A new study has found that it may be possible, and not too difficult, to help low-income children significantly speed up their vocabulary acquisition in kindergarten. This is important because of the oft-cited 1995 study which found that low-income children know about 5,000 words before entering kindergarten, compared to 20,000 words for high-income children. This difference is one of the main roots of the achievement gap.
The Mississippi study may offer schools and teachers some guidance in how to improve early education outcomes, which are varied. The study found that the boost in vocabulary among children in the Mississippi program was equal to a month of extra time in school. Here’s what one of the researchers told Ed Week:
Pam Finney, the research management leader for the study, said the program was purposely “not a very complicated intervention,” and it helps teachers engage in the same complex conversations that the Kansas study showed professional parents have with their children, “introducing 50 cent words as opposed to 25 cent words,” as Ms. Finney put it.
The Ed Week author asks whether “a one-month edge be enough to boost these students reading development, get them moved to more advanced groups, and so on? ” I have a similar question. Is a month enough to help these children catch up to their high income peers? If not, what else needs to be done to close that gap?
In the days of high-stakes testing, it’s hard to imagine the stress for parents who want nothing better than to send their progeny to private school, starting in kindergarten or even earlier. Actually, it’s not at all hard to imagine: the insanity of the process in New York City was documented brilliantly a few years back in the documentary “Nursery University.”
Taking an expensive intelligence test known as the E.R.B. is tough enough, but now the New York Times reports that some well connected pre-schoolers (well at least their parents) are finding ways for them to take the test twice, just in case they had a bad day. The test, along with letters of recommendations and interviews, are all part of deciding who gets admitted.
In the overall scheme of parents-who-will-do-anything to get their kids in, finding a way for them to get a second chance at the E.R.B., an intelligence exam, isn’t as extreme as say, bribing a nursery school director or offering to build a gym, pool or a playground. (which would come as no surprise).
Still, it raises issues of fairness, say some education consultants and parents who object to the idea that some students are quietly getting a do-over to boost their chance of success. And those students tend to be connected to the school (via an alumni or sibling) or perhaps are offspring of a celebrity, the Times notes. adding that the second test can provide an edge because “more often than not, children fare better.”
The mandatory $510 exam “is among the most nail-biting experiences in a parent’s life, ” and it’s already under attack “because of widely available preparation materials,” the story notes.
Some might argue that charging $510 for an exam that helps a child gain admission to a school that will ultimately cost as much as $35,300 annually is already unfair.
The best solution, of course, would be to offer more free, high-quality pre-kindergarten to all children, regardless of income, with a fine public school system to follow. But in New York City’s public system, as in the private system, the number of seats in the most coveted schools does not meet demand. And so the testing and the gaming continues.
Private school consultant Amanda Uhry is spot on when she tells the Times: “These are private schools – it’s their rules.”
The latest and most promising education reform in the early education realm, at least according to many advocates, is PreK-3 . The idea is to streamline curriculum and instructional approaches so that the transition from preschool to K-12 is seamless. It’s also to get educators from both sides of the line talking to each other about expectations and pedagogy — something that really hasn’t happened before.
The New America Foundation’s Early Ed Watch blog wrote yesterday about a new Pennsylvania State University study out that looks at how teachers are being prepared (or not) for this new way of doing things. Early ed folks say teachers are not the only ones who need help navigating the new terrain of early education, however.
This week, I met with the staff from Advocates for the Children of New Jersey who are training district administrators — many of whom have little experience with early education — about how to better connect the grade levels. The group held trainings last year and is launching a new set of sessions this year. According to Cynthia Rice, who is coordinating the trainings, administrators have clamored to participate.
One of the potential pitfalls of the PreK-3 model is that it creates more meetings for people to sit through, without necessarily guaranteeing anything will get done. A focus of the trainings is how to make meetings between educators across the grade levels constructive. “It’s setting up time for meaningful conversations about children, classrooms, curriculum and assessment,” says Rice. Another goal is to change mindsets, pushing administrators to think about education as a continuum and to think about what happens to children “outside of their buildings” as their responsibility, too.
