Oct 26, 2010

Kindergarten Readiness: A Useless and Dangerous Concept

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The usual big government, control our children from birth crowd constantly harp at parents and policymakers that fifty percent of Minnesota children come to school not prepared or not fully prepared for kindergarten.  They say that only a massive expansion of government money and control will solve this “crisis.”

The Scholar’s Notebook blog reported on a candidate forum in Senate District 43 held on October 18th where early childhood issues were discussed.  I attended that forum and heard incumbent Democrat Rep. John Benson dutifully chanted that exact meme that 50% of Minnesota children were not prepared for kindergarten, that it is a crisis, and that the state needs to provide more funding for early childhood programs.

Concerned parents and taxpayers might reasonably ask what is wrong with improving kindergarten readiness especially if there is a crisis.  There are many reasons, but here are just a few of the really important ones:

Vague criteria

Here are a few of the criteria from the Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (see last page of document).  Would any parent in their right mind want their child labeled “not ready for kindergarten” based on these vague, subjective, touchy-feely assessment items that have nothing to do with letter or number recognition and real reading or math concepts?  Should taxpayer funds be used to remediate and label children at the beginning of their careers as deficient and then spend more funds we do not have on preschool programs that we have shown actually harm reading achievement?  You be the judge:

“Shows beginning understanding of numbers and quantity”

“Shows an appreciation for books and reading

“Shows eagerness and curiosity as a learner.”

“Shows empathy and caring for others”

Subjective assessment

One of the “expert” teachers that trains kindergarten teachers and, if the liberal DFL (pardon the redundancy) has its way, to train childcare providers, admitted in a legislative hearing that even they wonder about the accuracy of their observations:

“So, with work sampling or with other kinds of observational assessments, you might wonder about the quality of the observation that the teacher did.  And we might wonder about the conclusions that the teacher inferred from the observations.  Are they accurate?  Is that child really demonstrating a proficient or is it really in process?  We wonder about those kinds of things with performance based assessments.”

These teachers all have a vested financial and power interest in expanding the system of early childhood programs.

Distorted statistics

The way that the big government types get to the “over 50% are not prepared – it’s a crisis” meme is to take a “glass half empty” approach. They combine the “not yet” group, meaning children not showing any evidence of being able to meet the criterion, no matter how vague or subjectively assessed, with the “in process” group, meaning the children that are showing some evidence of meeting that criterion, but are not all the way there yet.  Again, remember that all of this is using such ridiculously vague criteria as are quoted above and subjectively assessed as admitted by the trainer quoted above.

Given how variably and unpredictably children develop, the proper way to view these already suspect statistics is to use the “glass half full” approach.  This is what the Minnesota DOE at least tries to do.  If one combines the “proficient” group with the “in process” group, one sees that 90-97% of Minnesota children, depending on which developmental area one chooses, are prepared for kindergarten or are on the road to being so (page  5 of PDF).

One also has to remember that some of the developmental areas are highly subjective, not assessed in K-12 and frankly not the purview of the state to be setting norms.  Social and emotional development and art ability are two glaring examples.  With all of that said, these statistics show that there is no crisis.  This was confirmed by a National Center for Education Statistics survey from a few years back showing greater than 90% kindergarten preparedness based on recognizing numbers, colors, and shapes, being in good health and eager to learn.

Even MDE admitted that the purpose of the assessment is not to label individual children as ready or not ready for kindergarten:

“Children’s rate of development varies, therefore, the goal of the study is to assess a cohort of children’s proficiency within and across these developmental domains and not establish whether or not children are ready for school with the use of a composite ‘ready’ or ‘not ready’ score.'”

No relationship to academic performance

Even if one take the cradle to grave government education assertion seriously, whether a child is deemed ready or not ready for kindergarten, the evidence indicates that kindergarten readiness has nothing to do with later academic performance.  As we showed in our last early childhood alert, even states that have universal, high quality early childhood programs like Oklahoma and Georgia or widespread programs for poor children, like New Jersey, have either shown no improvement in reading scores or an actual decline.  Our other compilation of early childhood research shows multiple large studies indicating emotional and behavioral harm to children involved in preschool and childcare programs compared to those that are raised at home.

Unintended Consequences

Even the MDE quotes (see page 12 of the PDF) the National Academy of Sciences to show:

“The National Academy of Science reports that even in upper grades, extreme caution is needed in relying exclusively on child assessment and that for children birth to five ‘even more extreme caution is needed.'”

Do we as Minnesota parents and taxpayers really want our children labeled “not ready to learn” by such subjectively written and assessed criteria as have been quoted above even before they have a chance to set foot in a classroom?  Should this state that is clearly out of money be spending funds to “remediate” those falsely labeled children with programs that either make no change, or at worst cause academic and emotional harm? Do we want a bunch of state bureaucrats to determine what is normal social and emotional (i.e.  mental health) development for our children with a real potential for them to be labeled as having a mental health disorder and treated or worse drugged when even the experts admit that these treatments and drugs have a frightening record of ineffectiveness and life threatening side effects?

It was extremely gratifying to hear candidates like Brian Grogan and Norann Dillon calmly and competently quote statistics to debunk the distortions put forth by big government preschool advocates.  Voters need to discuss and make sure both candidates and the winners of the upcoming election understand these issues.  The academic, emotional, and fiscal health of both our children and the state depend on it.

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