There's more that matters.(FATCAMERA/GETTY STOCK IMAGES)
A FEW WEEKS AGO, YET another pre-K study was released – this one showing that kindergartners who attended preschool programs focusing on academic skills score higher on math and literacy assessments than peers who attended less academically focused pre-K or didn't attend pre-K at all.
The study got some big headlines, but its findings aren't actually too surprising. We probably could have guessed that preschool programs that "spend more time on activities emphasizing language, pre-literacy, and math concepts" yield kindergartners who do better on tests of those concepts.
What does seem surprising, though, is that more people aren't asking, "So what?"
When it comes to pre-K, we seem to have forgotten that raising kindergartners' scores on tests of basic academic skills is not the goal of early human development. The goal is helping children develop into contributing, self-sufficient, happy people, from elementary school into adulthood.
And there's no evidence that kindergartners' scores on tests of basic academic skills correlates with – much less causes – children's well-being and success, in school or beyond. In fact, a handful of little-noted studies indicate that early non-academic skills may be much more important to children's long-term success.
One recent study of over 9,000 children entering kindergarten in the Baltimore Public Schools, for example, found that more than half lacked non-academic capacities like following directions, complying with rules, managing emotions, solving problems, organizing and completing tasks and getting along with others – often called "social-emotional" skills – that are essential for learning in a classroom setting.
By fourth grade, the children who had entered kindergarten with inadequate social-emotional skills were up to 80 pecent more likely to have been retained in grade, up to 80 percent more likely to have received special education services and up to seven times more likely to have been suspended or expelled at least once over the previous five years.
Another recent study found that kindergartners' social-emotional skills were highly predictive of their academic, economic and social outcomes into adulthood. Using a cluster of indicators – such as "resolves peer problems," "listens to others," "shares materials," "cooperates" and "is helpful" – researchers rated the social-emotional skills of 750 kindergartners on a five-point scale, and then tracked them until they turned 25.
For every one-point increase in the rating of a child's social-emotional skills in kindergarten, he or she was twice as likely to earn a college degree, 54 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma and 46 percent more likely to hold a full-time job at age 25.
For every one-point decrease, on the other hand, a child was 67 percent more likely to have been arrested and 82 percent more likely to be in or on a waiting list for public housing – two decades after kindergarten.
The greater the difference between kindergartners' social-emotional skills, the bigger the difference in their outcomes by the age of 25. Children who scored at the higher end of the spectrum, for example, were four times more likely to obtain a college degree than children who scored at the lower end. Studies of kindergartners' test scores show nothing even close to these results.
Unfortunately, pre-K's effects on children's social, emotional and behavior development has barely been studied. But common sense suggests that being a few weeks ahead in basic academic skills when you're five isn't what's most important to long-term success. Kindergarten teachers, too, tell us the same thing:
I wasn't too worried about my students who entered kindergarten a bit behind in their math or literacy skills… The students that did worry me were the ones who started kindergarten lacking important social-emotional skills [who have difficulty with] following directions, managing their emotions, and getting along with other children and the adults that share their classroom. As a teacher, I knew that these skills were more difficult to instill in my students than the basic math and literacy skills that would be covered throughout the school year.
It makes sense that pre-K studies focus on children's basic academic skills in kindergarten because that's what's easiest and cheapest for researchers to measure. The rest of us, however, should start figuring out what really matters for children.