Despite increasing pressure to make kindergarten more rigorous, the cognitive capacity of children’s brains hasn’t changed much over the past century, a new study by the Gesell Institute of Human Development says. A triangle is still a mystery to most four-year-olds, and counting 20 pennies and then remembering that number is beyond most five-year-olds.
At the Harvard Education Letter, Laura Pappano writes that the findings may seem counter-intuitive:
“Given the current generation of children that—to many adults at least—appear eerily wise, worldly, and technologically savvy, these new data allowed Gesell researchers to ask some provocative questions: Have kids gotten smarter? Can they learn things sooner? What effect has modern culture had on child development? The surprising answers—no, no, and none.”
Children might be coached into reciting the whole alphabet at an early age, but that doesn’t mean they get the concept of letters at a deeper level, the researchers say. So go ahead and sing that alphabet song with a four-year-old, but they’ll really only understand half of what you’re saying.
EarlyStories examined some suggested new rules for Head Start recently, and now a leading expert on early childhood is lauding the Obama administration in a Washington Post op-ed for proposing a new system he says could force much-needed improvements to the $8 billion program for 3- and 4-year-olds. The op-ed makes it clear that what happens before children set foot in a public-school classroom is an integral part of the national debate on education.
“A substantial number of Head Start programs are so ineffective that they do little or nothing to boost child development and learning,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, co-authored the op-ed with Barnett.
Center leaders have not entirely welcomed the proposals. Some are worried that competition would be costly, and could create more uncertainty and possibly chaos. Large centers have expressed concerns that they’ll be singled out simply because their size could lead to more problems.
The Post piece comes as a new, must-read collection of papers assessing federal policies for early childhood education and child care was released by NIEER, entitled “Investing in Young Children: New Directions in Federal Preschool and Early Childhood Policy.”
To create an educated workforce, you have to start with high-quality educators. In the field of early childhood, the issue has long been debated. High quality programs tend to be taught by teachers with four-year degrees and specific training in early childhood education. Yet teachers may be poorly trained, or not trained at all. Only 27 states require a lead classroom teacher to have a bachelor’s degree, for example.
All this is one reason why EarlyStories is taking note of a new report that calls for increasing the compensation of early childhood workers and providing bonuses, earned tax credits, and loan forgiveness programs. The Boston Globe wrote about the report, sponsored by the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children, a Boston nonprofit that works to improve early education, especially for disadvantaged students.
The report comes at a time when the majority of child-care workers in Massachusetts earn less than $25,000, and as the state — like many in the U.S. – confronting a compensation crisis, causing many child-care workers to leave the industry. How are states and municipalities handling this crisis? How can we improve education at all levels if we don’t start with our littlest learners and those who guide them?
Kindergarten students these days have a lot in common with middler schoolers. Visit any middle school and you are likely to be struck instantly by the vast differences in the size of students. There are plenty of small, still childish looking 13 and 14-year-olds who look as if they’d be more comfortable in an elementary school. Their 12-year-old classmates, meanwhile, might tower over them and appear more like high schoolers.
Children have always developed differently, but in kindergarten the differences are less physical and more about school readiness. That’s why it was interesting to read Emily Alpert’s exellent piece on the first day of kindergarten at Ocean Beach Elementary School in San Diego, for the website Voice of San Diego.
At first, it looked like it was going to be another in a long line of stories proclaiming kindergarten to be “the new first grade.” And while there was some attention paid to the concept that kindergarten does come with new and higher expectations, the story did a good job at looking at the many differences between students who have attended pre-school before kindergarten and those who have not.
The differences can be vast.
“Some children had been prepped in preschool and some hadn’t,” Alpert noted, writing about the first day of school. “Some were six months older or more, giving them an edge in maturity and motor skills, while others, often younger, had trouble focusing on a task or froze up when given directions. When they sat down to draw self portraits, one boy took a single crayon and scribbled wildly — a sign that teachers monitor for motor skills — while a girl with pigtails neatly sketched a face and added pupils and eyelashes.”
In California, there’s much context to the debate, as lawmakers want to set new age limits for children entering kindergarten. They can now enter if they turn 5 by early December, but there’s movement to change the date to September and provide all the students whose birthdays fall inbetween to get an extra year of “transitional kindergarten.”
