Close Opportunity Gaps and Boost Economies with Early Learning

African-American, Hispanic and low-income children, on average, lag behind their white and more-affluent peers in math and reading at kindergarten entry.

Day 1 13 12 9 6 3 African-American Hispanic Low-income MATH READING MATH READING MATH READING 8.9 months behind 6.7 months behind 10.8 months behind 11.5 months behind 11.2 months behind 13 months behind
Kindergarten achievements gaps in months of learning by subgroup, 2010

On average, from the first day of kindergarten, white students’ prior opportunities to prepare puts them months ahead of their peers.

Students of low-income families (at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines) —regardless of race—face a similar opportunity gap, putting them months behind their peers not living in poverty.


As subsequent learning depends on critical brain development that occurs in the first eight years of life, these gaps are difficult to close through intervention in K-12 education.

Investments in early learning align with this brain development research, giving it a high return on investment (ROI).


Studies have estimated that for every dollar invested in early learning programs, the public can expect a return of $2 to $17 depending on the program’s scale, and savings accrued in short-term, intermediate and long-term benefits.

Short-term benefits
Improved school readiness rates for young learners, cognitively, socially and emotionally

Intermediate benefits
Improved academic achievement, reduced special education placement and lower grade retention rates in elementary and middle school

Long-term benefits
Improved high school graduation rates, higher labor market earnings, reduced crime and delinquency rates, reduced welfare use and improved health and health-related behaviors.

It’s estimated that high-quality pre-k programs aimed at African-American and Latino children could close 12 percent to 40 percent of the education gaps in the U.S. Complete gap closure could result in a $49 trillion gain in GDP.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 federal education law, states have policy options for closing opportunity and school readiness gaps by supporting early learning, including:

  • Emphasizing equity in accountability and reporting
  • Increasing equitable access to high-quality pre-K
  • Structuring school turnaround with a pre-K through third grade (P-3) focus
  • Improving transitions from pre-K to K
  • Supporting high-quality teaching and learning in P-3
  • Providing students and families with wraparound services
  • Supporting English language learners
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What is the opportunity gap and how does it form?

Research has identified a significant gap between the average literacy and numeracy skills and executive function levels of African-American, Hispanic/Latino and low-income children and their white, Asian and higher-income peers as they enter kindergarten. This gap forms in part due to disadvantaged children often having fewer opportunities to prepare and develop as young learners and includes reduced access to high-quality child care, pre-K, afterschool and extracurricular activities. This is known as the opportunity gap. These early skill gaps can persist throughout students’ K-12 education, later becoming achievement gaps.

How can state legislators close early learning opportunity gaps?

There are several provisions within the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) for closing early learning opportunity gaps. As an example, research demonstrates that high-quality early learning programs can significantly reduce these gaps. By identifying ESSA provisions for improving quality in early learning, states can close opportunity gaps before they become achievement gaps, leading to a more highly-skilled, productive and sustainable workforce.

Why do return on investment (ROI) studies have such a large range ($2:1 to $17:1)?

Return on investment studies are predicated on a set of factors unique to each program studied. Studies demonstrating the highest ROIs tend to focus on small-scale programs, where quality is easier to ensure and per-pupil funding amounts are higher. However, there is considerable variation between the level of per-pupil funding and associated quality.

What are the economic advantages of closing the early learning opportunity gap?

Researchers have estimated, using studies on the link between early learning programs and macro-economic outcomes, that high-quality early learning programs targeted to African-American and Hispanic/Latino children could close between 12-40% of the national achievement gap; complete closure of this gap could result in a $49 Trillion gain in GDP but depends on numerous factors in their K-12 education as well. By addressing early learning opportunity gaps up front, state legislators can ensure a strong start for all learners.