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Hold it right there, say a litany of U.S. educators. They agree early learning is critical to career success and — in preferring to use third grade as a marker — say that it produces kindergarten-ready kids who will accelerate. But they also point out that income will most certainly affect the outcome.

For starters, only 40 percent to 55 percent of American children attend quality pre-kindergarten programs, said Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary of policy and early learning for the U.S. Department of Education.

There, kids not only learn the basics of reading and math but are also introduced to executive function skills, such as motivation and persistence.

“It’s not about ability,” Doggett said. “We create ability. And we create it early on.”

The kids most likely to skip quality pre-K programs are — you guessed it — poor children, said Greg J. Duncan, a professor at University of California-Irvine. That partly explains a gap — equivalent to about 20 IQ points or 120 SAT points — in reading and math skills between the nation’s richest 20 percent and poorest 20 percent of kindergarten-age kids. Even worse, American schools are not a great equalizer because those in low-income areas tend to have teachers without tenure, behavioral problems that slow down entire classes and more mobile families, he said.

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