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School Realignment – Academics … The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In today’s Park Record, citizen Peter Yogman wrote a Guest Editorial regarding the Park City School District Bond. Since his editorial was published in print, the length was limited. Mr Yogman was kind enough to provide Parkrag with his full paper on the subject.

School Realignment – Academics

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Peter Yogman

Many issues relating to the proposed school bond and grade realignment have been raised, particularly around the very large investment in sports facilities. However, bottom line, the overall program has been justified as being good academically for children. I take serious issue with that position. The proposal will do serious emotional damage to many young children and will be academically devastating for older ones. This conclusion was reached after reviewing well over 70 relevant, academic journal articles and consulting with a professor at Harvard University affiliated with the Center on the Developing Child. This is a surprising conclusion because there is much to praise in some of the programs underway in our school system. I enclose some references to academic papers in parentheses.

The Good. Preschool offers one of the greatest returns of any academic investment especially for disadvantaged children. See the work of Nobel economist JJ Heckman (The Economics of Inequality) or Art Rolnick (A Productive Investment: Early Child Development). The earlier intervention is done the better, but the programs must be well designed unlike many Head Start programs. While teaching cognitive concepts is important (see here for Utah preschool and Kindergarten core standards the latest research indicates that developing nonacademic readiness skills and what is known as executive function are more important predictors of future academic achievement. Readiness skills include a.) approaches to learning such as attentiveness, curiosity, flexibility, and organization, b.) social and emotional development such as controlling temper, respecting others, c.) language development d.) cognition and general knowledge, e.) control of externalizing behaviors such as anger, fighting and impulsiveness, and d.) low levels of internalizing behaviors such as anxiety, low self esteem, sadness, and loneliness. Executive function is more broadly defined as “the processes that underlie goal-directed behavior, including self-regulation, planning, working memory, response inhibition, and resistance to interference” (Individual Differences in Executive Functioning Predict Preschoolers’ Improvement…; Carlson, Zelazo et al.) These skills are best taught at home through structured play and active parent engagement in activities like reading, but for disadvantaged children preschool may be the best option. Controlling for nonacademic readiness skills eliminates the African American/white academic achievement gap, which is an incredible result (School Readiness, Full Day Kindergarten, and Student Achievement; Le et al.). I strongly support the PC schools preschool program and any expansion. It appears to be in good hands with Tom VanGorder. Children are rapidly brought up to core standards, tested to monitor progress with intervention for those not meeting goals. I do not know if it is also designed to improve nonacademic readiness skills and I think that is worthy of further investigation. I also support the implementation of the Professional Learning Center approach in higher grades. This coordinates teaching and involves periodic testing to guide intervention and mentoring when required. In fact, rapid assessment to alert teachers to students missing key learning goals accompanied by individualized intervention is identified as the most cost effective approach to raising student achievement (The Cost Effectiveness of 22 Approaches to Raising Student Achievement; Yeh).

The Bad. Implementing Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) to support an expanded reading program is a large element of the school realignment requiring movement of 5th grade to a new middle school campus. The best studies look at long-term longitudinal effects and find that improvements in academic performance “largely disappear by the first grade and are eliminated by the third grade (Is Full Better than Half; Cannon et al.). Another study from the Rand Corporation, the premier social research institution, concluded similarly. “Full-day kindergartens have also proven popular because a spate of early studies showed promising effects on the cognitive development of children in full day kindergarten compared with those attending half-day kindergarten. However, later studies have shown that effects largely disappear by the first grade and are eliminated by the third grade” (Le et al.). A large recent study from Canada provides further evidence. “Our findings indicate no apparent benefits of universal FDK.” “Our results suggest that expectations of wide-ranging, long-term benefits of FDK are unwarranted” (Long Term Benefits of Full Day Kindergarten; Brownell et al.). Studies that show positive benefits are usually statistically underpowered, show selection or tester bias, and are not sufficiently longitudinal (don’t look out far enough). Offsetting these conclusions are some preliminary data indicating that FDK may benefit certain populations. The Canadian study showed a small benefit in math for low-income girls. Another study has shown “less of a growth rate difference between homes where English is the primary language and homes where it is not” (Do the greater academic gains made by Full-Day Kindergarten Children Persist through the Third Grade; Walsh et al.). This could lend some support for FDK, but not universally. What should give us serious pause are these frightening findings from the Rand study.

“Children who participated in full day kindergarten programs demonstrated poorer dispositions toward learning, lower self control, and poorer interpersonal skills than children in part day programs. Children in full day programs also showed a greater tendency to engage in externalizing and internalizing behaviors than children in part day programs.” These are the same nonacademic school readiness skills that are so predictive of future academic success as shown in the discussion of preschool. I encourage you to review the definitions. By pushing students into FDK before they are developmentally ready we may jeopardize their academic futures. Since much of this is emotional damage it goes further; “influences on emotionality can influence the development of neurological interconnections among structures underlying emotion and higher order cognition” (Conceptualization of Children’s Functioning at School Entry; Clancy Blair). Translation – emotional stress in young children causes the brain to rewire! Do you think the push for FDK should be examined a little more closely?

