Preschool gains add up, study indicates


Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Like most kindergartners, Daniel Hartman is learning his letters, words and numbers. As evidence of the potential for learning in formal schooling before the mandatory first grade, the 6-year-old also recites his lessons in English and Spanish.

Kindergarten is more than just kids’ stuff, says his father, Andrew, a literacy expert. A six-year federal study of 22,000 children backs him up with a glimpse of just how much children learn in public and private kindergartens.

"Learning can’t start too early," Hartman said.

Tracking the same 22,000 students for a second year, the Education Department study shows that five times as many could do simple addition and subtraction as a year earlier. Twice as many could recognize letters of the alphabet.

The Education Department-funded study offers no comparison with children who do not attend kindergarten, but officials said the first-ever look attempts to show what children know when they enter school and how that knowledge is shaped throughout their early school years.

Results of the study, which will follow the same children through the fifth grade, also could help advocates make a case for allocating to early childhood education more money for research and better programs.

"Kindergarten is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do," Education Secretary Richard Riley said. "It’s helping (all) children … pick up basic verbal and math skills."

Under the project, students will be tested regularly in math and reading and observed for physical well-being, social development and other factors that researchers say affect learning.

In the current study, by the end of kindergarten, 94 percent of the children could recognize letters, compared with 65 percent when they entered. Children who could recognize simple words rose from 2 percent to 13 percent. Math test scores rose eight points; reading scores increased 10 points.

While poor children did worse than others on academics and readiness for school, results showed that all kindergartners increased their knowledge and skills regardless of how much they knew at enrollment.

Children who are poor, non-English speaking or living with single or poorly educated parents had trouble catching up in their first year of school. They did not improve as much as better-off peers in advanced skills, such as solving math problems, the study said.

Though the German-born kindergarten program of developmental play, song and stories dates from the 1800s, it is far from universally embraced. All states provide kindergarten, and even pay for a half-day of it, but just 12 states and the District of Columbia require kindergarten before allowing a child to enter regular school. Kindergarten is not mandatory in Washington state.

Four million children are eligible each year for preschool or kindergarten, the department said. Only two-thirds of them are enrolled.

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