A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in Chalkbeat titled “Kindergarten classes are getting more academic. New research says the kids are all right.”

My knee-jerk reaction was to consider it a whole lot of bull. Bull that was going to give school reformers and policymakers more ammunition with which to ignore child development and make the little ones miserable. But because I don’t want to be one of those people who only supports research with which I agree, I posted it on Facebook and asked people to express their thoughts. And you know what? Everyone was as outraged as I was.

So, I was delighted when last week’s newsletter from Defending the Early Years offered a response to that study. And because I couldn’t possibly do it as well, I’ve received DEY’s permission to reprint that response here.

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“New research says the kids are all right” in kindergartens that emphasize advanced academics, according to a January 24 headline in Chalkbeat. We strongly disagree.

The study in question, published online by the American Educational Research Journal on Jan. 4, 2019, has severe limitations, and it is based on so many questionable assumptions that no meaningful conclusion can be drawn from it. At the same time, reports of its supposed findings, like the Chalkbeat story, muddy the waters of a vital conversation about how young children learn. Even worse, this problematic study and the uncritical reporting of it are likely to be used to defend pernicious policies and practices that almost all early childhood educators agree are hurting children.

The authors of the study themselves acknowledge three serious limitations in their work. First, it is a correlational study that says nothing about causation. In other words, the positive outcomes that they claim to see may be the result of factors other than the ones they tried to measure. Second, the measure they used to calculate the amount of time devoted to teaching advanced skills in the classroom was subject to a high level of uncertainty. And third, the very definition of “advanced” has widely varying meanings, and the researchers had no way of knowing how such “advanced” content was actually being taught.

In fact, this study is flawed in even more troubling ways:

  1. The tests that were used to measure changes in children’s achievement and social-emotional skills were given in the same year: “At kindergarten,” the authors write, “there were two waves of data collection, with the first wave taking place during the fall and the second wave taking place during spring.” That is, there was no follow-up beyond the kindergarten year. The authors fail to acknowledge that long-term studies have shown that gains from early academics disappear and in some cases reverse themselves by third grade.

That drilling children on content can boost test scores in the same year (which happened here only to a moderate extent) is thus unsurprising and means little. The authors avoid mentioning that, while their study was just correlational, other experimental research contradicts their conclusion. The most rigorous of these was the High/Scope Comparative Curriculum Study, which followed students to age 23 and found powerful evidence of the negative effects of early academics-evidence that did not clearly emerge until years later.

  1. The authors based their conclusions on kindergartners’ test scores in math and English language arts. They note that, in the standards-and-testing-based “reform” movement of the 1980s and 1990s, “standardized testing was not mandated until the third grade.” But they don’t say why. The reason is that testing experts universally agree that standardized test scores have virtually no meaning before third grade. According to the findings of the National Research Council’s definitive “High Stakes” study, basing educational policymaking on kindergarten test scores is essentially a form of educational malpractice.
  1. In their review of the research on early academics, the authors make no mention of the fact that no study has ever shown that learning to read at an early age is correlated with long-term academic success. Indeed, children who learn to read at age six or seven are just as likely to become devoted lifelong readers as those who learn at four or five. Shouldn’t lifelong learning, not short-term test results, be our goal as teachers?
  1. The study found a correlation between academic training and social-emotional development-but only with math, not language arts, and these social-emotional gains were seen almost entirely in the children who started kindergarten with the lowest math achievement scores. The authors offer no convincing explanation for this odd, counterintuitive finding. It suggests to us the presence of a confounding variable unrelated to the hypothesis that advanced academic training of little children would improve their social-emotional well-being.
  1. A close look at how this study measured social-emotional outcomes reveals what may be its most serious flaw. All the social skills and behavioral effects were rated by the same teachers who taught the academic content, not by independent evaluators (let alone by independent evaluators blind to the type of instruction).

“Of 12 social or behavioral measures, there was a statistically significant (and quite small) effect on only three,” writes education policy analyst Alfie Kohn. “And with respect to kids’ aggression, anger, sadness, anxiety, etc., there was no short-term effect, positive or negative, as a result of teaching academic skills for an unspecified length of time using unspecified methods-according to the teachers themselves.”

