Friday, January 05, 2007

All day kindergarten, lower class size or fully fund Head Start?

There's a tussle afoot over how to spend some of the new K-12 money in the governor's budget.

State Superintendent Susan Castillo wants to fund all-day kindergarten, whereas currently the state only provides funds for half days. The governor wants to make Head Start available for every child who qualifies, whereas now about 60% of the qualified kids have spots in Head Start programs. And Project Chalkboard wants to decrease class sizes in kindergarten and first grade classrooms to 15 students per class, whereas now the number (on average - it varies widely) is about 21 students per class.

Each, of course, comes with its own price tag. So what is the best use of tax dollars? Available research barely clarifies things.

The effects of Head Start programs have been studied time and again. The convergence of the research would suggest that kids in HS programs do indeed enter school with an advantage over their peers, but that advantage disappears after about grade three. The best summary of the research I have found was in Abigail Thernstrom's "No Excuses - Eliminating the Achievement Gap in Education."

There is simply not much good research on the benefits of all day kindergarten.

Class size, like Head Start, has been studied time and again. The quick bottom line: lowering class size has very little effect except at the early elementary level, and then only if the class size is reduced to the 14-15 students per class, where a small but statistically significant gain in achievement made.

So given these three choices, what is the best direction? I'll give a thumbnail analysis that handicaps each:

Head Start: The fact that gains from Head Start participation disappears after a few years is probably less a knock on Head Start programs than it is the schools that Head Start students tend to attend after leaving Head Start. By definition, Head Start is primarily in low income areas where the elementary schools are far more likely to be bad. It could very well be the case that Head Start is generally doing its job very effectively, only to have the elementary schools screwing it up. But if that is the case, wouldn't our efforts and money be better spent reforming the elementary schools, rather than spending more on Head Start?

All-day kindergarten: This is very popular with parents, because they get a longer break from their little darlings each day. But the educational benefits are suspect at best. The fact is, our kindergartens are mostly play-schools, as currently structured. For the most part, not much in the way of academics is taught in kindergarten. They tend to focus on "readiness" activities.

In the Arthur Academies that I help start, we do indeed have academic kindergartens where we focus on phonics and basic math. Would a full day make us more effective? No - five year olds simply are not equipped to have all-day academics. If the state funded all day kindergarten, we wouldn't probably increase the academic component of our kindergartens at all. (Oh, by the way, our kindergartners are off-the-charts in academic achievement, which calls the question: if we can do that in a half day, why would a full day be required?)

Class size reduction: Class size reduction is the "minimum wage" of education. That is, it is terrific politics, and horrible policy. Like a call for an increase in minimum wage, no politician ever was criticized for calling for smaller class sizes. It sounds compassionate, it threatens no-one, and both parents and the education establishment love it. But it is lousy policy.

As I said, the research shows a discernible increase in achievement only when class size is below 15 students. Project Chalkboard at least should be given credit in that they are calling for reducing the size to that level. But the question is whether this is the best way to get that level of achievement increase - and the answer is emphatically NO. As researcher Eric Hanushek (who did most of his class size research while at the University of Rochester) showed, class size reduction is perhaps the least efficient way to increase achievement. Dollar for dollar, there are far better ways.

The problem is that class size initiatives require hiring a lot of teachers, the quality of which are suspect. Then, there is the problem of facilities. Nobody ever prices in the cost of classrooms when suggesting lower class sizes - they always just calculate the personnel cost.

A seat in an Oregon elementary school these days requires a capital investment of roughly $20,000. Reducing kindergarten and first grade class sizes by a third means about 30,000 new seats - that would cost $600+ million to build anew. Of course, some districts have excess capacity, such as Portland, so they wouldn't have to build. But nearly every other Portland metro area school district already has a shortage of classrooms. Mandating lower class sizes would force them to pass new bonds to build more classrooms - and this cost has not been part of the discussion initiated by Chalkboard.

So, what is the best choice? Frankly, none of them would be on my list of the best ways to improve educational outcomes. We'd get far better early elementary results simply by using effective teaching practices in our elementary schools, such as we do in the Arthur Academies.

But given the three choices, I'd say that the Head Start is the best option. At least it's targeted to the kids who are most in need - and most likely to fail. And it has the added benefit of keeping the dollars out of the education establishment and the teachers union!

This, of course, is the reason why the Head Start option will probably lose. The unions will get their way, and from their perspective, they like both lower class sizes AND all day kindergarten, because they both result in more dues paying members.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rob, I have read a lot of blog posts today. This post is far and away the most instructive and informative post I've read.

Thanks!

mick said...

Nicely done. Assuming your facts are correct (and I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt), all three options stink.

db Lulu said...

Thanks Rob. I appreciated you laying out the arguments for each option. I want to make two comments in response:

1) Why are we talking about early childhood education? My kids brought home the 05-06 school and district reportd card. The results clearly indicate that the most problematic academic time frame is not K-3, but after 5th grade. The test results go in the tank! As a parent of a child entering 6th grade next school year this trend is troubling.


2) I am convinced that early education is most effectively done by parents. We have chosen not to "pre-school" our kids. And amazingly enough all of my children have been well-prepared for Kindergarten. Kids are built to learn, and I am convinced that nearly every parent (regardless of socio-economic status) is capable of preparing their child for Kinder.

However, this decision should be up to parents. Everytime government shows up and says "we know better", there are many good parents who respond by following the rules instead of following their parenting instincts. And for marginal parents, it just gives them one more reason not to take responsibility.

Rob Kremer said...

lulu:

The only reason we are talking early elementary education is what the Gov, Castillo and Chalkboard have brought up.

I agree that a home is far preferable to a pre-school. You are right about the academic struggles showing up most clearly in grades 5 and above, but that I believe is a remnant of reading failure at the earlier grades. Kids are not getting a sound enough foundation, and it doesn't become apparent until the later grades when the sophistication of the curriculum reveals it.

But I agree that the pre-school thing is overblown. Kindergarten is a fine time to start school, and there is no reason whatever that a child wouldn't be ready for kindergarten after spending his first five years at home.

gus miller said...

I agree with your analysis and conclusions Rob. I believe the achievement gap is tied to the E. D. Hirsch concept that not all children arrive at kindergarten already exposed to books and numbers preferably by their parents as well as the fact that kids from affluent families attend mostly excellent public schools while kids from low-income families attend mostly bad public schools.

Hirsch calls the necessary ingredient of kids arriving at kindergarten prepared to learn "cultural literacy." The U. S. Dept of Ed put it this way in a 1986 pamphlet "What Works," summarizing research on effective teaching strategies:

"Parents are their children's first and most
influential teachers. What parents do to help their
children learn is more important to academic success
than how well off the family is.

The best way for parents to help their children
become better readers is to read to them -- even when
they are very young. Children benefit most from
reading aloud when they discuss stories, learn to
identify letters and words and talk about the meaning
of words."

I believe Head Start should be available to kids from low-income families where opportunities for exposure to "cultural literacy" are likeky to be lacking.

Parents and guardians should be advised of things they can do with and for their preschool kids to prepare them for kindergarten. Head Start and other preschool opportunities for at-risk and second-language kids should give kids opportunities to speak and sing english in complete sentences in preparation for kindergarten.

A good K-12 experience should have kids learning to read by the time they start grade 4 and reading to learn the rest of the way.

Nor does it make any sense to mandate all-day kindergarten or class size limits in districts or schools where 80% or more of students are currently exceeding the highest standards. It would be much more appropriate to fix the underperforming schools or replace them with schools that will deliver the desired results.

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