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Study Backs Less Formal Kindergarten

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Early-childhood programs that stress "child initiated'' learning and social development are more beneficial and have more enduring effects than those with an academic focus, according to an unprecedented study comparing different kinds of classrooms in an urban school system.

The study not only supports less formal and more active learning in the early grades, but also suggests that overly academic approaches may be doing harm.

The study--which also highlights the dangers of grade retention and the benefits of parental involvement--was conducted for the District of Columbia schools by Rebecca A. Marcone, a developmental psychologist at the University of Florida at Coral Gables. It followed two cohorts of children at various points over a seven-year period, from pre-kindergarten or Head Start to the 5th grade.

"The negative impact on achievement and social development of overly academic early-childhood programs was clearly apparent by age 9 in this sample,'' notes a draft report presented to the school district this month.

The 'Crucial Transition'

The study follows up a three-year investigation launched by the school district in 1986 to learn why large numbers of children were being retained in 1st grade, even though the system offers full-day preschool and kindergarten programs. Officials also wanted to gauge how various programs affect long-term school success.

The 1990 results challenged the usefulness of "programs that extend formal education downward to the preprimary years'' and spurred a series of reforms and pilot programs that have earned the district recognition as an innovator in early-childhood education.

For the follow-up, the district hired Ms. Marcone, who conducted the initial study while working as a senior research associate for the school system. She was asked to track children as they moved into the upper-elementary grades, focusing on the "crucial transition'' from 3rd to 4th grade.

The 1990-1993 study included the original pre-K and Head Start children, a matched group that entered school at kindergarten, and a second cohort of pre-K and Head Start children one year younger than the first. It involved 461 children from 95 schools.

Real-World Setting

The study is significant, experts say, because it examines the effects of different teaching approaches--rather than simply comparing children with and without preschool experience--and does so under the "real world'' conditions of an urban district.

One of the most influential studies in the field, the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Mich., focused on the differences between children who had high-quality preschool services and those who did not. It involved a small sample of children who received intensive services in a controlled experiment in a suburban area. (See Education Week, April 21, 1993.)

That study, conducted by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, is considered to have more "internal validity'' than more extensive studies, said Lawrence Schweinhart, the chairman of High/Scope's research division. But "people raise questions about whether it generalizes to other situations,'' he added.

Although the design of Ms. Marcone's study is more "messy'' and should be viewed cautiously, Mr. Schweinhart said, it "is very valuable because it was done in a very operational context.''

The study sounds an alarm about unusually high levels of retention in the District of Columbia schools, a policy officials say they have been backing away from since the first study. It also cites a high incidence of "maladaptive behavior'' among children in the sample and acknowledges that "home and community-based'' factors are partly responsible.

Nonetheless, the study highlights clear variations linked to the different types of programs.

Based on observations of the approaches most commonly used by teachers, Ms. Marcone categorized pre-K classrooms in the study as child initiated, academically directed, or "middle of the road.''

While most of the kindergartens had an academic orientation, she classified some as "socioemotional,'' denoting a greater emphasis on child development.

Following a pattern found in other studies, the study showed that children who attended pre-K or Head Start scored higher on school performance, developmental growth, and behavioral measures than those who attended kindergarten only--but that the gains began to fade in 3rd grade.

Boys More Vulnerable

But when Ms. Marcone compared children in different kinds of programs, that pattern shifted.

In grade 3, there were no statistically significant differences in performance attributable to the type of pre-K. But by grade 4, children who had attended child-initiated programs performed better than those in the academic model.

By grades 4 and 5 the children from the more academic programs also were developmentally behind those in child-initiated or middle-of-the-road programs and "displayed notably higher levels of maladaptive behavior.''

Differences in performance were less salient between those who attended standard or socioemotional kindergarten. But there were striking sex-based differences.

"A consistent pattern emerged in which boys displayed greater academic competence ... if their kindergarten teachers had encouraged socioemotional development,'' notes the report. Girls appeared to benefit more from an academically focused curriculum until 4th grade, but the differences began to level off after that.

There is "no advantage in keeping kindergarten as a 'junior' version of 1st grade,'' the study concludes. "There is a real benefit from returning the kindergarten experience to the preparatory role it once held,'' with social and emotional development a key priority.

"The consequences of failing to do so are unacceptable,'' it says, "especially for boys in this urban school system.''

The study also says children whose first school experience is overly academic have more trouble moving from the primary to the upper-elementary grades.

Policy Validation

School district officials said the data will help them pursue their efforts to make early-childhood classrooms more responsive. While that push began with a handful of schools, the district is now moving 20 additional schools a year toward a "continuous progress'' model that abolishes retention through 3rd grade. The effort also involves performance-based assessments and extensive staff development.

Maurice Sykes, a deputy superintendent, said the study "validates a shift toward developmentally appropriate practices that we can share with teachers, parents, and administrators.''

"We now have hard data to show that this overly academic, rigid curriculum can have disastrous effects on children,'' he said.

The report notes that at the time of the study, retention was one of the main strategies used "to deal with early academic difficulties.'' One-third of all the children in the sample had been retained by the 3rd or 4th grade, and 5 percent had multiple retentions.

The findings confirm, however, that "retention alone does not provide the remediation these children need,'' Ms. Marcone noted.

The study also offers evidence that early parental involvement can be an "inoculator'' against retention in the early grades. Activities as basic as parent-teacher conferences and parental help with class activities can bolster school performance and behavior, it suggests, while low parental involvement "represents a clear danger'' to school success.

More academic programs are less likely to encourage parental involvement, Ms. Marcone said.

The report also advocates policies to help children through difficult school-transition periods; early screening for language deficits; and more counseling services.

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