02 September 2008

The Intangibles of ECE

I was reading a mommyblogger's post about how she is homeschooling her two wee ones for their pre-school years and will send them off to public kindergarten when they're of age. Although other mommies she knows are not supportive of her choice, she isn't worried that her kids won't be ready for kindergarten. She buys different workbooks and educational materials and has "school" for an hour a day. I applaud all of this---from the time and attention she gives her children to the interest in supporting their knowledge base. I haven't a doubt that her kids will be among the best prepared for the academic side of kindergarten.

What I think the mommy doesn't understand is that pre-school is not just letters and counting. There are behaviors and routines that Early Childhood Education (ECE) is attempting to develop. I have no doubt that the family is a good model of social things such as how to stand in a line (when required) or wait for one's turn, but it is a whole different ball of wax to have to operate inside that model with a gaggle of one's peers. The conversations that occur during play are an important aspect of social learning---something you can't get from spending time at the kitchen table with mom.

I don't believe that children who stay home with involved parents during their pre-school years are being done any damage. My point here is simply that viewing pre-school as something purely academic is a naive way to look at things.

I was thinking about all of this again after I saw this blurb in Education Week:

Children who enter kindergarten a year after they are eligible do better in school initially than their younger peers, but the advantage tends to fade later in their academic careers, according to a studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader set to appear in the Journal of Human Resources.

The findings go against earlier research suggesting that age is a significant factor in student achievement. Many states have changed kindergarten-eligibility requirements to give younger students more time to mature before starting school.

“One way to think about it is that the oldest kid in kindergarten has about 20 percent more life experience,” said Darren Lubotsky, a economics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who co-authored the study with Todd Elder, an economist at Michigan State University. “But once they start, they basically learn at the same rate.”

The delay may be a disadvantage to older students later on, the study concludes, given the cost of entering the workforce late.

I recently read somewhere in my RSS travels that late start kindergartners have the highest drop-out rates from high school---and tend to drop out earlier than their peers. Although, I suppose "peer" is relative. Perhaps there is something about being significantly older than one's classmates that sets up a whole sense of disconnection from school? Is it possible that at 5 or 6 years of age, the differences in development are so great---from the viewpoint of the child---that it is too frustrating to start school late? A teacher understands that not everyone in a kindergarten classroom has the fine motor skills for cutting along lines...but do the kinders?

We also know that the gains made by students who get all-day kindergarten fade by third grade---and there is no difference in achievement vs. those who only attended kindergarten for a half-day. I know of one district in the area which is valiantly trying to fight this, having invested hundreds of thousands of dollars from a stressed budget to offer full-day K to its students from its high-poverty neighbourhoods. I'd like to think that they'll beat the odds, but I'm not feeling confident. Why not? One of the factors associated with low SES is high mobility. The mobility itself is not what will doom the kids---ed research bears that out. It's the fact that there will be quite the "mix" of half-day and full-day kinders in the system by that point. Schools will be focusing resources on getting the half-day'ers caught up...not pushing the full-day students onward. Sad, but true. There will likely not be a lot of change until every child is eligible for full-day kindergarten.

I'm not sure how we measure some of these intangibles associated with ECE...how we move from just observing the process to really digging into what is happening. What do we do---if anything---with statements such as "If a child isn't reading at grade level by 3rd grade, they never catch up." or "Predictions for the number of prison beds needed in the future is based on current 3rd grade achievement."? Even assuming these are vast generalizations, there must be a kernel of truth in there somewhere. How do we move from a guessing game about what the right age is for school to ensuring every child gets started on solid footing?


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that children don't have to go to preschool in order to be successful in kindergarten, provided they are getting some rich experiences at home. I agree with you as well that the mommy in your first paragraph was being a bit simplistic in her thinking about what preschool entails.

Here are some of the things I'll be covering this year, in terms of skills: letter recognition, letter sounds, onsets & rimes, rhymes, alliteration, blending, segmenting, c-v-c words (consonant-vowel-consonant), writing letters, writing names, reading names of others in the class, counting to 30, counting to 100 by 10s, recognizing the numerals to 10, counting 10 objects accurately, putting things in order by size, making ABAB patterns and perhaps harder (ABC, ABB, etc.), sorting by a variety of criteria (shape, color, size, etc.), recognizing and naming shapes, following 3 step directions, speaking in complete sentences, problem solving, doing classroom chores, learning to sit still and listen, discussing books in depth, asking and answering questions, and plenty more.

That doesn't include what I'm going to cover in terms of content: insects, plants, fire safety, farms, restaurants, grocery stores, under the sea, holidays, fall, winter, spring, author studies (Jan Brett, Donald Crews, Ezra Jack Keats, Rosemary Wells), and so on. Plus we're going to read and discuss tons of books.

So yeah, there's a little more to it than doing workbooks for an hour a day.

Roger Sweeny said...

"I recently read somewhere in my RSS travels that late start kindergartners have the highest drop-out rates from high school---and tend to drop out earlier than their peers."

If late start kindergartners were a random sample of the eligible kids, that would mean that starting late hurts them. But they are very much not a random sample. Kids who start late are kids who parents are already worried about.

Unless the research has controlled for the fact that the two groups are different, it doesn't tell us much.

The Science Goddess said...

You're probably very right about that. I'm also wondering about region of the country. I met numerous families in Texas who purposefully kept their boys home an extra year so they would be bigger for high school football.

I would be interested to find out if there's been a study of the various reasons why parents choose to delay kindergarten.

Anonymous said...

As a preschool teacher (and a mom of children who were once preschoolers), I feel it a preschool education in a group setting is a wonderful experience. Children can learn so much from being in a group of 10 or more children the same age that they are. At our school we have our academics that we want the children to learn, but I really focus on the social development of children in a large group setting. Workbooks provide plenty, but the proper school setting can provide so much more.

Great post!