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Research Reveals 'Rich Get Richer' Scenario in Kindergarten Math

Kindergarteners learn more math in classrooms with higher average levels of student engagement. That's the less-than-surprising conclusion of a study that appears in the current issue of the peer-refereed American Journal of Education.

More unexpected are findings about which students benefit most from classrooms with higher average levels of engagement.

You might think that less-than-motivated students would get more from classrooms with high average levels of engagement. In fact, that's what past research would suggest since students in such classrooms tend to help each other more and encourage one another's efforts.

But past research has not necessarily explored the interaction between the engagement levels of individual students and the overall environment of their classrooms.

That's where Keith Robinson, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Anna S. Mueller, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Memphis, stepped in.

What they discovered was that children who are, themselves, highly engaged make more math growth if their classmates are also highly engaged. So, too, do children who start the school year with better math scores.

"[H]ighly engaged students in highly engaged classrooms showed the largest achievement growth in math," Robinson and Mueller write. "This combination seemed to produce a 'rich get richer' scenario: More engaged students take an approach to schooling that is more conducive to learning, and this approach is then continually reinforced by similarly engaged classmates."

As for students with lower levels of engagement, they also do better in highly engaged classrooms. It's just that it makes less of a difference for them. And this can have long-term consequences.

"Lower individual engagement means that a given student will be slower to acquire essential math skills," Robinson and Mueller write. "Since these skills affect one's ability to learn more advanced math skills in subsequent grades, the combination of low individual engagement and low classroom engagement may lead to substantial achievement differences compared to highly engaged children in highly engaged classrooms by the end of kindergarten."

Robinson and Mueller base their findings on an analysis of 12,462 kindergarten students who took part in the U.S. Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of children who attended kindergarten in 1998 and 1999. These students took individually administered math tests in both spring and fall.

Given the shifts that have occurred in the kindergarten world since that time, it is certainly possible that they would get different results today, but Robinson doubts that it would have made much of a difference. He said he got similar results when he examined a different data set from 2003.

Another caveat is that the data set the researchers used only permitted them to examine one aspect of student engagement, namely, children's behavior as observed by classroom teachers. These teachers responded to six questions that asked them to assess the frequency of behaviors such as showing "eagerness to learn new things," working "independently," and keeping "belongings organized." The researchers then created average classroom-engagement ratings by averaging the individual scores.

Although behavior is a key indicator, it is not the only ingredient of student engagement. There are also emotional and cognitive aspects that are tougher to observe because they unfold inside a student's mind.

"Assessing the classroom environment is a difficult task given the complexities of classroom interactions, organization, and instruction,"  Robinson and Mueller conclude. "Learning environments are defined by physical, emotional, and behavioral characteristics. Our work emphasizes that the reasons why some students experience larger growth than others are complex and multifaceted, just as they are individual and contextual."

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