Questionable Science and a Misleading News Story
“New research says the kids are all right” in kindergartens that emphasize advanced academics, according to a January 24 headline in Chalkbeat. We strongly disagree.
The study in question, published online by the American Educational Research Journal on Jan. 4, 2019, has severe limitations, and it is based on so many questionable assumptions that no meaningful conclusion can be drawn from it. At the same time, reports of its supposed findings, like the Chalkbeat story, muddy the waters of a vital conversation about how young children learn. Even worse, this problematic study and the uncritical reporting of it are likely to be used to defend pernicious policies and practices that almost all early childhood educators agree are hurting children.
The authors of the study themselves acknowledge three serious limitations in their work. First, it is a correlational study that says nothing about causation. In other words, the positive outcomes that they claim to see may be the result of factors other than the ones they tried to measure. Second, the measure they used to calculate the amount of time devoted to teaching advanced skills in the classroom was subject to a high level of uncertainty. And third, the very definition of “advanced” has widely varying meanings, and the researchers had no way of knowing how such “advanced” content was actually being taught.
In fact, this study is flawed in even more troubling ways:
1. The tests that were used to measure changes in children’s achievement and social-emotional skills were given in the same year: “At kindergarten,” the authors write, “there were two waves of data collection, with the first wave taking place during the fall and the second wave taking place during spring.” That is, there was no follow-up beyond the kindergarten year. The authors fail to acknowledge that long-term studies have shown that gains from early academics disappear and in some cases reverse themselves by third grade.
That drilling children on content can boost test scores in the same year (which happened here only to a moderate extent) is thus unsurprising and means little. The authors avoid mentioning that, while their study was just correlational, other experimental research contradicts their conclusion. The most rigorous of these was the High/Scope Comparative Curriculum Study, which followed students to age 23 and found powerful evidence of the negative effects of early academics—evidence that did not clearly emerge until years later.
2. The authors based their conclusions on kindergartners’ test scores in math and English language arts. They note that, in the standards-and-testing-based “reform” movement of the 1980s and 1990s, “standardized testing was not mandated until the third grade.” But they don’t say why. The reason is that testing experts universally agree that standardized test scores have virtually no meaning before third grade. According to the findings of the National Research Council’s definitive “High Stakes” study, basing educational policymaking on kindergarten test scores is essentially a form of educational malpractice.
3. In their review of the research on early academics, the authors make no mention of the fact that no study has ever shown that learning to read at an early age is correlated with long-term academic success. Indeed, children who learn to read at age six or seven are just as likely to become devoted lifelong readers as those who learn at four or five. Shouldn’t lifelong learning, not short-term test results, be our goal as teachers?
4. The study found a correlation between academic training and social-emotional development—but only with math, not language arts, and these social-emotional gains were seen almost entirely in the children who started kindergarten with the lowest math achievement scores. The authors offer no convincing explanation for this odd, counterintuitive finding. It suggests to us the presence of a confounding variable unrelated to the hypothesis that advanced academic training of little children would improve their social-emotional well-being.
5. A close look at how this study measured social-emotional outcomes reveals what may be its most serious flaw. All the social skills and behavioral effects were rated by the same teachers who taught the academic content, not by independent evaluators (let alone by independent evaluators blind to the type of instruction).
“Of 12 social or behavioral measures, there was a statistically significant (and quite small) effect on only three,” writes education policy analyst Alfie Kohn. “And with respect to kids’ aggression, anger, sadness, anxiety, etc., there was no short-term effect, positive or negative, as a result of teaching academic skills for an unspecified length of time using unspecified methods—according to the teachers themselves.”
Behaviors that would get you a low social-emotional skills score in this study—like not putting your toys away promptly or acting out—are more likely to occur in play. Those that would get you a high score—like completing tasks and following rules—are more likely to occur in a highly structured academic classroom. With this rating system, therefore, children in kindergartens with a lot of free play might, for that very reason, look like they have lower social-emotional skills than children in kindergartens where behavior is more rigidly structured and controlled by the teacher.
The authors fail to acknowledge what every wise teacher understands: kids learn to be better adjusted through play. “Those kids in lessons, with less play,” writes Boston College Research Professor Peter Gray, “don’t have the opportunity to exhibit the kinds of behaviors that (a) would lead to low social-emotional scores and (b) would provide the experiences needed to gain social-emotional competence. If we rigidly control children they may look more competent than if we allow them free play, but we also prevent them from learning to control themselves through experience.”
The authors’ conclusion, “that advanced academic content can be taught without compromising children’s social-emotional skills,” is not just unsupported by their own evidence. It is irresponsible in light of convincing contradictory findings that they have completely ignored.
This study will undoubtedly be welcomed by the corporations producing new academically oriented curricula and tests for young children. It is likely to further the proliferation of high-pressure academics and the loss of free play and child-initiated learning in kindergarten—trends that have already led some of our most experienced and talented early childhood teachers to quit the profession in frustration and despair.
This statement was prepared by Defending the Early Years in consultation with early childhood researchers, practitioners, and advocates. We are especially grateful for the assistance of Alfie Kohn, Joan Almon, and Professor Peter Gray. For more information, contact Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Blakely Bundy (email@example.com).