Elementary School Education Overview

Last Updated Dec 8, 2021

This overview is intended to help donors gain a deeper understanding of the U.S. education system and identify opportunities to address the root causes of inequitable outcomes for students. See the entire series. By Jocelyn Harmon

Did you know?
  • About one in six children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers.
  • Children living in poverty are also more likely to have lower reading proficiency.
  • Disparities in education are caused by many factors, including how schools are funded.

What is Elementary School?

Elementary school is an exciting time to meet new friends, discover new ideas, and master new academic skills. It’s also a critical time for schools to help young people advance social emotional learning (SEL), "the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” More schools and school systems across the country are enacting policies and practices to help students self-regulate, manage stress, build resilience, and more. SEL can also help students as they navigate new academic skills in their elementary school years.

Why Donors Should Care About Elementary School Education

One of the most important academic skills that every young student must master is reading. Becoming a strong reader opens up a world of opportunity and helps students learn other subjects like social studies, science, and math. Reading proficiency is also closely tied to future success in middle and high school. Researchers at Yale University have shown that “three quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school.” And low literacy is also linked to higher high school dropout rates. According to Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation:

About one in six children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers.

Who Is Missing Out?

There are more than 28 million elementary-school aged children and 67,408 public elementary schools in the U.S. The majority of students are Latino, Black, Asian, American Indian & Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or two races or more.

Children 5 to 11 By Race/Ethnicity

According to the Nation’s Report Card, only 34% of students overall can read proficiently by the fourth grade. However, children who are Black, Latino, and Native American are even more at risk for low literacy rates.

Fourth Graders Who Scored Below Proficient Reading Level By Race (Percent) - 2019

Elementary-school-fourth-graders-who-scored-below-proficient-reading-level-raceChildren living in poverty are also more likely to have lower reading proficiency. Seventy-four percent of fourth graders in schools that receive Title 1 funding scored below proficient in reading.

Finally, children in immigrant families have lower literacy rates than others. Approximately 1.8 million children ages 5 to 17 in the U.S. have difficulty speaking English. These students face unique barriers in elementary school. Only 32% of English Language Learners scored basic or above in fourth grade reading.

Math proficiency also varies by race and ethnicity. “At grade four in 2017, white students scored 25 points higher than Black students, 21 points higher than American Indian/Alaska Native students, 19 points higher than both Hispanic and Pacific Islander students, and 4 points higher than students of two or more races. Asian students scored 12 points higher than white students.”

4th Grade Math Scores by Race/Ethnicity - 2017

Elementary-School-fourth-grade-math-scale-scores-race-ethnicityAchievement gaps are likely to grow over time. Thus, it’s important to address them early in a child’s educational career. One way to increase reading and math proficiency in elementary school is to bolster the teaching of math and reading skills during the preschool years.

What Is Causing These Disparities?

Disparities in education are caused by many factors, including how schools are funded. Non-white school districts get $23 billion less than white school districts despite serving the same number of students. The Annie E. Casey Foundation in partnership with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has highlighted five factors that affect reading proficiency, in particular. Learn more about each barrier below.

Readiness for School

Too few students are ready for elementary school because they aren’t attending preschool.  This is especially true for Latino children, who comprise 25% of all kindergarteners and children from low-income families. According to the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families, “less than half [of Latino children] attend some form of preschool immediately prior to kindergarten entry” resulting in “a 15- to 25-percentage-point gap between Latino children and their white peers in school readiness skills, which are considered necessary for later school success.” Children from low-income families are also missing out. For example, Early Head Start, a federally funded program which provides services for low-income families with very young children, only reaches 11% of eligible children.

For students who do attend preschool, there is still a need for more coordination and alignment between Pre-K and elementary school to ensure that children can meet the five domains of school readiness on the first day of kindergarten. Put simply, states and the federal government simply must do more to provide high-quality, affordable Pre-K to all children and families.

