What happens on the first day of school!


Eduardo Porter writes about kindergarten: In yesterday’s New York Times, Eduardo Porter devoted his weekly column to the potential rewards of early education, especially for low-income kids.

Eventually, he touches a topic we have questioned before. He paints a picture of low-income kids on their first day traditional school, the day they begin kindergarten:
PORTER (4/3/13): Research by Mr. Heckman and others confirms that investment in the early education of disadvantaged children pays extremely high returns down the road. It improves not only their cognitive abilities but also crucial behavioral traits like sociability, motivation and self-esteem.

Studies that have followed children through their adult lives confirm enormous payoffs for these investments, whether measured in improved success in college, higher income or even lower incarceration rates.

The costs of not making these investments are also clear. Julia Isaacs, an expert in child policy at the Urban Institute in Washington, finds that more than half of poor 5-year-olds don't have the math, reading or behavioral skills needed to profitably start kindergarten. If children keep arriving in school with these deficits, no amount of money or teacher evaluations may be enough to improve their lot later in life.
They key word there is “profitably.”

The 5-year-old children who lack those skills are in fact able to start kindergarten, and of course they do. But they can’t profitably start kindergarten. This takes us back to a question we’ve wondered about for decades:

What happens to these kids when they arrive in kindergarten? What happens to them on their first day of school?

In the years we taught in Baltimore’s schools, we were struck by the way low-income kids are constantly asked to do more than they’re ready or able to do. They’re given textbooks they can’t really read. They may be confronted with math instruction for which they aren’t prepared.

This creates endless confusion and frustration. We always wondered how early this starts. At some point, we began to wonder if it possibly starts on their very first day in school, they day they begin kindergarten.

Is that where the confusion starts?

In all the years since we left those schools, we don’t think we’ve ever read a discussion of this general problem—the giant, omnipresent problem we saw in Baltimore's schools. The well-known “educational experts” never seem to talk about problems like this. They are closeted in their offices, explaining why they didn’t predict the latest completely foreseeable public school disaster.

But how about it? What about the kids who aren’t ready to “profitably” start kindergarten? What happens to them on the first day of school?

Some day, Thomas L. Friedman and the other tools will be told what to say in response to that question. Due to their lack of expected skills, are those kids introduced to confusion on their very first day in school?


  1. Math, reading, or behavioral skills necessary to profitably start kindergarten?

    I can imagine some things "behavioral skill" might refer to, but math and reading skills definitely need unpacking. I mean, children who have played with blocks or played counting games with their parents, okay, they have already been developing some proto-math skills. Children whose parents and others have read to them, who see adults read, who have handled blocks with letters on them, who maybe even have already memorized the alphabet, things like that: yes, they've received some preparation for learning to read. Is that kind of thing what is meant here by preparation? Or something more? (I fear that more is meant.)

    Some 55 years ago in a prosperous NJ kindergarten (though many of my classmates were not from prosperous households, or quite a few were not from households where English was spoken -- the town as a whole was prosperous and supported excellent schools, but different classes and ethnic groups were all mixed up together in school), we played blocks and house; we danced and sang; we began to learn our letters, I think, and probably learned some basics about counting, but I don't remember learning letters and numbers, though probably we learned some basics. We mostly learned to follow instructions and cooperate with one another -- and to think of school as a place that was fun. This perhaps enabled children without middle class advantages to get their bearings, to "catch up" on playing with blocks and learning their letters. Probably I don't remember learning letters and numbers in kindergarten because I had already learned at home much of what was taught. But my fellows who hadn't learned this stuff at home could learn now.

    Most of my fellows from that class, including fellows from "disadvantaged" backgrounds (e.g., a child from a single-family household, whose mother was a very lowly hospital worker), have gone on to a great variety of good lives and good livelihoods. Nearly all have prospered and given to society in valuable ways. They not only learned to read and do math; some did things like become among Microsoft's early leading lights (though I don't remember him as a math standout in kindergarten! -- not even in high school; the most brilliant math student in my class went on to Harvard and then became a successful actor).

    Fast forward to my children's elementary school. "Math" preparation involved, again, playing with blocks -- even in second grade, lots of blocks! (The school assured us: this will work! They'll score low on national tests in the early grades; they'll excel on national tests later! And they did.) I thought my children didn't do enough singing and dancing in elementary school, or jump-roping, but that's another story.

