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All Kids Make Progress in Kindergarten

Share School Issues CenterAfter tracking 22,000 kindergartners for a full year, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports mixed findings. Although most children who start school without basic school-readiness skills catch up by the end of the school year, their more-advantaged classmates continue to move further ahead to master more-complex skills.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported some good news and some bad news about the nation's kindergartners this week.

The good news is that most children who start school without basic school-readiness skills catch up by the end of the school year. The bad news is that they spend the entire year catching up; in the meantime, their more-advantaged classmates gain further mastery of more-complex reading and math skills, said Jerry West, one of the authors of the NCES report. The gap widens in more-sophisticated skill areas as children who have basic skills at kindergarten entry move on to more-advanced skills, West said.

"There's certainly mixed news in the report," said Gary W. Phillips, acting commissioner of education statistics for NCES, at a press conference this week. "The good news is that during kindergarten, all types of students improve their readiness for school. On the other hand, the pattern of group differences entering kindergarten is still there at the end of kindergarten. Furthermore, the gap between at-risk and more-advantaged students is reduced for more basic skills but widened for more complex skills."

The report, the Kindergarten Year, is part of an ongoing, six-year, early childhood longitudinal study. It tracks 22,000 children from 1,000 elementary schools, who represent the nation's 4 million kindergarten students. The study began in the fall of 1998, when students were evaluated before they entered kindergarten. This is the second full report and reflects data that compares the children's skills in the fall of 1998 with their abilities at the end of the kindergarten year in the spring of 1999.

The overall purpose of the study is to gather information about children's knowledge and skills from the beginning of kindergarten through fifth grade. It will include information about social, emotional, and physical development, such as specifics regarding children's home environments, home educational practices, school and classroom environments, curriculum, and teacher qualifications. The study costs $6 million annually, West said.

"The report isn't terribly surprising," said Edward F. Zigler, who founded Head Start 35 years ago. He is currently Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University. Kids who grow up in poverty have long been at an academic disadvantage compared with children from middle class homes, Zigler said. Although that isn't news to most educators, Head Start continues to fall short. The program serves only 42 percent of the children who live in poverty and does not serve at-risk children who live in households just above the poverty level, he noted.

The report further substantiates school-readiness differences based on varying early childhood home and school experiences. "There is a high correlation between family income and preschool experience," Zigler told Education World. "For poor families, preschool is too expensive. Middle class homes have better learning environments plus [kids] get preschool, so they're ahead of the children from the poor homes. Plus, poor children usually had lousy childcare. Put all those things together, and they are behind."

"Many countries have universal early childhood programs," Zigler continued. "We do all this talk about investing in children and in education in this country but we're not making any progress."

Zigler thinks progress is on the horizon, however, mainly because of the education debates between presidential candidates Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush. "We are in a wonderful shape, thanks to the debate about providing universal preschool education," Zigler said. "It is a really good opportunity for us to accomplish a lot for preschool. Gore pushed for universal pre-kindergarten, and Bush wants all children to be reading by third grade. Bush will soon realize he can't wait to start helping children in kindergarten."

The disparity between skills and knowledge among kindergarteners follows children through their entire education experience, Zigler said. "This is not frustrating only for the kids; it is equally frustrating for teachers to have more than one of these at-risk students," he said. "Teachers talk about it to me all the time. If they have three or more at-risk students in the classroom, everyone's learning suffers. Everybody in the class loses, not just those three kids."

We need to do more, said Richard W. Riley, secretary of education, at the press conference. "This report clearly shows that kindergarten benefits all children," Riley said. "It also reminds us that a half-day of kindergarten and regular school cannot do everything."

The report reinforces the findings of the report released earlier this year that identified four risk factors that result in poor reading and math skills. Those factors include living in a single-parent household, being a welfare recipient, having a mother with less than a high school education, and living in a home in which English is not the primary language.

Read Study Looks for Keys to Early School Success, a story about the first full NCES report, America's Kindergartners.

The NCES researchers also found that some patterns identified at the beginning of school continue throughout the year. For example, older children have higher-level skills and knowledge than their younger classmates do. The researchers also found that children whose mothers have more education stay on task more, seem more eager to learn, and pay closer attention than do children whose mothers have less education. Teachers also continue to report that children who have fewer risk factors are more likely to accept peer ideas and form friendships and are less likely to argue, fight, or get angry than children who have more risk factors are.

One "interesting" new finding the report notes is that kids in all-day kindergarten get crankier than kids in partial-day kindergarten do, although all-day kindergartners make more gains academically. The report suggests caution in interpreting differences in behavior, though, because researchers observed the same differences when children entered the program in the fall. Children in full-day programs may demonstrate slightly higher skills and knowledge than their peers in partial-day programs, but they are more likely to exhibit a higher frequency of some problem behaviors, such a how often they argue and fight with others.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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