Does kindergarten choice affect your kids' career?

Last night, I had a devastating conversation with one of my favorite dads, about kindergarten. It started innocently enough. "Do you think test scores matter?" he asked. He has a little boy -- friend since (practically) conception to my second son -- entering kindergarten in the fall. This is the man who'd just as soon passionately argue the evils of our fossil-fuel dependent society, or why he built a 325-square-foot house, as fret over his kid's eventual career. And yet here he is, attending his first kindergarten roundup session and trying to figure out where his not-yet-five-year-old will be most "challenged."

Here in Portland, Ore., like many cities and towns across the country, it's time to start thinking about kindergarten registration. And though it seems ridiculous to link a person's future to the choices parents are making right now, well, it's surely not the first time (just look at Baby Einstein and the famously bitter battles to wangle admission to Manhattan's top preschools).

Studies have shown that a wide variety of early-childhood influences, from quality child care to a toddler's nutrition, have a big effect on a person's success in their adulthood. (I've even become convinced by one neurologist that my own stress management while pregnant with my children has shaped their personalities. Eeeek!) So, does kindergarten matter?

According to this study, yes. The difference between attention and behavior skills in kindergarten and first grade, and those in third grade, have a significant impact on a child's future success in school. Teachers, then, really matter in the early grades; " educators could make a real difference if they knew how to help children build attention skills," pointed out the study's lead presenter.

And yes, we know that teacher quality affects education quality, and teacher quality affects test scores: so that should indicate that test scores are a good indicator of teacher quality (and, thus, your children's eventual success in life)... right? And this should mean that everything should ride on the choice you make for your child's kindergarten, yes?

I argued that the answer was more like, "no." While teacher quality is surely linked to test scores, making a feedback loop, I don't agree that picking an elementary school with good test scores will necessarily give your child a leg up on that Ivy League admissions application process (as my friend noted, top competitive positions at corporations and in government are filled predominantly by people from five or 10 top universities).

I argue that the top determining factor in whether or not your kid will go on to Ivy Leagues (and then on to the moon!) is this: how well you, Ms. Mama and Mr. Daddy, support your child's academic success. All the way from keeping a stable, nurturing home life to involving yourself in his elementary and high school education (whatever the quality of that education) to reading books at bedtime: these things are far more important than whether the third, fourth and fifth grade teachers at his elementary school last year were good at teaching to the tests.

Chances are, if you care enough to stress about where your child is going to kindergarten next year, you care enough to do these things: love your kid. Keep the home environment supportive of studying and creativity and ideas. Feed them nourishing food for breakfast, send healthy proteins for lunch, make family dinner. Read books, alone and together. And my advice? Unless it's an absolute war zone, send your little one to the neighborhood school. You already know your children are going to be successful; just think, they'll be great for your school's test scores in 2014.
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