Early Childhood Education February 2011
High quality early childhood education and preschool programs that implement best practices have been shown to improve school success and graduation rates for disadvantaged children. This paper, one in a series of papers that CRC is publishing on important education issues facing Michigan, describes programs that invest in the “front end” of formal education: kindergarten, Head Start, and Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program. It also describes research on brain development that helps to explain why investing in early education may be a more effective strategy than other strategies that are being pursued.
The educational achievement gap between poor and non-poor children, and between minority and White children, has been at the center of education policy discussions for decades. Although it narrowed from 2005 to 2009, the achievement gap between White and Black fourth grade students in Michigan remains among the largest in the nation. Furthermore, Michigan institutions of higher learning topped the lists of both public and private colleges and universities with the largest White-Black graduation rate gaps: Wayne State had the largest gap among public universities and Lawrence Technological University had the largest gap among private colleges and universities. Both the K-12 system and higher education are challenged to address an achievement gap that, for many children, develops prior to school enrollment.
Michigan public schools are required to offer full day or half day kindergarten for five-year-olds, although under Michigan law, parents do not have to send their child to school until the child reaches the age of six. For most children, however, kindergarten is the entry into the formal education system, where they are exposed to basic academic concepts (numbers, letters, shapes, sizes, colors) and learn social skills (following directions, sharing, communicating), generally through organized play activities in a classroom setting. There is no universally accepted definition of the specific knowledge and skills that a child should have on kindergarten entry, but according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-K) data, most children on entering kindergarten can name all of the letters, count beyond ten, recognize single digit numbers, identify simple shapes, identify patterns, and compare the relative length of rod-shaped objects. The majority are in good health, are reasonably well behaved, and exhibit a positive approach to classroom tasks. However, 34 percent cannot identify letters of the alphabet by name; 18 percent are not familiar with the conventions of print (reading from left to right and from top to bottom of a page); 42 percent cannot count 20 objects, read some single digit numbers, and judge relative length of objects; and six percent cannot count ten objects.
Michigan law entitles a resident child who is at least five years old on or before December 1 to enroll in public kindergarten. Because some parents delay their child’s entry into kindergarten to allow the child more time to mature, a kindergarten class may include children ranging from four to six years old, which can create a relative disadvantage for the youngest children. In addition to the childï¿½s age and gender, certain family characteristics have been found to be negatively correlated with children’s skills and knowledge, as well as health, social development, and behavior, at kindergarten entry. The ECLS-K study found that 46 percent of kindergarteners had one or more of four risk factors:
Having a mother who had less than a high school education (14 percent)
Living in a family receiving food stamps or cash welfare (18 percent)
Living in a single-parent family (23 percent)
Having parents whose primary language is not English (9 percent)