For this edition of Quality Counts, the Commentary editors reached out to researchers and a policymaker, all of whom are known for their work in early-childhood education. These four contributors were asked:
What’s a research concern that we still need answered about early-childhood education?
What follows is Heather E. Quick’s response to this question. See more responses.
Kindergarten has evolved. What used to be a play-oriented introductory school experience focused on socialization is now often characterized as more academically focused, geared toward getting children ready to read and to succeed in mathematics. National trends show kindergartners spending more time on reading and language arts activities and less time on art, dramatic play, and child-directed exploration.
This increased attention to academic subjects in recent years is compounded by the movement toward full-day kindergarten and thus many more hours of academic instruction for today’s children. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, with its increased accountability requirements, likely contributed to this evolution, and the widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards further crystalizes the expectation for academic rigor in kindergarten.
How have these changes affected children’s learning and development? What kind of kindergarten experience best supports children’s smooth transition to elementary school and lays a strong foundation for a successful educational career? What characteristics offer promise for reducing the achievement gap already manifest by the time children enter kindergarten? Identifying the elements that matter most for an effective kindergarten program includes exploring what works for which children and under what conditions. Some children—such as those who didn’t attend a high-quality preschool program, who are dual-language learners, or who are less developmentally ready—may need additional supports.
California recently established “transitional kindergarten”—year one of a two-year kindergarten program—to offer a developmentally appropriate modified kindergarten curriculum for children who otherwise would have started kindergarten at age 4. Early findings from the American Institutes for Research indicate that, compared with children in traditional kindergarten, children in transitional kindergarten spend less time on academic subjects and more time in child-directed exploration and activities that foster social-emotional development. As we further assess this program’s impact, we expect to find out more about whether this approach produces greater learning gains for children and where more attention is needed.