The idea of a kindergarten originated in 1840, after the German educationalist Friedrich Froebel opened a Play and Activity Institute for children between the ages of 3 and 7 to develop their mental, social, and emotional faculties. The term is now used in many parts of the world for the initial stages of a child’s classroom schooling. In some countries kindergarten is part of the formal school system, but in others it usually refers to preschool or day care programs. In France and Germany such programs are separate from the schools and are often run by churches and local community groups. In India, Mexico, and the US kindergarten programs are available through both public and private schools.
Many aspects of children’s education in kindergarten are important in a sociological con text. However, the discussion here is restricted to a few important issues about kindergarten in the US: (1) differences in children’s social and cognitive status as they begin their formal schooling in kindergarten; (2) how these social and cognitive differences map onto the quality of the schools where they experience kindergarten; and (3) how differences in children’s cognitive growth in kindergarten are associated with whether their experiences are in full day or half day programs.
When US children should begin their formal schooling, and what the nature of that schooling should be, has been debated for almost two centuries (Ramey & Campbell 1991; Pianta & Cox 1999). Although the availability of publicly funded preschool education (including Head Start) is far from universal and is typically restricted to low income children, virtually all US children now attend kindergarten. Despite its universality, the nature of the optimal kindergarten experience is widely debated among educators, early childhood specialists, parents, and researchers (Vecchiotti 2001). Since the 1960s, experts have called for more than ”self-directed play.” Among early childhood experts, ”early intervention” typically refers to activities that include both play and academics.
Children neither begin nor end their education on an equal footing. Although kindergarten is where virtually all US children begin their formal schooling, many have early and informal schooling experiences in preschool, Head Start, or childcare (Olsen & Zigler 1989). Although all children enter kindergarten at close to the same age (typically, 5 years old), there is great variation in their cognitive and social skills as they start school (Alexander & Entwisle 1988; Ramey & Campbell 1991; Dun can et al. 1998; Pianta & Cox 1999). Moreover, cognitive and social status are typically associated with family background and race/ethnicity ( Jencks & Phillips 1998). Using data from the current and nationally representative US Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS K), Lee and Burkam (2002) reported substantial differences in young children’s test scores in literacy and mathematics by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES) as they begin kindergarten.
Such substantial cognitive and social differences among children as they begin school pre sent a serious conundrum. On the one hand, school is seen by the broader society as the location where social inequalities should be reduced. Advantages and disadvantages that children experience at home should not deter mine what happens to them in school. Rather, school is a place where children should have equal chances to make the most of their potential. On the other hand, schools often tailor children’s educational activities to their perceived potential (or cognitive status), which would increase rather than equalize social differences. Kindergarten is where this conundrum about the proper role of schooling in either equalizing or magnifying cognitive and social differences begins.
Researchers and policymakers agree that social background factors are associated with school success. Moreover, research findings are consistent that social stratification in educational outcomes increases as children move through school. However, there is less agreement about the causes of increasingly stratified outcomes. One explanation for growing inequality is that children’s educational experiences are differentiated as early as kindergarten – through reading groups, special education placement, and retention (Alexander & Entwisle 1988). Many educators see such differential experiences as appropriate responses to the cognitive and behavioral differences children bring to kindergarten. Such differentiation extends through elementary school through ability grouping, special education, and gifted and talented programs. They are well recognized by high school, through tracking, advanced placement, and the like.
Another explanation for increases in socially based cognitive differences relates to the schools children attend, although this link has typically been assumed rather than subjected to empirical scrutiny. The association between background and school quality means that disadvantages derived from the lack of home resources that might stimulate cognitive growth are frequently reinforced by a lack of school resources (both financial and human). The low resource base of such schools constrains their ability to compensate for poor children’s weak preparation.
Lee and Burkam (2002) used ECLS K to explore the link between young children’s social background, defined by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status (particularly poverty or economic need) and the quality of the schools where they attend kindergarten. School quality was broadly defined with a wide array of measures. Although background factors were not equally strongly associated with all measures of school quality, the patterns of association were strikingly consistent. Black, Hispanic, and lower SES children begin school at kindergarten in systematically lower quality elementary schools than their more advantaged and white counterparts. Whether defined by less favorable social contexts, larger kindergarten classes, less outreach to smooth the transition to first grade, less well prepared and experienced teachers, less positive attitudes among teachers, fewer school resources, or poor neighborhood and school conditions, the least advantaged US children were shown to begin their formal schooling in consistently lower quality schools.
The consistency of these findings across aspects of school quality very different from one another was both striking and troubling. The least advantaged children in the US, who also begin their formal schooling at a substantial cognitive disadvantage, are systematically mapped into the nation’s worst schools. Moreover, there is a strong association between the type of communities where schools are located (large or medium city, suburbs, small town, or rural area) and the quality of their public schools. The lowest quality schools are in large cities; the highest quality schools are located in the suburbs, where the most affluent citizens reside. Those findings translate into a sobering conclusion: children who need the best schooling actually start their education in the nation’s worst public schools.
