It’s Elementary: Preschool Attendance and Kindergarten Science Achievement

When you hear the word scientist, what do you think of?  Probably not this:


But what if I told you that all children should have the opportunity to become a scientist as early as preschool?  What do you think would look like – and what kind of impact would introducing preschoolers to science make on them and the education system alike?

This was precisely the topic of a recent policy presentation I attended at UNC-Chapel Hill.  Former UNC middle school basketball camp attendee and current UMBC Assistant Professor of Public Policy Dr. F Chris Curran gave a lecture titled “Estimating the Relationship Between Preschool Attendance and Kindergarten Science Achievement” earlier this week.

According to Dr. Curran, some of the biggest predictors for achievement in high school and college can be seen in elementary school – even as early as kindergarten.  There is a ton of research that has already been done on this in regards to lower elementary school performance on mathematics and reading.  Conversely, research on early science is incredibly limited.  But this makes sense, considering there is much less of an emphasis on science in lower elementary grades.  Disparities in science performance exist as early as elementary school – particularly across ethnic groups and socioeconomic status.

So, how can these gaps be alleviated?  Dr. Curran poses one possible solution: more science participation in preschool.  You might be thinking, “Is science even taught in preschool?”  According to Dr. Curran, less than 5% of preschool classroom time is spent on formal science instruction.  He also argued that science instruction has the potential to boost early learning, explaining that science instruction prompts more higher-level instructional interactions and that higher order dialogue is fostered when reading nonfiction science.

With all of that being said, Dr. Curran took all of this information and its potential to be further studied and created three different research questions:

  1. What is the relationship between participation in preschool and science achievement during the spring of kindergarten?
  2. What is the relationship between participation in preschool and teacher rated science ability during the fall of kindergarten?
  3. Do these relationships vary by student race/ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status?

In case you’re not familiar with kindergarten curriculum (I know I sure was not before this lecture), kindergarteners are tested for their science abilities twice during the school year.  In the fall, their abilities are evaluated by their teacher.  In the spring, they are evaluated through the administration of a standardized test.

For his study, Dr. Curran looked at the type of preschool these students attended: (1) center-based (i.e. private school) and (2) state-sponsored (i.e. public school).  Among the control variables were parent characteristics, such as income and school involvement.  For my science nerds out there who want to know the details of the actual research design and analytic methods, he took three different approaches: descriptive and correlational analyses, ordinary least squares regression, and school and classroom fixed effects.

So, what did he find?  According to Dr. Curran, preschool participation predicts higher teacher rated science ability in the fall of kindergarten.  As far as the standardized science achievement test in the spring goes, however, he didn’t find a significant difference.

When comparing student subgroups (i.e. gender or race), he found very few differences among them.  Because of this, Dr. Curran argued that preschool and kindergarten can serve as a great leverage point for helping to shrink the science achievement gaps between race/ethnicity and income level that develop later in elementary school and persist well into high school.

Dr. Curran ended the lecture with a couple of policy implications for the research he has done and its results.  First, there needs to be increased focus on science in preschool and elementary school.  This doesn’t just mean a few minutes of classroom time dedicated to formal instruction – it also means investing in teacher training and adequate resources to get young students interested in science.  Second, there is a real need for increased access to high quality preschool programs for disadvantaged students.

Allowing children to fall in love with science in their earliest years of schooling not only makes a positive impact on them – it will make a positive impact in our communities.  The world needs more scientists, and I think letting children become them in preschool is a great start.

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