Darcy Olsen

Have we done enough homework?

Posted on January 16, 2007 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Darcy Olsen
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I loved kindergarten. We churned home-made butter, gathered for story time, and curled up for cat-naps. What wasn't to love?

This year, Gov. Mitch Daniels wants to make "an absolutely irrevocable commitment" to full-day kindergarten.

The kindergartner in me shouts: Hooray!

Kids today, however, may find less to celebrate. The National Center for Education Statistics followed 22,000 kindergartners nationwide, some attending half-day programs and some full-day. At the end of the year, children's reading and math skills were all but indistinguishable.

In other words, longer school days meant twice the amount of time in school, but no more learning. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that more schooling has not paid off.

Over the past 20 years, preschool and kindergarten, or "early education" in today's terms, have gone from being a la carteto the new must-have. Most states offer full-day kindergarten, and many also have entered the preschool business.

More working moms and increases in single-parent families have driven some of these changes.

Also stirring the pot were a handful of educators who thought more early learning would help turn the tide of poor school achievement. It was a respectable theory, but it hasn't worked in practice.

Preschool attendance has risen from 15 percent in the 1960s to 65 percent today. Yet the "Nation's Report Card" shows little to no improvement in overall school achievement during this time.

This general observation has been documented in many small and model programs, some well-known, such as Head Start, which find academic benefits to children fleeting.

Studies monitoring children's behavior also give little hope for optimism. More and more evidence is surfacing that preschool incubates negative social behavior.

A research team from Stanford and Berkeley recently reached this disturbing conclusion: "Attending a center also appears to suppress social development, including the child's motivated engagement in kindergarten classrooms, self-regulation and a variety of interpersonal skills."

To parents, these findings translate into real-world consequences such as depression, bullying and tantrums. Not exactly the results most parents are after.

Don't get me wrong. Some preschools and kindergartens are downright terrific. Wonderful teachers, programs and creative curricula operate across the country.

But for early schooling to benefit children, the new environment must be better than the child's home environment. It turns out that there are few schools or programs that do a better job than the average American mom or dad.

But educators are on to one thing: Education is not what it used to be. Time magazine recently ran an unforgettable cover story called "Dropout Nation," reporting that one out of three students won't graduate from high school.

One working solution is competition. For instance, Arizona currently has more than 400 charter schools giving traditional schools a run for their money, and at a lower cost to taxpayers. A Goldwater Institute analysis of test scores of 60,000 Arizona public school students found that charter students learn more than their peers in regular public schools.

Indiana has a handful of innovative charter schools, but limits on funding and the number of schools put a brake on this effective reform. Lifting the caps on funding and the number of allowable charter schools would send a message to educators across the country that Indiana is open for business.

Milwaukee is home to the nation's best known school choice program, which has cut the high school dropout rate almost in half for participating students.

Indiana's Friedman Foundation recently issued a report that found that even a modest choice system could reduce the dropout count by almost 4,000 students.

These proven reforms can make a lasting difference for students. Universal school choice would help the Daniels administration reach its goal of putting kids first and make good on America's promise of a quality education for all students. No extra kindergarten required.

Darcy Olsen is president of the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Ariz., (www.goldwaterinstitute.org) and a nationally recognized expert on education policy.

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