Head starts and the Kindergarten effect

| 22 Feb 2012 | 02:01

    I think it is safe to say that all of us who are parents felt a powerful wave of responsibility when we first looked at our newborn child. Here was a bundle of possibility and potential, and we had the responsibility for helping this adorable little child make the most of every bit of those possibilities and potentials. We painted nursery rooms in soft colors, made sure that every piece of equipment was both safe and appropriately simulating, and even bought products guaranteed to give our child an early awareness of language, mathematics, and science. Clearly, our child was not going to be left behind! Whether children spend the first three years at home, at day care, or in prestigious nursery schools, they will gradually make sense of the surrounding world, learning to move and control their bodies as they also learn to use words to express their wants and desires. Wealthy families can afford the best in early care and training but many less affluent families where both parents work, or a single parent works, need to have help. Head Start was a concept that attempted to give disadvantaged children an academic boost in the early years that would create momentum to carry them through their elementary, middle, and high school years. Unfortunately, follow-up studies have shown that Head Start students’ early advantage fades by the time children reach middle or high school. One part of the research on “the fade out effect” points to the fact that Head Start children often go on to schools where all the children are performing poorly and the expectation levels and support levels are low. But, the fact remains that the early good start that these children received did not make a difference in the test scores and school performance in later years. What remains untested, however, is the effect of excellent early childhood programs that feed into excellent later schooling. Perhaps there is no need to test, for it is clear that students who have these advantages excel on later test scores. But, test scores do not tell the entire story. David Leonhardt’s July 27 article in The New York Times, “The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers,” explores the research of Harvard economist Raj Chetty that focused not on test scores but on adult outcomes. While the 12,000 children in Tennessee Project Star study showed that those who had a very talented kindergarten teacher outperformed those who had an average teacher for the next few years, by middle school the test advantage had worn off. However, they did find that those with the great kindergarten teacher: •Were more likely to go to college •Were less likely to become single parents •Were more likely to save for retirement •Were more likely to be making more money The latter point meant that for every percentile above 50, a child would eventually earn $100 more than the child at the 50th percentile. A child at the 60th percentile would earn $1,000 more per year than the average child, and so on. Over the course of their entire professional careers, adults who had great kindergarten teachers could earn approximately $320,000 more than their less fortunate peers. In trying to explain why these adults did better, the researchers focused on behaviors that are rarely tested in schools but are qualities emphasized by great kindergarten teachers: patience, perseverance, discipline, and manners. Robert Fulghum’s book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, is filled with examples of the good advice and training great kindergarten teachers provide. It is heartening to think that these qualities stick even when children attend poor schools with low expectations. Thomas Freidman’s Aug. 24 article in The New York Times, “Steal this Movie, Too,” takes the story one step further as he reviews “Waiting for Superman,” a movie released Sept. 24 that is highly critical of failing public school systems. Friedman states: “It is intolerable that in America today a bouncing bingo ball should determine a kid’s educational future, especially when there are plenty of schools that work and even more that are getting better….The film’s core thesis is that for too long, our public school system was built to serve adults, not kids.” Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, has received much publicity for her tough approach to the failing ossified school bureaucracy and school culture found in her schools. While she is not paying kindergarten teacher $320,000 a year, she is pursuing grant money that will give additional compensation to teachers who excel. Their compensation will be based not just on test scores, but on a range of qualities that reviewing peers and administrators can observe. She and other public school administrators are pushing teaching into the professional world and out of the union based, tenure protected status of the present. All students deserve talented and well-trained teachers who know their subject matter, can teach it well, and create an atmosphere in the classroom that nurtures those kindergarten values of discipline, perseverance, patience, and manners. The good news is that those early values we teach our children have great resilience and the even better news is that not only researchers, but also public school administrators are recognizing the value of great early childhood education as a basis for success in adulthood. Although the taxpayers and the unions have long dominated public education, we may be seeing a new era where the interests of the children would be the highest priority. This could be one of the most important changes we will see in our country in the twenty first century. Jim Burger is the headmaster at Tuxedo Park School.