As kindergarten attendance has moved toward universality, pressure has mounted among policymakers to increase the cognitive demands made on kindergarten students. One way to accomplish this is to keep children in school longer. Several demographic and socio cultural factors explain the growing implementation of full day kindergarten. The proportion of working mothers with children under 6 is increasing; over 60 percent of these mothers are now in the workforce. Moreover, for growing numbers of children, rather than their first school experience, kindergarten fits into a continuum routinely beginning with childcare and/ or a pre-kindergarten or preschool experience and moves through elementary school (Olsen & Zigler 1989). Since the mid-1970s more and more children under 5 have attended preschool programs: private or public preschools, Head Start, or childcare. Proponents of full day kindergarten believe that, as a result of their child care and preschool experiences, children are ready for more demanding and cognitively oriented educational programs. Recent scientific, technological, and economic developments have thrust the importance of academic success, especially in literacy and numeracy, into the forefront of social discourse. Public and political forces collectively impose enormous pressures on schools to focus on children’s academic achievement, and this focus begins earlier and earlier.
Full day kindergarten advocates suggest that a longer school day provides educational support that ensures a productive beginning school experience and increases the chances of future school success, particularly for poor children. The growing diversity among kindergarten children’s racial, ethnic, cultural, social, economic, and linguistic backgrounds challenges educators to serve children well in increasingly complex classrooms. Full day advocates suggest numerous advantages of a longer kindergarten day: (1) it allows teachers more opportunity to assess children’s educational needs and individualize instruction; (2) it makes small group learning experiences more feasible; (3) it engages children in a broader range of learning experiences; (4) it provides opportunities for in depth exploration of a curriculum; (5) it provides opportunities for closer teacher-parent relationships; and (6) it benefits working parents.
Not all educators, researchers, and parents favor full day kindergarten. Detractors argue that children in full day programs risk stress and fatigue due to the long day. However, research reveals that children attending full day kindergarten demonstrate less frustration than children in half day programs and do not show evidence of fatigue (Elicker & Mathur 1997). Others argue that full day kindergarten increases the chance that children will be expected to achieve and perform beyond their developmental capabilities (Olsen & Zigler 1989).
Full day programs in public schools enroll less advantaged children (those whose families are lower SES and/or minority). Full day programs are more common in public schools located in large US cities, which enroll less affluent and more minority children (Lee & Burkam 2002). A logical explanation for these trends focuses on public efforts to induce social equity. Despite the higher cost of operating full day kindergarten programs, their implementation may have a compensatory purpose. Schools with disadvantaged populations are able to offer such programs because Title 1 funds (US federal money that assists schools with high numbers or percentages of poor children to ensure that all children meet academic achievement standards) could cover the added costs.
Although the relative impact of full day and half day kindergarten programs has been subjected to considerable empirical scrutiny, the quality of this research base is not strong. Many such studies are quite dated; many have weak research designs. Although some studies explore affective outcomes, most focus on cognitive performance. In general, research findings favor full day (or extended day) kindergarten over half day programs for academic performance. Further, some studies suggest that full day kindergarten is especially effective for socially and educationally disadvantaged children (Eliker & Mathur 1997). Whereas some studies document long term benefits of full day kindergarten, others report no long term effects. No study demonstrates academic advantages for children in half day kindergarten.
A recent study improved on the extant research based on this topic in several ways (Lee et al. 2001). First, it used current and representative samples from ECLS K. Second, it made use of more appropriate multilevel analysis methods. Third, its conclusions were located within policies that consider costs and benefits of full day programs. Although kindergarten is now close to universal in the US, only about half (55 percent) of schools offer kindergarten exclusively in a full day format. Full day programs are more common both in private schools and as compensatory programs (i.e., in inner city schools enrolling high proportions of low income and minority children).
Findings of the study strongly favored full day programs, with between school advantages of almost one standard deviation on gains over the kindergarten year in both literacy and mathematics achievement. This translated into over a month’s learning advantage in both sub jects. Although the time spent in school was twice as long in full day than half day kindergartens, the time spent on academic instruction was not double. Asking whether the benefits are worth the cost, the authors concluded that they are. Although costs for moving to full day programs include doubling the numbers of kindergarten teachers and increasing classroom space, the benefits in academic terms are substantial, with potential long term benefits of less remediation or retention. Evaluations of educational interventions, particularly at the national level, have seldom reported cognitive advantages this large.
Although offering kindergarten to all in the educational landscape of the US is no longer contested, there is considerably less agreement about the nature of the optimal kindergarten experience. Further research is needed to deter mine the ideal length of the kindergarten day, and how much of children’s kindergarten experiences should focus on academics and how much should be devoted to play and socialization. In addition, numerous equity issues need to be addressed through careful investigations into whether children’s academic experiences in kindergarten should be tailored to their cognitive status at entry, and whether full day kindergarten should be an aspect of compensatory education, so that only low income and/or low performing children have access to such programs at public expense. As the first formal educational setting that virtually all US children experience, ongoing research needs to provide an understanding of how children’s academic and social experiences in kindergarten lay the groundwork for their educational trajectories.
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