Make or Break

By Debra Viadero — May 05, 1999 15 min read
‘Transition years'—when students move to a new school or new kinds of learning—are too often the points where children stumble.

Springfield, Mass.

First grade is a big year for KeAusha Scott-Cummins, a tallish 7-year-old with plastic beads on her pigtails and eyes the color of Hershey’s Kisses. This year in Room 12 at Arthur T. Talmadge Elementary School, she will learn how to tell time by the hour, to identify vowels and their sounds, and to master sums up to 12. Even so, KeAusha would rather be in kindergarten. Like many children her age, Keausha had a hard time moving up from kindergarten. The transition is one of several crucial bridges she must cross before earning her high school diploma years from now.

In 3rd grade, she’ll have to move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” and she’ll tackle more-complex mathematics concepts.

In 5th grade, KeAusha will have to gear up for the big move the following year to middle school, a daunting place that may be three times as large as her small, 350-student elementary school.

And after 8th grade, there is high school.

Research has identified these as some of the most pivotal points in a child’s educational career, places where grades and test scores falter and a few more children fall--or get pushed--between the cracks.

“Children’s long-term success can be made more certain or placed in jeopardy by how they negotiate school transitions,” Johns Hopkins University researchers Karl Alexander and Doris Entwistle say in their book Children, Schools, and Inequality.

Though researchers and educators know where these rough passages lie on the long educational journey, they still don’t know enough about how to make all of them easier. And while transitions are hard for all children, theymay be especially hard for those from less affluent families such as KeAusha’s.

To think about transition as a set of onetime activities that take place at the end of one school year to prepare children for the next is to put too narrow a lens on the issue, experts say.

Children are constantly undergoing transitions. Babies and toddlers move from home care to day-care settings and preschools. Immigrant children move from speaking their native languages to speaking English. Inner-city children may make a daily journey from chaotic neighborhoods to the more orderly world of schools and classrooms.

And getting children ready for kindergarten is a process that should begin early in their young lives--not just a few days before the start of school.

“We now understand that [such preparation has] got to be much deeper and more systematic,” says Sharon Lynn Kagan, a senior research scientist at Yale University’s Bush Center for Child Development. “There’s got to be pedagogical continuity, continuity in how people approach discipline. It’s more than ‘let’s plan a visit.’ ”

KeAusha entered day care at age 1, years before she stepped off the bus for her first day at Talmadge Elementary, a tidy, one-story school just a few minutes from her apartment complex.

In 1997, a few days before KeAusha started kindergarten, her mother, Denise Scott, attended an orientation session for parents of incoming kindergartners. Scott, a single mother, learned everything from the school’s discipline policies to what to pack in KeAusha’s book bag.

And KeAusha herself visited the classroom beforehand so that her teachers could screen her individually, as they did for every child entering school that year. Brief as it was, KeAusha’s introduction to schooling was more than many schools offer.

A study released last year suggests that few teachers do anything to help children and their families adjust to school before that critical first day--mostly because they don’t get their class lists early enough. (Talmadge teachers know by June who will be in their classes the following year.) And far fewer teachers forge any kind of relationship with the preschool programs that feed their classrooms.

For KeAusha, the introduction must have helped. Scott remembers how eager her daughter was to board the bus her first day. “She was excited because it was going to be a new school,” the 38-year-old mother says. Within a few weeks, though, KeAusha ran into some problems. Teachers called Scott in once or twice when her daughter’s tantrums disrupted the class. The outbursts subsided as the year went on.

Like most kindergartners, KeAusha got comparatively little orientation to 1st grade--a transition that may well be the biggest she will make in her entire school career. “Going from kindergarten to 1st grade is like going from high school to college,” says John M. “Jack” Fitzgerald, Talmadge’s principal. “There’s a shock the first couple of weeks of school to many of the students’ systems. We’re still feeling our way with the transition from K to 1.”

KeAusha had to get used to a full day of school. (The 25,500-student Springfield school system is shifting from half-day to full-day kindergarten programs now.) She was placed in a reading group and began to take spelling tests for the first time. There were more rules to follow, no naps, and less freedom to wander about. Hardest of all, she had to learn to sit quietly at rectangular tables of four.

“In kindergarten, you get to play more,” says KeAusha, who is dressed this day in a magenta-pink sweatsuit speckled with milk and crumbs from her lunch. “You get to go outside longer. I had friends that I like.”

Then, intrigued by her memories of kindergarten, she takes a pencil between fingers dotted with chipped nail polish and painstakingly writes down her reasons for preferring it.

