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Study Looks for Keys to Early School Success

Kindergartners start school with a wide range of early childhood experiences, skills, and knowledge. A government study is taking a close look at kindergartners as they start school and is tracking them through their primary grades so the nation's schools can better meet their diverse needs. Included: New unpublished analyses focusing on ethnic-minority classrooms and gender and age differences.

Some children live in homes where they are read to every day. Other children are sung to every day. Some live with a mother and father, and others live with grandparents or a single parent. Some speak English; others speak a language other than English.

When those children enter kindergarten, they bring with them a vast range of early childhood experiences, skills, and knowledge. The government wants to know how those differences affect children throughout their early grades so schools can better meet their needs. To that end, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is conducting a six-year, $25 million study, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Project, to track a group of 22,000 children attending about 1,000 different public and private schools throughout the nation, representing the nation's nearly 4 million first-time kindergarten students.

The first full report of the project, America's Kindergartners, released in February 2000, was based on assessments of the students and surveys of the parents and teachers in the fall of 1998. Teachers and parents were asked about the kindergartners' social skills, physical well-being, cognitive skills, knowledge, approaches to learning, and family environments and experiences. The report notes that "as children enter kindergarten for the first time, they differ in their cognitive skills and knowledge."

"The fact that we see large differences in beginning skills is an important finding, and we need to look beyond the school and the school year to find a way to improve the life of all children," said Jerry West, program director for the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. The value of this study is to evaluate whether the gaps between those early skills widen or close, he told Education World.

"What really struck us is that what we see in other studies -- those differences in children in later grades -- are already showing up as risk factors when children enter kindergarten," said Elivra Germino-Hausken, a statistician with NCES and one of the authors of the government's most comprehensive report on kindergartners.

"Now, with the first report on kindergartners, we see that their problems are already showing up when they start school. The differences are there from the get-go," Germino-Hausken told Education World.

MANY SIMILARITIES, DIFFERENCES

The report's authors found that kindergarten children are alike in some ways. Ninety-four percent know their numbers and basic shapes and 66 percent can recognize letters. They also found that most kindergartners get along well with their peers.

The authors also found a significant difference in the children's skills, with some able to read words and simple sentences though others do not know that print reads from left to right. The study attributes the differences in reading, mathematics, and general knowledge to several factors, including

  • the child's age when entering kindergarten,
  • the level of education of the child's mother,
  • the child's family type, and
  • the primary language spoken at home.

Although a child's skills generally increase with the level of the mother's education, the study found, some children whose mothers have a bachelor's degree or higher scored the lowest and some children whose mothers have less than a high school education scored the highest. The report also found that kindergartners from two-parent families are more likely to score in the highest quartile than are children from single-parent families, but again, those findings are not always the case.

NEW ANALYSES FOCUS ON MINORITY CLASSROOMS

In three analyses of the kindergarten database, the NCES focused on the characteristics of ethnic-racial minority, gender, and age differences. The reports were presented at an annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Two of the reports compared classrooms with varying percentages of racial-ethnic minority children. Among the findings:
  • Teachers of classes with the highest percentages of minority children were more likely to have temporary or provisional certificates than were teachers of classes with low percentages of minority children.
  • Classes with more than 75 percent minority enrollment were more likely to have class sizes of 25 children compared with classes with less than 10 percent minority.
  • Predominately minority classes were more likely to have teachers with the least amount of early childhood education.
  • Most kindergarten children were well behaved. However, children in classes with fewer than 10 percent minority enrollments were more likely to be rated as well behaved compared with those in classes with 50 to 74 percent minority enrollments.
  • In classes with more than 75 percent minority children, fewer parents participated in some school events. (The numbers were significant: About 54 percent of those parents came to school orientation and visited the kindergarten with their children before school opened, compared with 90 percent of parents in classes with fewer than 10 percent minority children.)
  • Children in classes with fewer than 24 percent minority students were more likely to have greater literacy skills than were children in classes with more than 50 percent minority students.
  • Most kindergarten classrooms had computer areas, regardless of the proportion of racial-ethnic minority children in the class.

COMPARING GIRLS AND BOYS

The NCES also took a close look at gender and age differences. They found that girls and boys aren't that different when they begin kindergarten. That finding is notable because studies of older students find a gender gap in later grades. That raises questions about what happens during the elementary school years to create the gap.

Researchers also found a significant difference between the oldest and youngest kindergartners, with older students generally performing one standard deviation above the mean in all developmental domains assessed.

Information compiled from the kindergarten study is being used in collaboration with another NCES longitudinal study, Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort 2000. That study examines what happens long before children enter the school system. A national sample of 11,000 children is being tracked from birth to first grade. The focus is on learning more about how children in the United States are raised, nurtured, and prepared for school.

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