New research suggests kindergartners perform better when challenged with advanced content

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on January 23, 2014)

I have written before about the difficult problem of “fadeout,” the evaporation in academic benefits that occurs once children pass from preschool to kindergarten and early elementary school. It is an issue that sorely vexes early childhood education researchers, including researchers at Vanderbilt who have been studying the fadeout observed in Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program.

New research from my colleague Mimi Engel raises the possibility that fadeout may be tied to kindergarten teaching that does not challenge students sufficiently.

Working with Amy Claessens of the University of Chicago, Mimi studied kindergarten data from a national sample that included students who attended preschool or Head Start or who had not participated in center-based care.

The students who had attended preschool simply did not benefit from continued exposure in kindergarten to basic content. Instead, the researchers found that the students from all three groups did better in reading and math when they were taught more advanced content. Importantly, the learning gains from exposure to advanced content also held up for students from families with low incomes.

The study classified math or reading content as basic or advanced by whether a majority of children had mastered it at the start of kindergarten. Basic math included items like counting out loud, recognizing numbers and corresponding quantities, recognizing shapes, and sorting and ordering objects. Advanced math included activities like recognizing two-digit numbers, understanding place value or adding and subtracting single digits.

Basic reading items included alphabet and letter recognition, learning the names of the letters, and practicing writing letters and writing one’s own name. Advanced reading included matching letters to sounds, phonics, learning common prepositions, using context cues for comprehension and reading aloud or silently.

Simply put, more challenging kindergarten content did not seem to hold anyone back. Even children who had not mastered basic material by the start of kindergarten nevertheless improved their learning when more advanced concepts were taught in the classroom.

The new study also shows the importance of spending time on math. In general, teachers reported spending significantly more time on reading than they did on math. This study found that more time spent on math yielded larger gains, and more time spent on advanced math yielded greater gains than time spent on basic math.

Parents and others concerned that kindergarten should include generous portions of play and time to build classroom social skills would not have to see that valuable time sacrificed. Based on their findings, the authors write, “Time on advanced content could be increased while time on basic content is reduced without the need to increase overall instructional time.”

Teachers are often motivated by concern for their less able students and devote their efforts accordingly. Mimi’s study suggests that students may be more able than we have believed. Students, too, are often motivated by the performance of their peers. If we expend more educational resources on quality preschool, we should elevate our expectations for performance in kindergarten.

Most of us know that we can surprise even ourselves when faced with a challenge. As Tennessee asks more of its students, Mimi Engel’s research suggests that even the youngest are capable of meeting the demand.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.

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