Condoms, contraceptives and kindergarten

The school readiness gap between children from affluent nad lower-income families is narrowing, researchers report. Poor kids are starting with better reading and math skills.

Image result for mother child goodnight moon

It could be condoms and contraceptives, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic.

Teen pregnancy is way down in recent years: The teen birth rate has fallen almost by half since 1990, Thompson writes. Adolescents aren’t having less sex, but they’re much more likely to use contraceptives.

As a result, fewer children are being born to young, single, low-income girls and women.

In the 1970s, most mothers — rich or poor — had children in their early 20s, writes Thompson. That’s changed, writes sociologist Robert Putnam in Our Kids. College graduates are marrying and having children in their late 20s and early 30s, “while moms with just a high-school education or less become moms at the average age of 19.”

An astonishing 65 percent of all mothers with no more than a high-school degree are unmarried at the time of their child’s birth; that figure has tripled since 1980. (By comparison, 90 percent of new moms who finished college are married.) Too often, rich kids have two intentional parents armed with childrearing books and newfangled toys for infants, while poor kids have one accidental parent armed with none of that.

Children born to poor single mothers get less parental attention, writes Thompson. Often the mother is working and the father is absent. The kids miss out on what Putnam calls “Goodnight Moon time.”

Parents pay $1,000 for a week of kinder prep

For $1,000 a week, a private kindergarten prep “boot camp” will ready the children of the affluent and anxious for the “rigors of kindergarten,” reports Sonali Kohli for the Los Angeles Times.

Teacher Elizabeth Fraley teaches the days of the month to future kindergartners. Photo: Los Angeles Times

KinderPrep director Elizabeth Fraley reviews the days of the month. Photo: Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times

KinderPrep, a summer program in Santa Monica, primarily enrolls kids headed for private school.

Nearly all kids in this demographic have attended one or two years of preschool. But director Elizabeth Fraley insists they need to prepare for today’s academic kindergartens, where there will be “no play.”

In addition to the group session, some of the children “had been signed up for separate one-on-one sessions that cost $120 to $200 an hour,” reports Kohli.

 In addition to writing (with help) and listening to the teacher read a book, KinderPrep students practice walking in single file and packing their materials into folders.
Children listen to a book about animals, then pin pictures of the animals to a board. Photo: Los Angeles Times

Children listen to a book about animals, then pin pictures of lions and polar bears to a board. Photo: Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times

“At snack time, the children could partake in organic fruit, gummies and aloe water provided by the program, though many brought their own food because of dietary restrictions,” writes Kohli. “Fraley said she’s seen paté.”

Kindergarten isn’t just the new first grade, according to promoters of school “readiness.” It seems to be the new college — only with less play.

In my view, some parents are suckers. They read a carefully chosen book every night, feed the kids organic kale, quinoa and edamame salads and pay for the best preschool. Then they think little Aidan needs a kinder boot camp — and perhaps a $200-an-hour tutorial — so he can be the best, darn line walker and month identifier in kindergarten.

My younger (step)granddaughter will start kindergarten in a few weeks. She has a sophisticated vocabulary, a flair for math — and a lot to learn about self-control. She has time.

To help the poor, give them money

To prepare children from low-income families for school success, U.S. policy and funding has focused on Head Start and universal pre-kindergarten, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst. But research shows that giving more money to low-income parents is more cost effective, he writes.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, which raises the income of  low-income working parents, is more effective than providing free pre-K for four-year-olds, he writes. The chart also shows the modest effects of class-size reduction and Head Start.

Northern European countries focus on supporting family incomes rather than providing preschool or pre-K, writes Whitehurst. “A policy midpoint” could be giving families more money, but limiting it to expenditures on their young children. He envisions something like food stamps.

In Finland, working parents of young children can choose from a variety of child-care providers or “opt to receive a financial subsidy that allows them to reduce their work hours in order to be home more with their child,” he writes. “They can also take unpaid leave.” The rate of enrollment in child-care centers is very low for children under four.

What works in early ed? Not Head Start

Head Start has little or no effect on reading, math or social-emotional development, according to a July 2015 report from the What Works Clearinghouse.

The Clearinghouse rejected most Head Start studies for non-experimental design or because they didn’t assess academic and behavioral outcomes. Only one 2010 study was considered rigorous enough to be reliable.
A new study found female Head Start employees report higher levels of poor health conditions. It compared Head Start participants to children who’d applied but were turned away.  (Sixty percent of the control group enrolled in some form of out-of-home care.) There was little difference in kindergarten or first grade between the two groups.

Head Start grads did slightly better in a “receptive vocabulary” test, suggesting “potentially positive effects on reading.” Head Start grads who’d started as three-year-olds did slightly worse in math.

