Kindergarten teachers can make a difference — a big difference

by David Safier

You've probably heard the distressing statistic that says boosts in children's achievement due to excellent preschool and kindergarten experiences fade over the next few years. From what I know, that's true when you measure achievement by test scores.

But here's a much more encouraging statistic. Regardless of that well-known "fade-out effect," children who have excellent kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and to earn more, and they're less likely to be single parents, than children from similar backgrounds with less skilled teachers.

If this is true — and I've seen similar evidence from separate studies about preschool experiences — that means achievement tests, and I.Q. tests as well, are inadequate measures of success in adulthood. There are other powerful, possibly untestable factors that come into play.

I take this to mean, good preschool and/or kindergarten experiences can change something fundamental in children's attitudes about themselves and their abilities to be successful. Even if the children's achievement scores don't continue to reflect the change — these children are often in low achieving schools and go home to environments lacking the kind of intellectual stimulation that pays dividends in a school setting, so it's no wonder their measurable educational attainments slip — their motivation and sense of what they can accomplish can still reflect that extra push they got from their teachers when they were very young.

Here's the basis of the research. An experiment in Tennessee called Project Star randomly assigned children to different kindergarten classes, then followed them into adulthood. Those children are now about 30.

The randomly assigned children who were in some kindergarten classes are more successful as adults by a number of measures than children in other classes. Their incomes, on average, are measurably higher.

Why?

Class size — which was the impetus of Project Star — evidently played some role. Classes with 13 to 17 students did better than classes with 22 to 25. Peers also seem to matter. In classes with a somewhat higher average socioeconomic status, all the students tended to do a little better.

But neither of these factors came close to explaining the variation in class performance. So another cause seemed to be the explanation: teachers.

Some are highly effective. Some are not. And the differences can affect students for years to come.

I've seen studies of similar effects of excellent preschool experiences on adult achievement discussed in the wonderful book "Intelligence and How to Get It" by Richard Nisbett (Don't let the title fool you. It's a very serious — and at the same time very readable — book). Nisbett is more focused on I.Q. scores than achievement tests, but he cites similar findings. While an I.Q. boost from an intensive preschool experience may fade, the children who participated have substantially higher success in a number of areas as adults.

I remain skeptical about educational findings, whether I like them or not. But this seems to me to be a real, and very significant, finding. If true, it magnifies the importance of children's earliest educational experiences.

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