A new study finds that the mixed-age classrooms found in most Head Start programs tend to slow the academic growth of the older children. The findings, published online in the journal Psychological Science, reveal that four-year-olds who attend Head Start classrooms with higher concentrations of three-year-olds were up to five months behind in academic development compared with their peers in classrooms with fewer younger children.
Head Start is a federal preschool program that promotes the school readiness of children in low-income families from age three to age five. As of 2009, about 75 percent of all Head Start classrooms were mixed-age.
“While there has been some enthusiasm for mixed-age classrooms, our results suggest there may be a significant downside for older children,” said Dr. Kelly Purtell, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human sciences at the Ohio State University. “Four-year-olds are often enrolled in classrooms that are less supportive of their academic learning.”
The findings may also help explain why a 2010 national evaluation of the Head Start program found that it was only modestly effective in helping the academic achievement of four-year-olds.
“Mixed-age classrooms may be one reason that older children don’t seem to benefit as much from Head Start as do younger children,” said Arya Ansari, lead author of the study and a graduate student in human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
Purtell and Ansari conducted the study with Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor at UT Austin. For the research, they pulled data from the Family and Child Experiences Survey, a nationally representative sample of three- and four-year-old Head Start students across 486 classrooms nationwide.
This study included 2,829 children who were tested in fall 2009 and spring 2010 to determine how much they progressed during that time on assessments of language and literary skills, math skills, social skills and behavior.
The researchers found that when there was a higher number of three-year-olds in a classroom, there were lower gains in math, language, and literacy skills among four-year-olds.
It didn’t take many three year-olds in the classroom to hurt the academic growth of the older children. Even when three-year-olds made up just 20 percent of a classroom, the older children lost nearly two months of academic achievement in the school year.
And even worse, when the younger children made up nearly half the class, the four-year-olds lost approximately four to five months of academic development.
“Not only did we see limits in academic growth in four-year-olds, but we also didn’t see any academic gains for three-year-olds who were in these mixed-age classrooms,” Purtell said. “So there was no real benefit for the younger children.”
There was no effect on social or behavioral skills for either age group in mixed-age classes.
The researchers didn’t investigate why mixed-age classrooms hurt older children’s academic gains, but other studies suggest two possibilities. One is that interacting with younger peers does not provide as much gain for older children as interacting with peers at the same or higher skill levels in math and language.
Another possibility is that teachers modify their classroom practices to accommodate a wider range of skill levels, which leads to older children hearing information they’ve already been exposed to and feeling disengaged.
It is likely that both factors play a role, Purtell said.
But even so, it may not be feasible for many Head Start programs to separate children by age, said Ansari. “That means we need to figure out what teachers and programs can do to foster a more cognitively stimulating environment for the older children,” he said.
Source: Ohio State University