Both groups were made up of children from very low-income families. By the end of kindergarten, 58 percent of the control group and 55 percent of the Head Start group knew all their letters — compared to 95 percent of U.S. kindergarteners.

Big Bird vs. preschool

Watching Sesame Street appears to help disadvantaged children get off to a good start in school, according to a new study. In the program’s early years, when it wasn’t available in all areas, children who had a chance to meet Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie were less likely to be held back in school.

The effect was stronger for boys, blacks and children living in low-income areas.

Watching Sesame Street was as effective at improving academic readiness as attending preschool, researchers Phillip Levine and Melissa Kearney told the Washington Post.

However, preschool teaches important social and emotional skills, they said.

Big Bird can’t close the achievement gap, responds Sam Chaltain. “The problems that beset poor children run a lot deeper than the 30 million word gap,” he writes.

Improvements in school readiness didn’t affect high school graduation rates, college enrollment or success in the job market, the study found. Big Bird’s fans weren’t any more likely to escape poverty as adults.

Of course, fade-out is the primary problem with Head Start. Readiness isn’t everything.

Head Start will move to a full-day, year-round program, reports Ed Central. Tat will be very expensive. The feds want to do less micromanaging — but also want to require more home visiting, higher attendance rates and limits on suspension of children with behavior issues.

Is your child ready for first grade — in 1979?

A generation ago, children weren’t escorted everywhere by a parent.

A 1979 guide for parents — Is Your Child Ready for First Grade — shows how much things have changed, writes ChicagoNow blogger Christine Whitley.

In addition to the child’s age and teeth, the list asks:

3. Can you child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives?
4. Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?
5. Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds?
6. Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?
7. Can he tell left hand from right?
8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?
9. Can he be away from you all day without being upset?
10. Can he repeat an eight- to ten-word sentence, if you say it once, as “The boy ran all the way home from the store”?
11. Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?
12. Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?

These days, most children learn to write letters and numbers and count pennies in preschool. Long before first grade, they’re used to being away from Mom. But they’ve never walked to a friend’s house or talked to a crossing guard.

Whitley has no idea if her six-year-old could walk four to eight blocks, she writes. “I’ve never let her even try! I’d probably be reported to the police if I did try!”

Slate’s KJ Antonia considers herself a “free-range” parent for letting a seven-year-old walk to a friend’s house unaccompanied and leaving a nine-year-old in charge of younger siblings. But she can’t imagine letting a pre-first grader walk “four to eight blocks” alone, even though Antonia thinks she did it herself at that age.

When did it become bizarre for kids to walk in their own neighborhoods? My daughter walked or bicycled to elementary school, the library and to friend’s houses in the late ’80s. Once she got lost for awhile. Another time, she was chased by an older, larger girl, the Catholic school’s official bully. She dealt with it.

Starting out behind

Some children are almost a year behind when they start kindergarten, according to Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry, a Mathematica analysis. Four risk factors — single-parent household, mother with less than a high school education, low-income household and non-English speaking household — correlate with kindergarten readiness.

The more risk factors, the worse kids do. Forty-four percent have one risk factor, 13 percent have two and 6 percent have three or four.


MathReadingWorkingMemory

The number of high-risk kindergarteners has not improved since the 1998-99 cohort of students and may be getting worse, notes EdCentral.

Accountability comes to Head Start

Head Start, Meet Accountability, writes Sophie Quinton in The Atlantic. After years of debate about Head Start’s value — are there any lasting benefits? — federal lawmakers want proof the program prepares children for kindergarten. For the first time, providers will have to meet quality and effectiveness measures to retain funding.

Many Head Start and state-run prekindergarten programs aren’t high quality, writes Quinton.

National studies of public pre-K programs have found that children spend most of their time playing, eating, and waiting around, and that instructional quality is generally low. A federal impact study, released in 2012, found that while Head Start children experience initial gains in health, language, and reading skills, those gains usually disappear by third grade. House Republicans use that study to argue that Head Start is a failure and not worth the $8.6 billion taxpayers will spend on the program this year.

Head Start providers that perform poorly on federal audits will have to compete for funding against other preschool providers.

“Providers must abide by some 2,400 federal standards that dictate everything from how toilets are cleaned to the size of facilities,” writes Quinton. But few programs have lost funding, no matter how poorly they perform.

In the future Head Start providers will have to set goals for preparing children for kindergarten and show they’re taking steps to achieve them.

. . . Programs(must) meet minimum thresholds on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a privately developed tool that assesses how teachers and staff interact with children. CLASS doesn’t measure learning outcomes, per se, but high scores are correlated with better learning.

