And dismayingly, many of the report’s indicators in other domains point to bad news for child development.

The number of children in poverty rose from 19 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2011. Additionally, the number of children living in concentrated poverty in 2011 was 12 percent, up from 9 percent in 2000. Also, some 35 percent of children (and 37 percent of infants) lived in single-parent homes in 2011, up from a 2005 count of 32 percent. Finally, children whose parents lacked secure employment rose to 32 percent in 2011 from 27 percent in 2008. And as distressing as those figures are, things look considerably worse when viewed by racial subgroup. Though nationally 23 percent of children lived in poverty, 39 percent of African American children, 37 percent of American Indian children and 34 percent of Hispanic children do. As the report notes, this means that the poverty rate of African American children is nearly three times that of non-Hispanic white children.

Kids count.png

Source: KIDS COUNT

The report also provides lots of interesting information on how these trends break down for each domain across each state. This year’s report is accompanied by two helpful tools for viewing the information both by state and region. It is important to remember that these trends are national. Some states outperform the national numbers, while others seriously underperform. In all, the report provides a nuanced picture illustrating a discouraging, and worsening, picture of the state of child poverty. This picture is especially dismaying when looked at through the lens of demographic disparities. Still, the report provides some modest signs of progress in the wake of a calamitous economic period.

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