At some point there’s sort of a collision in the way we approach kids educationally,” says Robert Pianta, a University of Virginia education professor who is studying the transitions children make in the early years. “They move from a less directive to a more directive environment, from where there are fewer expectations in terms of discrete academic skills to more,” he explains. “Sometimes that happens in kindergarten, but more times it happens in 1st grade.”

Earlier this year, KeAusha’s tantrums reappeared, and Scott found herself summoned to the school once again. But the calls stopped coming after two months. KeAusha doesn’t talk about school much at home, preferring instead to play on the patio with her dolls or to watch television.

To avoid having children start out in school on an unhappy note, educators have experimented for years with different configurations in the early grades.

“I think she’s doing very well now,” says Scott, noting that her daughter earned a B in reading.

“Doing well” is critical right now for KeAusha, experts say, because a child’s performance in 1st grade sets the stage for the years to come.

The time is so critical, in fact, that Entwistle and Alexander compare the kindergarten and 1st grade years to the “imprinting” period that occurs in the first 24 hours of a duckling’s life. During those critical hours, the tiny birds form a lifetime attachment to the nearest large animal they can find, regardless of whether it’s a mother duck.

Yet, for too many children, 1st grade means a first encounter with failure. Studies show that more pupils are retained in 1st grade than in any other year of schooling. Talmadge Elementary, in that regard, is no different from other schools. Of the 29 children in KeAusha’s class, three or four will have to repeat the year, says teacher Colleen Whitman.

The numbers may yet rise as Talmadge and other schools in Massachusetts work to meet rigorous, new state standards for academic achievement--a change that is already infusing more academics into kindergarten and 1st grade.

“It’s very important to stop and make sure that children are learning basic-level reading skills because that becomes more important as they move up the grades,” Principal Fitzgerald says.

The decision to hold pupils back a year is not one that Fitzgerald or Whitman takes lightly. Talmadge educators have an extensive before- and after-school reading-intervention system in place in 1st grade that is designed to head off potential retentions.

And they, too, have seen the studies suggesting that being held back increases a child’s chance of dropping out later on. But if a student is going to have to repeat a year of schooling, they reason, better to do it sooner rather than later.

To avoid having children start out in school on an unhappy note, educators have experimented for years with different configurations in the early grades. There are “developmental” kindergartens for students not ready for regular kindergarten, “transitional” 1st grades for children not up to the rigors of more formal classrooms, and multiage classes that allow children to progress at their own rates without being labeled failures. Yet so far, studies show, most of those attempts have either mixed or poor track records.

“What these are are attempts by schools to address the incredible variability that kids come to school with,” says Pianta. “But, in a sense, what they’re also trying to do is create a more continuous system for the whole population.”

Talmadge Elementary, for example, sits in a community of modest, single-family homes and commercial strips close to Springfield’s border with its eastern suburbs. But the school draws a high proportion of children from the apartment complexes and housing projects closer to downtown, which has shared in the economic downturns that have afflicted many of New England’s manufacturing centers.

With 65 percent of the school’s children coming from families poor enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price lunches, mobility is high. As many as a quarter of Talmadge students move in and out during the course of the year, bringing with them a wide range of abilities and experiences.

While some students such as KeAusha Scott-Cummins come to kindergarten with years of preschool, others have spent their first five years at home. A few can identify colors and read a word or two; others cannot yet utter a complete sentence.

When KeAusha gets to 3rd grade and 4th grade, she will encounter a less visible transition--the “3rd grade slump.”

The term comes in part from studies of Head Start, Follow Through, and other federally funded preschool programs for disadvantaged children. Those studies show that the academic gains that students make in such programs early on tend to fade by 3rd grade.

But experts disagree over whether the phenomenon is real, with some researchers pointing to other intervention studies showing that children--even those born poor and with low birthweights--can indeed make steady progress throughout the middle childhood years.

What is undoubtedly true, however, is that academic tasks become different for children at those grade levels. Learning mathematics, for example, becomes more complex as students move from addition to multiplication and tackle other, more abstract concepts.

And, rather than primarily learning to read, as they did in earlier years, children spend more time reading to learn other things. They may use textbooks for the first time to read about social studies and science.

“Some kids do well in the beginning with decoding, but they don’t seem to get much meaning out of words,” says Joanna P. Williams, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It’s not too much of a problem early on, but at the 4th grade level, people expect that kids will begin to get something out of the material.”

Vocabulary grows in importance, giving an edge to children who have amassed a bigger storehouse of words.

“Much is known about getting children started in reading,” a national panel of prominent researchers recently concluded. “But less is known about what competencies and programs help children to succeed beyond 3rd grade.”

In comparison, researchers know much more about the transition from elementary school to middle school.