. . . Monitors use the CLASS tool to rate emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Teachers get high scores for instruction if they seize on teachable moments all day long: asking children questions, responding with more than one-word answers, and introducing new vocabulary words even in casual conversation.

Evaluating preschool quality isn’t easy, reports Education Week. A commonly used preschool evaluation tool doesn’t correlate with better outcomes, according to a study published in the spring 2014 edition of  Education Finance and Quality. The Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale-Revised, which is used by many states to evaluate quality has little connection to the academic, language, and social functioning of children evaluated at age 5, researchers found.

Why ‘Preschool for All’ won’t work

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act — President Obama’s Preschool for All idea — has been introduced in Congress. “Decades of research tell us that … early learning is the best investment we can make to prepare our children for a lifetime of success,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Research doesn’t say that, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst, who’s spent most of his career “designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children.”

Advocates for universal preschool cite two “boutique” programs from 40-50 years ago and “recent research with serious methodological flaws,” writes Whitehurst. They ignore the large, randomized National Head Start Impact Study, which found no differences in elementary school outcomes for Head Start kids. They also ignore “research showing negative impacts” on children in federally funded child care “as well as evidence that the universal pre-k programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, which are closest to what the Obama administration has proposed, have had, at best, only small impacts.”

A newly released Vanderbilt study analyzes Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (TN-VPK) for four-year-olds from low-income families. Researchers compared children who won a lottery for pre-K slots with those whose parents applied but lost the lottery, making it a “gold standard” study, Whitehurst writes. Furthermore, TN-VPK set high quality standards similar to Obama’s Preschool for All proposal.

Yet all cognitive and social/emotional gains were lost by the end of kindergarten. In first grade, the control group did better than the former pre-K students on seven of eight cognitive skills, though the advantage was significant only for quantitative concepts.


Cognitive Outcomes at the end of first grade

The control group also did better — but not significantly — on four of seven measures of social/emotional skills or dispositions, as rated by first-grade teachers.

TN-VPK participants were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten than non-participants (4% to 6%), researchers noted. But kindergarten retention doesn’t predict later school performance, Whitehurst writes. The TN-VPk students also were more likely to receive special education services (14% to 9%).

These findings, which match the Head Start study, are “devastating,” writes Whitehurst. “Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.”

Pre-K won’t close achievement gap

Universal pre-K won’t solve the vocabulary gap (or inequality), writes Kay Hymowitz in Time. There’s no substitute for stable, nurturing families.

Two-year-olds from high-income families know many more words than two-year-olds from low-income families, according to a new study that confirms earlier research. Language Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K, reported the New York Times on the front page.

The idea that pre-K can compensate for family break down is “the preschool fairy tale,” writes Hymowitz.

It’s true that good preschools raise the math and reading scores of disadvantaged kids. The problem is that the gains are almost always temporary.  Study after study of every kind of program since Head Start first came on line in the 1960’s to recent state wide programs in Georgia and Oklahoma has concluded that, with the lonely exception of third grade boys’ math scores in Tulsa, cognitive gains “fade out” by third grade, probably because subpar schools and an unsupportive environment at home were unable to help pre-K kids take advantage of those gain.

Researchers now argue that preschool has the potential to create lasting benefits in students’ “soft skills” such as  attentiveness and self-control.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, one of early childhood education’s most prominent advocates, has argued that because soft skills are vital to labor market and life success, under some conditions preschools have actually been able to reduce welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and crime rates, while also improving educational outcomes and earnings. At least one study has estimated that the resulting higher tax revenues, lower imprisonment and welfare costs have created a return of nearly 13 dollars for every preschool dollar spent.

. . . Heckman’s findings are based on several small, model programs from the 1960’s. The most famous and influential of them, the Perry Preschool in Ypsalanti, Michigan, involved only 58 children.  It takes a heavy dose of wishful thinking to assume that states are any more capable of creating a large system of Perry quality preschools than they have been of designing networks of high quality K-12 schools.

Even if that were possible, it would close the achievement gap, she writes. Perry graduates did better than the control group, but much worse than children from middle or working-class families.  And “these mediocre gains were not passed on to the next generation.”

The first two children of Perry grads (there’s no data on later siblings) were just as likely as the children of non Perry-ites to go on welfare, drop out of school, and to get arrested; their earnings were also similarly anemic.

In other words, the graduates of the best preschool designed for low income kids we’ve ever had in the United States  grew up to become low skilled, low income single parents, less costly to society than others without their early educational advantage, but equally likely to raise children who would cycle back into poverty.

“It’s parents, not formal education, that makes the difference for young children’s readiness for school and success once they get there,” Hymowitz concludes.

If Mama ain’t functional, ain’t nobody functional.