    I guess what I'm getting at (since I am not claiming that it was all done right once -- math-teaching, for instance, is much improved) is this: what in the world is expected of five-year-olds today in terms of preparation for kindergarten? And what happened to the idea of play? (The word "pedagogy" comes from Greek, the pe-pai part from the word for not just "child" but "play.") Have we structured schools so that all parents are already expected to have done the work that only well-educated, middle-class parents are equipped to do? The people quoted in this article seems so to assume. (I confess to being dismayed by my middle-class friends with young children, their obsession with teaching their children letters and math and computer skills before kindergarten. Hey, let them play!)

    1. I recently heard tale that my mother's friend's granddaughter was in danger of being "held back" in kindergarten. Nonplussed, I asked what could possibly cause one to be held back in kindergarten. Apparently, among other things, the children are expected to be able to count to 100. Also, the child was apparently unable to complete her homework. Homework!

    2. From the November 29, 2006 Daily Howler:

      Why are low-income kids way “behind” their middle-class peers, even by the age of 3? Why don’t low-income kids know more words? [In a New York Times Magazine article Paul] Tough suggested the answer was startling:

      >>>>>TOUGH (11/26/06): [T]he answer [Hart and Risley] arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child’s home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class....

      They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children's I.Q.'s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79....

      The most basic difference was in the number of ''discouragements'' a child heard—prohibitions and words of disapproval—compared with the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.

      Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well....

      Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child's life....

      Martha Farah, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has built on Brooks-Gunn's work, using the tools of neuroscience to calculate exactly which skills poorer children lack and which parental behaviors affect the development of those skills. She has found, for instance, that the “parental nurturance” that middle-class parents, on average, are more likely to provide stimulates the brain's medial temporal lobe, which in turn aids the development of memory skills....<<<<<

    3. I question studies like this. It's easy to blame everything on poverty. How does that explain a brilliant John Lewis or Clarence Thomas, sons of poor sharecroppers?

    4. [A similar comment of mine seems to have disappeared from this thread.]

      CeceliaMc, brilliance is a rare quality. So that would still leave open the question as to whether society, based on moral and economic considerations, should make it a goal in the short run to improve the prospects for happiness and success for the vast majority of its individual members.

      Or, are you maintaining that John Lewis and Clarence Thomas actually are just your ordinary 100 IQ types who owe their achievements to having decided during their grade school years to adopt for themselves an "early to bed, early to rise" personal regimen, one most anyone young'un could choose for him or herself to put them on a path to likely fame and/or fortune?

      Alternatively, you could argue a better long run strategy for the interests of future generations would be for society to devote its limited resources to maximizing the opportunities available to hard working extraordinary Galtian hero types and leave the present system in place for those both born into the socio-economic underclass and whose various inherent talents all fall within just the range of normal.

      I suppose you could be suggesting a third way to look at this issue. If so what would that one be?

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  3. What DO you do if the problem begins on the first day of school? If the school is reasonably affluent, then most kids are prepared for a profitable start and the teacher can give them a few worksheets to carve out some time for helping the few that aren't prepared. But if substantial numbers are not prepared, then what?

    Dividing the incoming class into faster and slower tracks at the start seems like it would have its problems too. Reducing student/teacher ratios would make this an easier problem to solve, but there doesn't seem to be much appetite for higher taxes to finance better education for less affluent kids. (There's certainly a good argument to make for that, but it is not a winner at the ballot box recently.)

    While this post doesn't pretend to dispense any quick solutions to a complex problem (and I would like to know what TDH thinks is the best available course of action on this issue) and more or less sticks to the media criticism angle, this and all the education-related posts are the best things on this blog by far.

    The "anti-liberal-tribalism" posts get bogged down in vicious, emotional disputes over what is practical partisanship in a two-party system where each faction needs to motivate its supporters and what is tribal and unproductive. If TDH thinks it can be the honest judge of where the line between those falls, then this blog will fail to accomplish much.

    But on the education posts, where TDH stays focused on the disparity between the media "scripts" and reality, TDH can really be an opinion leader and make a difference.

    Sorry this is a bit rambling...

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