Early academic skills, not behavior, best predict school success

November 12, 2007

An educational study unprecedented in scope finds that children who enter kindergarten with elementary mathematics and reading skills are the most likely to experience later academic success -- whether or not they have social or emotional problems.

"We find the single most important factor in predicting later academic achievement is that children begin school with a mastery of early math and literacy concepts," said Northwestern University researcher Greg Duncan and the study's primary author. Attention-related skills, though more modestly, also consistently predict achievement.

But it is the seeming lack of association between social and emotional behaviors and later academic learning that most surprised the researchers -- a lack of association as true for boys as for girls and as true for children from affluent families as for those from less affluent families.

"Children who engage in aggressive or disruptive behavior or who have difficulty making friends wind up learning just as much as their better behaved or more socially adjusted classmates provided that they come to school with academic skills," said Northwestern's Duncan. "We do not know if their behavior affects the achievement of other children."

Appearing in the November issue of Developmental Psychology, the study findings are based on an analysis of existing data from more than 35,000 preschoolers in the United States, Canada and England.

"The paramount importance of early math skills -- of beginning school with a knowledge of numbers, number order and other rudimentary math concepts -- is one of the puzzles coming out of the study," said Duncan, Northwestern's Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy and a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

Controlling for IQ, family income, gender, temperament, type of previous educational experience, and whether children came from single or two parent families, the study found that the mastery of early math concepts on school entry was the very strongest predictor of future academic success.

"Mastery of early math skills predicts not only future math achievement, it also predicts future reading achievement," Duncan said. "And it does so just as reliably as early literacy mastery of vocabulary, letters and phonetics predicts later reading success." The opposite -- reading skills predicting math success -- does not hold up.

The study's conclusions about the importance of early academic and attention skills are consistent with recommendations from expert panels of early mathematics and literacy professionals. The study's authors did not look at curricula.

"Certainly we're not suggesting that preschool programs abandon play and impose dull 'drill-and-practice' curricula," Duncan said. "Play-based curricula designed with the developmental needs of children in mind can foster the development of academic and attention skills in ways that are engaging and fun."

Using six longitudinal studies, the authors of "School Readiness and Later Achievement" measured school readiness skills and behaviors when a child entered school (at around age 5) and measured for later academic achievement between ages 7 and 14.
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Support for the study came from the Center for the Analyses of Pathways from Children to Adulthood at the University of Michigan, a National Science Foundations-funded Developmental Science Center.

Northwestern University

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