An interesting range of results from pushing too many hours and too much academics at an inappropriate age can also be seen in preschool studies. In a study of disadvantaged children and children from more enriched home environments at preschool centers it was found that “For children from low income families, additional hours per week were associated with some gains in reading and math and few detrimental effects on social development. But while higher income children enjoy gains in pre-reading and math skills when attending at moderate levels they see no cognitive gains and substantially greater behavior problems associated with additional hours of weekly center attendance” (How Much is Too Much? The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children’s Social and Cognitive Development; Luck, Bridges et al.). For children from tough home environments all day school at an early age may be appropriate for some because school is a better environment than home. However, for children from better, more enriched home environments too much school is destructive both cognitively and emotionally. This is why FDK should be a choice of parents dependent upon their knowledge of the maturity and readiness of their child and the type of home environment that can be offered. A one-size-fits all approach is simply bad policy.

There are many alternatives for these kids that might be more effective than enforcing FDK on all children and pushing 5th graders into middle school that also has dire consequences as discussed below. Year round half-day kindergarten for children needing language reinforcement has been shown to be more effective and less damaging than FDK and prevents the summer drop off in language skills found with English Learning Students. To understand the magnitude of the task refer to the paper “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by Hart and Risley. Intervention must be very early and also persistent from preschool through third grade and possibly beyond. It must involve the parents to the extent possible. See for instance the program used in Chicago for inner city youth (Effects of a Preschool Plus Follow-on Intervention Program for Children at Risk, Reynolds) that created benefits measureable through 5th grade through a persistent program of mentoring and intervention from preschool through the third grade. We also know that in terms of cost effectiveness for improving academic achievement FDK is well down the list (Yeh).

A great set of resources can be found here at the Harvard website ( which summarize both the science and effectiveness early intervention programs and what a good program looks like. The best programs emphasize development of executive functioning skills, not just knowledge stuffing at the earliest grades for the best long-term outcomes. I recommend looking at the research of the neuroscientist Adele Diamond from the University of British Columbia whose work was introduced to me by the Harvard professor. I think some in our school administration have some awareness of this research but kindergarten and other programs are still in the early design stage. Shouldn’t we see what is being proposed? We may still be operating on decades old common core principles and not what is our newest and best understanding today from the latest research at our leading academic institutions.

The Ugly. FDK is a large driver for moving the 5th grade to a large middle school campus that would house, in multiple buildings, 5th through 8th grade. It has been stated that this change would lead to better academic outcomes because students would not be changing schools as often from the current 6/7 grades currently at Ecker to the 8/9 grades housed at Treasure Mountain. PC Schools has posted on their website a paper which purportedly supports this theory of eliminating a school change as being the driver for better academic outcomes (Stuck in the Middle: Impacts of Grade Configuration in Public Schools; Rockoff and Lockwood). Since I actually read the paper along with many others I can report the paper says nothing of the sort. It says, “Alternatively, it may be that any move to a new school has long lasting negative impacts on student achievement. Given the limitations of our data and the types of structures currently used in New York City, we cannot estimate the impacts of switching schools at other grade levels.” The entire thrust of the article is that middle school, in itself, creates terrible academic outcomes. “Moving students from elementary to middle school in 6th or 7th grade causes significant drops in academic achievement.” “The effects are large and they persist.” In fact we know they persist into high school (The Impact of Alternative Grade Configurations on Student Outcomes through Middle and High School; Schwerdt and West). Both papers recommend elimination of middle school entirely with a K-8 lower school and a 9-12 upper school, which has shown to produce much better academic outcomes. Of course it would be difficult to eliminate middle school entirely but should we not at least minimize it based on the following data?

“Students who entered middle school in grade 6 underperform students relative to students who entered middle school in grade 7.” “The immediate effect of transition in grade 5 for students who attended a K-4 school is larger than for students who move to middle schools in grade 6 or 7, and the cumulative effect of middle school attendance on achievement through grade 8 is as large or larger. This lends further support to the idea that middle school attendance may be worse for students who enter at younger ages (Rockoff).” We are doing the exact opposite of what is recommended by the best academic studies! We are creating a huge middle school campus and moving students at a younger age. We are setting ourselves up for a potential academic disaster. The only good thing about this realignment is moving 9th grade into the high school, which I strongly support. The causes of the middle school drop off are still not well understood. However one good statistical result cited in the Rockoff paper indicates that cohort sizes (the size of any one class) “are a small but significant part of the decreases in achievement we document.” The paper goes on to say, “adolescent children exhibit increased negativity, low self-esteem, poor ability to judge risks and consequences of their actions, and other traits that may make them difficult to educate when they are together in large groups.” Does not a single, huge middle school campus do exactly the opposite of what is best by creating the largest concentration of vulnerable adolescents possible?

Conclusion. Perhaps we should take the time to rethink grade alignment and this school bond. Maybe expanding elementary to grade 6 (possible for all schools except Parley’s which will require some creative design work) would be a better option to minimize the middle school experience. Perhaps retaining Treasure Mountain (and rebuilding it or extensively fixing it) would allow for two separate 7/8 schools with much smaller cohort sizes. Along with the issues with FDK this community needs to take a deep breath and look more closely at the evidence and decide what is really best academically for our children. For an investment of this size with implications and issues this large would it not be prudent to invite some of the authors of these papers to speak in our community? I believe our school board has lost its way becoming infatuated with their favorite sports facility instead of focusing on doing the research on what is academically best. The school administration has, in my opinion, lost its way with its honest concern for lower achieving Hispanic students. We can do what is right for these children without imposing damaging programs on all children. Do not make the mistake of assuming we will not fund what is needed unless it is made universal. That is not the Park City I know which is generous to a fault.
Vote No on the School Bond now so we may vote Yes on the right bond next year that we will all agree provides the b


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