Panel Paper: Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? the Effects of No Child Left Behind On Kindergarten

Friday, November 9, 2012 : 8:40 AM
Salon B (Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Daphna Bassok, University of Virginia and Anna Rorem, University of Virginia: Curry School of Education

According to many educators, researchers and the popular press, today’s kindergarten classrooms are characterized by a heightened focus on academic skill-building, mounting homework demands, and less opportunity for play. While some view the shift towards more academic content as a positive one that will potentially improve children’s long-term outcomes and narrow achievement gaps, others worry that the singular focus on academics is crowding out other more developmentally appropriate practices such as free play and social skill building. This study provides empirical evidence on whether, to what extent, and along which dimensions, kindergarten classrooms have changed over time. We make use of nationally-representative data from the birth and kindergarten cohorts of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-B and ECLS-K), which provide detailed and overlapping surveys of kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 2006, years that straddle the Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Over this relatively short period, we document substantial changes in learning activities, curricular focus, assessment practices and attitudes about school readiness. For instance, the percentage of kindergarten teachers who “strongly agree” that children need to learn to read while in kindergarten doubled from 32 to 64 percent. We show sharp increases in the time kindergarteners spend on reading and math, and substantial drops in time spent on other subjects such as music, art, science, and child-selected activities. We also show substantial increases in teacher’s expectations for incoming kindergarteners with respect to pre-literacy and pre-numeracy.

We then empirically test that NCLB caused this shift in kindergarten practices over time. It is often posited that the heightened accountability demands NCLB created led to an “accountability shovedown” with kindergarten teachers feeling pressure to prepare children for the academic expectations they will face as they proceed through elementary school. A large body of research examines the impact of NCLB on student performance in both high-stakes and low stakes subjects. To date, however, the empirical evidence about the impacts of NCLB on the experiences of students and teachers working in untested grades has been limited. We use several difference-in-difference estimators to test whether the introduction of NCLB caused an “academicization” of kindergarten classrooms. Specifically, we compare shifts in kindergarten practices in public schools (that were impacted by NCLB) to private schools that did not feel similar pressures. We also compare practices at schools that did and did-not face sanctions due to failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress. Preliminary results suggest that schools facing heightened accountability pressures were more likely to move towards increased academic content. We conduct robustness checks to investigate whether changes in kindergarten practices are partially explained by expanded access to pre-kindergarten programs. We also explore heterogeneous effects based on the demographic composition of the schools, and discuss implications for achievement gaps.