This too, is a tough one. Just ask Nina Winfield, a quiet 6th grader at Beeber Dimmer Middle School in Philadelphia.

“I thought it was going to be scary, all these people bigger than me,” she recalls. “I was so scared.”

Studies show that transition practices are used more often in middle-class, suburban, and private schools than they are in the poor, urban schools where they may be needed most.

Nina has a lot to contend with this year. Her new school is bigger, with 1,100 students in just three grades. And, even though Nina takes all her classes with the same group of students, she worries about making trips to the restroom. She might meet up with bigger, tougher students she doesn’t know.

She fretted in the early weeks about finding her way around the building, an aging three-story structure with imposing marble staircases. And she must remember a locker combination now and keep track of the homework and the books she needs for her classes.

In gym class, she sometimes has to fend off the newly sexually aggressive boys who like to run around touching girls’ bottoms.

“The transition to middle school can either be a positive transition or one that is quite negative,” says Doug Mac Iver, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk. “What makes it negative is if students are moving from a fairly small elementary school with strong teacher-student relationships to a middle school of 1,000 kids or more.”

That should come as no surprise, he adds. “For any of us put in an environment where we feel kind of anonymous and unknown, it’s a challenge.”

An important change for adolescents is that their “intellectual capacity has shifted so that they’re really able to think about the future and make choices,” Mac Iver says. “So it becomes possible to make bad choices or to slack off in effort--to feel that no one really notices what I’m doing or not.”

Beeber Middle School is trying hard to reduce that feeling of anonymity. Students are grouped in learning communities of 400 students each, and they and their teachers stay together in those communities for three years.

Within each community, 6th graders are paired with one other class of 6th graders, and teachers team-teach the classes. That way, students see the same faces in all their academic classes, and teachers are responsible for far fewer students. Rather than teach mathematics to 165 different students in a day, for example, Beeber teachers might teach math and science to 65, giving them a chance to get to know their charges a little better.

Classes are 75 minutes long to allow more in-depth classroom interchanges.

Even so, the highest failure rates at Beeber, one of the top-ranked middle schools in Philadelphia, are in 6th grade. During the first marking period this school year, 30 students--the equivalent of an entire class--failed one or more subjects, Principal Helena W. Valentine says. Nina, an honor-roll student in elementary school, earned a D or two in her first semester as well. Her grades have since rebounded.

“For 6th graders, everything is difficult,” Valentine says. “They forget their locker combinations. They’re always leaving their books in classes. They seem so immature in this setting.”

Nina Winfield has just two more years to mature before she has to move again, this time to high school--a change that many students never quite recover from. Though they are too young to drop out, struggling 9th graders are old enough to realize that they can in a year or two.

“What you get is a lot of kids who stop coming to school,” says Robert C. Granger, the vice president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a New York City and San Francisco-based company that has been testing high-school-transition programs in Milwaukee and Kansas City, Kan. “For all intents and purposes, they drop out even though they’re still enrolled.”

Once again, the issue comes down to readiness--just as it does in the early grades, says Arthur J. Reynolds, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of social work and educational psychology.

“The best predictor of success in high school is achievement in 8th grade,” says Reynolds, who tracked 1,539 poor Chicago students from preschool through high school graduation. “If kids aren’t ready, it’s difficult for high schools to remediate enough to get kids up to the level they expect.”

Several districts around the country, recognizing the make-or-break importance of 9th grade, have devoted extensive resources toward easing the transition. Detroit, for example, has spent more than $16 million since 1995 on a program that targets 9th graders who are at risk of failing. (“Detroit Schools Target 9th Grade in Effort To Reduce Dropout Rate,” Dec. 3, 1997.)

The transition issue has received greater attention in recent years in light of the middle school movement and the adoption of national education goals--the first of which holds that by 2000 all children should start school ready to learn.

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving in Hartford, Conn., for example, is pulling together parents, preschool teachers, and child-care workers to discuss ways to smooth children’s early transition to school. As a result of those meetings, some kindergarten teachers have begun to visit neighborhood centers to talk with parents of preschoolers about how they should prepare their children.

Another of these collaborations has produced a list of competencies children are expected to meet before they enter school, for distribution in impoverished, largely Hispanic neighborhoods.

But study after study also shows that, regardless of the grade level, transition practices are used more often in middle-class, suburban, and private schools than they are in the poor, urban schools where they may be needed most.

Experts agree that supporting children as they cross these difficult passages will ultimately provide some payoff, though the research suggests that schools have a long way to go in finding the right kinds of supports. “I think a focus on transition makes a lot of sense for policy,” Granger of MDRC says. “It’s a kind of a time when things can go awry or things can get a boost.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as Make or Break