Behaviors that would get you a low social-emotional skills score in this study-like not putting your toys away promptly or acting out-are more likely to occur in play. Those that would get you a high score-like completing tasks and following rules-are more likely to occur in a highly structured academic classroom. With this rating system, therefore, children in kindergartens with a lot of free play might, for that very reason, look like they have lower social-emotional skills than children in kindergartens where behavior is more rigidly structured and controlled by the teacher.

The authors fail to acknowledge what every wise teacher understands: kids learn to be better adjusted through play. “Those kids in lessons, with less play,” writes Boston College Research Professor Peter Gray, “don’t have the opportunity to exhibit the kinds of behaviors that (a) would lead to low social-emotional scores and (b) would provide the experiences needed to gain social-emotional competence. If we rigidly control children they may look more competent than if we allow them free play, but we also prevent them from learning to control themselves through experience.”

The authors’ conclusion, “that advanced academic content can be taught without compromising children’s social-emotional skills,” is not just unsupported by their own evidence. It is irresponsible in light of convincing contradictory findings that they have completely ignored.

This study will undoubtedly be welcomed by the corporations producing new academically oriented curricula and tests for young children. It is likely to further the proliferation of high-pressure academics and the loss of free play and child-initiated learning in kindergarten-trends that have already led some of our most experienced and talented early childhood teachers to quit the profession in frustration and despair.

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This statement was prepared by Defending the Early Years in consultation with early childhood researchers, practitioners, and advocates. We are especially grateful for the assistance of Alfie Kohn, Joan Almon, and Professor Peter Gray.

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Rae’s P.S. Shame on Chalkbeat and others for reporting this study.

 

2 Comments

  1. Hello Rae ~

    Thank you for the question and your points.

    I went to the ‘Chalkbeat’ article. Firstly, I have to admit I am not cognisant of US marking systems and the names of various age-group classes. In general, I found the results claimed in the Article to be woolly, and lacking in hard evidence. Phrases like “… and in some cases do better — on social-emotional metrics like self-control, focus, and behavior” are particularly troubling to me. If a junior school is directed to concentrating hard, with vigour, on mathematics and English reading, I should not be surprised if students were seen to be meeting self-control, focus, and behaviour measurements. Strongly pressurised classrooms, which can be self-propelling after the initial impetus, make children control themselves, appear focussed and mind their behaviour – all because they are acutely aware they are monitored and assessed constantly. This sound more like my early years in junior school in the 1960s than an expansive educational experience for children. Further, the phrase “…the casualties often being art and free time for play …” is particularly worrying to me from my Montessori experience and general childcare experience ranging 50 years-plus. The casualties are the CHILDREN! I had naively come to think that most people, especially those in early education, had learnt a long time ago that ‘play’ is ‘learning’. If playtime is being reduced further, how can any meaningful testing take place on how the children are truly doing on social-emotional achievements guidelines. At the ages of the children discussed, guidelines are the only realistic and honest way of assessing how children are developing academically and socially, as each child develops uniquely, and when he or she is ready to do so.

    A lack of play suggests to me even less outdoor activity. You, yourself Rae, have written clearly and often on the need of children, especially boys, to have around three hours daily of free play – running, climbing, messing, taking chances, taking risks, learning their capabilities, stretching themselves, and developing their spatial awareness.

    The phrase ‘rote learning’ was not used in the Article, but everything about it screamed it at me. Where is the interleaving type of learning which reinforces information through various activities, and giving opportunities to children whose main learning style are Visual, Aural, Kinesthetic, or any of the other, many, variations? Learning to read ‘well’ at 4-5 years is of little benefit to a child if he or she has found the experience so stressful that there is no resultant reading for personal pleasure, or for discovering information for personal projects.

    I shall leave my comments to the above here, but plan to digest the matter further in order to produce a more nuanced viewpoint.

    I am deeply saddened and pained by the smug and elitist tone of the Article. Is this really where early childhood education is heading in the USA?

    Kindest regards, Iseult.
    Montessori Teacher & Supervisor, and volunteer tutor.

    • Iseult, I so love your passion and your articulate responses to these posts. Your comments here are especially astute: The casualties are the children.
      Rote learning. The pointlessness of being forced to read at 4 or 5. The smug and elitist tone.

      Yes, yes, yes!

      Unfortunately, this is where much of early childhood education is heading here. Yesterday I posted an article I’d come across on Facebook. It was about a school that had removed the swings from its playground so the children would have more time to study. Absolutely disgusting!

      On a positive note, there are many of us battling back. So, we keep fighting the good fight…

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