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Class Size, Not Hours, Seen Key in Kindergarten

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Class size is more important than the length of the school day in the achievement of disadvantaged kindergarten children, concludes a study by the Chicago Board of Education.

The study, thought to be the first to measure kindergarten children's achievement in half- and full-day and large and small classes, comes as a number of states are considering or beginning to implement full-day kindergarten programs as part of recent education-reform measures.

"It's the quality, not the quantity, of time spent with the children that's important," states the study, "Chicago's Government Funded Kindergarten Programs," on the basis of analyses made during the 1983-84 school year by the board's department of research and evaluation.

Simply lengthening the school day, it notes, could backfire unless there is sufficient money to hire enough teachers to reduce class sizes.

In Illinois, where kindergarten attendance is not compulsory, the legislature last summer voted to encourage local districts to hold full-day kindergarten classes and promised additional state aid for children in those classes beginning next fall. Although that aid is expected to help large districts like Chicago, which receives a considerable amount of state funding, smaller districts, it is believed, will benefit less from the measure.

Poverty-Area Schools

The Chicago study evaluated the spring 1984 Iowa Test of Basic Skills scores of more than 9,000 kindergarten children in some 100 poverty-area schools, according to Irving M. Brauer, director research and evaluation department. Most of the kindergarten programs, Mr. Brauer said, received federal funding from one of three sources--Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and the office of equal educational opportunity. A comparison group of similar schools whose kindergarten programs were not federally funded was also included in the study.

Researchers observed 123 kindergarten classes and interviewed 134 kindergarten teachers and 800 parents. They found that students in both full- and half-day classes that averaged 16 students scored, on average, at or above national standards for their grade level in language, word analysis, and mathematics, and one month below their grade level in vocabulary.

Children in full-day classes of 22 to 28 students on average scored above their grade level only in word analysis and below grade level in the three other areas.

And children in half-day classes of 22 to 28 children performed at the lowest levels of all: They scored below average in all four areas and were found to be one year below the national norm in vocabulary near the end of their first year of schooling, according to the study.

Individual Attention

Mr. Brauer and Mavis Hagemann, coordinator of the study, said in interviews last week that they attributed its findings to a number of factors. Smaller classes, they said, allow teachers to give more individual attention to each student during the day. In addition, teachers are better able to allocate time in half-day programs and students do not become as tired by the end of a half-day as they do by the end of a full-day program.

Based on the the findings, the researchers recommended that inservice programs for kindergarten teachers be geared more specifically to classroom problems--such as children's fatigue during the second half of a full-day program.

They also said they shared the concern of many educators that parents become better informed about their children's school activities and achievement, and more involved in the educational process.

And both Mr. Irving and Ms. Hagemann stressed the importance of preschool education. Almost universally, they said, those students who had participated in preschool programs before entering kindergarten performed better than students who had not taken part in such programs.

Different Purposes

Velma F. Thomas, director of the Chicago board's bureau of early-childhood programs, said she concurred with the study's findings and recommendations. "We are looking at the design of the study and seeing how we can bring its recommendations into how we are operating both the half-day and the full-day program," especially in the area of reducing class size, she said.

But she also cautioned that she did not expect the research to change the full-day programs that have different focuses than those described in the study.

The non-federally funded all-day kindergartens under the board's aegis "are not staffed the same nor do they have the same purpose or same pupil selection," Ms. Thomas said. There are full-day programs for children who are graduates of preschool programs, she explained, and extended-day programs for Chapter 1 children who attend regular half-day kindergarten in the morning and receive remedial help in the afternoon.

Closer Attention

Bettye M. Caldwell, Donaghey Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a leading expert in the field of early-childhood education, said the Chicago study's findings did not surprise her.

"A study like that shows that the closer and the more intense the level of attention the children get, the more favorable the results," said Ms. Caldwell, who is past president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Many existing early-childhood education programs, she added, fail to include a needed "tutorial type of relationship" between student and teacher. Programs, she said, tend to become too large and too group-oriented.

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