Chronic Absence from School and Summer Learning Loss

Chronic absenteeism and summer learning loss are other barriers to reading proficiency and academic success. A study by the RAND Corporation has shown that attending high-quality summer programs can help students perform better in school. Unfortunately many students, especially those from low-income families, don’t have access to summer enrichment opportunities.

It’s estimated that 5 to 7.5 million students are chronically absent (miss more than 18 days) from school each year. “Hispanic ELLs (English language learners) and Native American students were the most likely to miss three or more days of school ... followed by Black students." Children from low-income families are also more at risk for missing school.

Absenteeism occurs for a variety of reasons, including “residential mobility, and extensive family responsibilities (e.g., children looking after siblings) -- along with inadequate supports for students within the educational system (e.g., lack of adequate transportation, unsafe conditions, lack of medical services, harsh disciplinary measures, etc.).”

Family Stressors and Engagement

Parents are their children’s “first and forever teachers.” Research shows that “home learning experiences that are consistently supportive in the early years may close the school readiness gap of children from low-income backgrounds.” In fact, according to research funded by the National Institute of Health, “a mother's reading skill is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors, such as neighborhood and family income.”  Unfortunately, many parents lack the educational skills to support their children due to decades of underinvestment in public education, especially in minority and high poverty communities.

Quality of and Diversity in Teaching

The quality of teaching has an enormous impact on a child’s ability to learn, but there is a lack of uniformity in teaching standards across U.S. schools. Power to the Profession is a national resource working to elevate, standardize, and create a coordinated system of high-quality teaching. Its goals also include addressing disparities in school funding and advocating for better pay for early childhood educators.

Teaching quality and student achievement can also be improved by diversifying the teaching force. Research shows that having a teacher of the same race can improve student outcomes. “Black students who have even one Black teacher third grade are 13% more likely to enroll in college, according to research from Johns Hopkins University and American University.”

Racial bias in school discipline is another factor affecting elementary students of color. Research from Brown University found that teachers’ different treatment of black and white students accounted for 46% of the racial gap in suspensions and expulsions from school among 5- to 9-year-old children.

Get Involved

Check out Early Reading Proficiency in the United States to see how your state is doing on reading proficiency for third graders. Next, join the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Finally, use the resources below to get educated, advocate, and invest for change.

  • Reading Partners helps children become lifelong readers by empowering communities to provide individualized instruction with measurable results.
  • The National Center for Family Literacy works to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families.
  • Reading is Fundamental is committed to a literate America by inspiring a passion for reading among all children, providing quality content to make an impact and engaging communities in the solution to give every child the fundamentals for success.
  • National Summer Learning Association convinces, connects, and equips providers, education leaders, families, and communities to deliver high-quality summer learning opportunities to our nation’s children and youth that help close the achievement gap and support healthy development.
  • Afterschool Alliance works to ensure that all youth have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs by engaging public will to increase public and private investment in afterschool program initiatives at the national, state, and local levels.
  • The Education Trust is a national nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families.
  • Child Trends is the nation’s leading research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives of children and youth, especially those who are most vulnerable.
  • CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) helps make evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of education from preschool through high school.
  • Join the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and be sure to check out its work to address learning loss due to COVID-19
  • Check out EdBuild’s tools to bring common sense and fairness to the way states fund public schools.
Follow Us

Become a newsletter subscriber to stay up-to-date on the latest Giving Compass news.

About Us
About Giving Compass In The News Content at Giving Compass
Giving Compass Network
Giving Compass Giving Compass Insights
Partnerships & Services
Nonprofits Authors Partner With Us Contact Us

We are a nonprofit too. Donate to Giving Compass to help us guide donors toward practices that advance equity.

mdi-tag-heart Donate to Giving Compass
Trending Issues
Climate Democracy Education Homelessness Reproductive Justice

Copyright © 2024, Giving Compass Network

A 501(c)(3) organization. EIN: 85-1311683

Privacy Policy User Agreement