Cut-off dates for kindergarten entry in the U.S. now vary from state to state, and even from district to district. With all the talk about setting common standards, EarlyStories would love to hear some thoughts on what works best, and what the right age is for entering kindergarten. Would changing the dates help the U.S. in its goals to get more students to graduate from high school? If students entered kindergarten a bit later, with more preparation, would it ultimately help their academic performance? What kind of success have transitional programs had, and are there some good role models to exam?
California is set to introduce “transitional kindergarten,” something in between pre-K and kindergarten for four-year-olds who might otherwise enroll in kindergarten. The bill has passed the legislature and is waiting to be signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Over at Flypaper, Chester Finn, an ardent critic of universal pre-K, is lambasting the plan. He’s worried the state is introducing universal pre-K “by stealth,” something he opposes in favor of programs targeted at disadvantaged children. He questions whether the program, which is billed as a money saver, won’t actually end up costing more and also seems worried that private providers could be hurt by the plan.
Finn suggests the plan could be part of a “grand conspiracy to enlarge the public education monopoly and employ more teachers.” Meanwhile, however, the California Teachers Association is neutral on the bill, according to the LA Times story, saying they want more flexibility for school districts and parents.
The program is projected to serve 120,000 kids. Supporters are saying it will be particularly helpful to low-income parents, who can’t afford to pay for an extra year of preschool if their children aren’t ready for kindergarten. Often, these are the parents whose incomes are too high for Head Start, but too low to afford private preschool. It also could give a boost to English language learners, one official said.
In a related item, a survey by Preschool California (which is in favor of expanding public preschool access) found that two thirds of Latino voters “think the state is doing too little to ensure all children have access to affordable high-quality preschool.”
It might seem as if the push to get into one of New York City’s most prestigious and pricey nursery schools is an old story, but quotes like these remind readers that it’s not just the city’s übercompetitive parents who are keeping the frenzy alive: “I will interview parents all night if I need to,” Wendy Levey, the director of the Epiphany Community Nursery School, told The New York Times.
The school has just 150 students ages 2-5. Levey and her school became well-known to viewers of the hilarious “Nursery University,” a documentary that a New York Times reviewer wryly noted would be well-received by those who “thrill to the sight of a preschool teacher bringing an investment banker to his knees.”
Levey’s comment about interviewing parents came in a story that described an “annual rite of Manhattan education … the crush of applicants to private nursery schools and kindergartens” that won’t take applications or even phone calls requesting them until the day after Labor Day.
One look at the competition and the prices — the 92nd Street Y, for example, will set parents back just under $15,000 for a three-day-a-week program for 2-year-olds, and just under $26,000 for a five-day program for 4- and 5-year-olds — might drive more reasonable parents to move to, say, Brooklyn. They might hope to live near a free public pre-kindergarten program.
Turns out, that is easier said than done. A story in the New York Daily News last week proclaimed getting into public school prekindergarten in certain Brooklyn neighborhods to be “harder than getting into Harvard,” while another noted that a record number of children were squeezed out of Brooklyn’s most popular — and crowded — pre-k programs.
Lesson? There’s a huge need for more high-quality pre-kindergarten programs — both public and private — to serve the many New Yorkers who want to raise their children in the city and give them the best possible start. Supply does not come close to meeting demand.
USA Today has thrown a new log on the fire in the debate over whether delaying kindergarten is helpful to children. An article yesterday says nearly a million young children could have been misdiagnosed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) because they’re simply too young to handle kindergarten.
The newspaper had exclusive access to a new study by Michigan State University, which found that younger kids in grades 5 and 8 tended to use Ritalin – the drug often prescribed for ADHD – more often than older kids in those grades. These findings will no doubt add fodder to the many parenting websites out there giving advice on whether to hold your child back from kindergarten to help them achieve in the long run.
This is certainly not the final word on the issue, however. While some studies have found that students do better on tests if they enter kindergarten later, others have found that delaying kindergarten can have detrimental effects on children. And as USA Today points out, often parents don’t have a choice: Preschool can be expensive, and kindergarten is free.