Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Has Kindergarten Become Too Academic? Instruction and Children's Development in the First Year of School

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 9:10 AM
Brickell South (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Mimi Engel1, Daphna Bassok2, Amy Claessens3, Sarah Kabourek1 and Tyler Watts4, (1)Vanderbilt University, (2)University of Virginia, (3)University of Chicago, (4)University of California, Irvine
Recent research documents the academicization of kindergarten. In light of this and the codification of academic standards for kindergarten through the Common Core, some advocacy groups argue that today’s kindergarten overemphasizes academics. Others maintain that academics need not be at odds with play and that young children benefit from exposure to rigorous academic content. Further, a number of studies show that achievement gains made in math and reading during kindergarten predict student outcomes through eighth grade.

Surprisingly, there is little empirical evidence regarding how exposure to academics in kindergarten impacts children’s development.  We address this gap in the literature using two large, nationally representative datasets to answer three related questions:

  1. How does time on academics in kindergarten relate to children’s academic and behavioral development?
  2. Do these effects vary by type of academic content (e.g., basic or advanced) or by how it is taught (e.g., teacher-directed versus play-based)?
  3. Has the increased focus on academics in kindergarten over the past two decades resulted in changes in children’s learning and behaviors in kindergarten?

We leverage the National Center for Educational Statistics two Early Childhood Longitudinal Studies (ECLS) of kindergarten; the Kindergarten Classes of 1998-99 (ECLS-K) and 2010-11 (ECLS-K:2011). Both are nationally representative, longitudinal samples of children who were in kindergarten in 1998-99 and 2010-11, respectively.

Both studies include direct assessments of students’ academic achievement at fall and spring of kindergarten as well as teacher assessments of children’s academic and social skills.  In addition, teachers completed surveys and answered detailed questions about time spent on academics, questions on the reading and math content covered, and the teachers’ instructional approach.

We model the association between teacher-reported time use and children’s academic and behavioral outcomes in kindergarten. Our key explanatory variables are measures of classroom academic focus (e.g., time on reading and math, time on all academic subjects, time on other activities).  Our outcome variables are academic assessment scores and teacher-reported behavioral ratings measured in the spring of kindergarten. We control for the same measures assessed in the fall, such that our models capture cross-kindergarten growth and change. We control for an extensive array of child, family, teacher, and school characteristics. 

Our primary models describe the relationship between teacher time use and changes in children’s achievement and behaviors in kindergarten. In additional models, we test interactions between measures of time use, type of academic content (e.g., basic or advanced), and teaching approach (e.g., teacher-directed or child-centered). Finally, we pool the datasets and add an indicator for the 2011 cohort. This model allows us to examine whether developmental trajectories across the two cohorts have changed, and whether those changes are related to the heightened focus on academics.

To our knowledge, our study will provide the first rigorous evidence on the effects of the increasingly academic kindergarten experience on children’s development. Our results will inform policy and practice in early childhood education, providing empirical evidence to guide how to best structure the kindergarten year.