University Success Starts in Kindergarten

Happy Elves Fran Gambín

As early as age 14, researchers say, a child’s grades are a good predictor of whether the child will graduate from college. Why?

A good student in middle school is good because he or she was a good student in elementary school. And the reason elementary school went well was the child began kindergarten — arrived at kindergarten, mind you — with good behavior patterns, patterns consistent with success as a student.

And the same is true looking forward, from middle school to the future. A child who has mostly A’s in middle school will continue to get A’s in high school. And, the research shows, an A student in high school can expect A’s in college after 4 years of course work, a college degree (unless, for some intervening reason, he or she does not graduate).

So to assure graduation from college — if the family wants a college degree for the child — the parents need to have the child arrive at kindergarten ready to do what students are asked to do.

The behavior patterns we are talking about are those consistent with success as a student

What does it mean to “arrive” at kindergarten ready to do well “in” kindergarten? Our report today — titled “University success” — looks at the findings of Thomas A. DiPrete, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York City, and Claudia Buchmann, Professor of Sociology and director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University.

In a new, very attractive13-page paper titled “The Secret Behind College Completion” — adapted from their book, The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools, the professors write:

“[The social and behavioral skills that a child must have to do well in elementary school include] attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, flexibility, organization, expressing feelings, ideas, and opinions in positive ways, and showing sensitivity to the feelings of others.”

Their research shows, they write, that girls, as a group, tend to have a good grasp of these skills when they begin kindergarten while boys, as a group, are noticeably behind the girls when they begin kindergarten.

Predictably, the professors stress, as the children enter first grade, then go through the elementary grades year by year, those students who have acquired these skills tend to remain ahead of those who did not acquire them at the start of their education — that is, the beginning of kindergarten.

How important are these basic skills and behaviors to a child’s success as a student?

“Social and behavioral skills are important because they have a direct impact on academic performance,” the professors write. In their 2013 book, The Rise of Women, for example, Professors DiPrete and Buchmann say they estimated that “the [girls’] advantage in social development at the end of kindergarten accounts for 34% of the [girls’] advantage in reading at the end of the fifth grade.”

In a second similar example, they estimated that “the [boys’] favorable math gap [at the end of the fifth grade] would be 21% larger but for the [girls’] advantage in social and behavioral skills.”

(The reference to reading and math in these examples is to the advantage girls have in reading at the beginning of kindergarten of about .15 standard deviations, and the “slight” advantage boys have in math at the start of kindergarten).

And for the 14-year-old, A’s even this early indicate a 70% likelihood of earning a 4-year college degree

The strong start that students have when they arrive at kindergarten with social and behavioral skills instilled by their families gives those students a foundation to build on, and absent interruptions in their careers as students, they will build and continue to build on that initial strong foundation.

“Even as early as middle school, course grades have a very strong relationship to four-year college completion,” Professors DiPrete and Buchmann write. Their research shows that “students who get mostly A’s in middle school have a nearly 70% chance of completing college by age 25.”

But those who get mostly B’s have only a 30% likelihood of completing college, and those who get mostly C’s in middle school have only a 10% likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree by age 25.

“Clearly,” they emphasize, “poor academic performance in middle school heavily disadvantages students who aspire to get a college degree.” Those who have higher grades have an advantage in educational attainment because of their higher grades.

And the pattern continues through the high school years, assuring the student admission to a college or university, and perhaps to the school that is the student’s first choice. And, of course, the pattern of higher grades continues in college.

And the lesson is —

And what of the student whose family does not provide a foundation of self-control and self-discipline — of behavior and social skills that are consistent with success in school?

One lesson in this story is that it can be fatal —or “tragic” — or maybe just “a shame” — when the parents say, “Look, it’s only kindergarten. I mean, how bad can it be if the kid is suspended from kindergarten?”

Sadly, the answer appears to be, bad enough. “Suspended from kindergarten” may get a chuckle in a family with outmoded stereotypes — but it is clear from the research that a kindergartner whose behavior is consistent with failing will live with that behavior K-12, just as a student whose behavior is consistent with success will enjoy that behavior K-12.

Families who don’t teach their children self-control and self-discipline may have to arrange interventions to help their children from time to time, and many of those interventions will succeed. But today’s excellent research shows the value of teaching self-control and self-discipline in our children’s earliest years — something we as parents can do, and something that is clearly the better way.

Professor DiPrete and Professor Buchmann are the authors of The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools, published in 2013 by the Russell Sage Foundation.