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Inequality Starts in Early Childhood

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by Holden Karnofsky

How could it be that scholarship programs – not just providing tutoring or textbooks, but completely changing children's schools – could have such small impact?

The answer, in my view, has a lot to do with where the achievement gap really comes from.

I'd always assumed that low-income and high-income children enter school on roughly the same footing, and that low-income children fall behind as time goes on. In fact, the gap between high-income and low-income children is large starting the day they enter kindergarten, and grows only slightly afterward.

I now believe that early childhood care programs may be a lot closer to the roots of inequality than any school program – no matter how well-intentioned and how well-run.

Our top charity recommendation for the U.S. is the Nurse-Family Partnership, which helps mothers during pregnancy and early childhood. (Pre-school programs have a more mixed record – see our review of preschool programs.)

This doesn't mean there's nothing to be done or gained from education programs. I believe that some, such as KIPP, are able to get unusual results from unusual approaches.

But I also believe that any program addressing K-12 education as the key to inequality should be treated with skepticism, until and unless it can produce measurable results. In my experience, most such programs can't.

Next: why most charities' "evidence of impact" isn't evidence of anything