Pre-to-3: It's legislative season — time to take another look at kindergarten policies
In many states, kindergarten still isn’t treated like 1st through 12th grade.
This latest Pre-to-3 column looks at what's up in statehouses this year regarding kindergarten. Past installments can be found here.
A bill in Virginia would require local school boards without full-day kindergarten to develop plans showing how they’re going to get there. A proposal in Colorado, which quickly died, would have increased funding for full-day kindergarten, asking voters to agree to allowing the state to spend funds above a revenue cap authorized in 2005. And in New Hampshire, a lawmaker wants the state to pick up full funding for kindergarten instead of only covering half of the cost and relying on the keno lottery for the rest.
With a large proportion of the nation’s children attending some form of early-childhood program, kindergarten for them is no longer the first year of formal schooling. But in many states, kindergarten still isn’t treated like 1st through 12th grade.
According to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), only 13 states and the District of Columbia require full-day kindergarten, and even then, a full day might not mean the same thing as it does for 1st grade. In DC, for example, kindergarten is five hours a day. In 28 states, the length of kindergarten is the same as the other grades, but that doesn’t mean districts are required to offer it. Many states also still allow districts to charge parents tuition for a “full-day” program.
This uneven picture across the country is why every year, there are likely to be legislative efforts to change funding and other policies related to kindergarten.
“Discrepancies in kindergarten funding and quality may leave many students less prepared to enter first grade than their peers who attended a quality full-day kindergarten program,” according to a 2016 ECS review of kindergarten policies. “This is of particular concern for many low-income students, as well as students with learning disabilities, who may require additional support services.”
Efforts to lower age requirements
Then there are the laws stipulating when children should start school. At least two states this session — Kansas and North Carolina — are considering carry-over legislation that would lower the compulsory attendance age from 7 to 6. And a bill in Indiana would drop the compulsory attendance law from 7 to 5. But letters to the editor from a former Republican candidate for state schools’ chief in that state and a response from the bill’s author show that there are still opposing views on what takes place in kindergarten.
“Children's brains are not adequately developed at age 5 for reasoning of any kind or the understanding of abstract concepts,” wrote Dawn Wooten, an English instructor at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. “More importantly, it should be the parent who decides when his or her child is ready for the school environment.”
But in a response, state Sen. Greg Taylor, refers to research showing that children with preschool experience before kindergarten have an academic advantage over those who start later. “We should not let our children lag behind by not allowing them the advantages other states already provide for their young children which has time and time again proven to be an effective strategy in their overall development,” he wrote.
Questions about research
If policymakers are concerned about the benefits of early-childhood programs fading out once students reach 2nd or 3rd grade, it would seem logical that they would want to ensure that students receive a high-quality kindergarten experience. One complication, however, is that the research on full-day kindergarten compared to half-day has been somewhat mixed. Some past studies found that those in full-day programs learned more than those in half-day, while others found no advantage or benefits only for certain groups of students.
In 2014, Chloe Gibbs, then a professor at the University of Virginia, published a study showing that full-day kindergarten has a “sizeable, positive effect” on children’s literacy skills at the end of kindergarten. Hispanic children especially benefited by being in a full-day classroom. The study, focusing on Indiana districts that used a lottery to randomly assign students to a limited number of full-day classes while the rest when to half-day programs, was considered stronger than those conducted in the past.
Now at the University of Notre Dame, Gibbs is looking at the impact of states’ efforts to expand full-day kindergarten. Her preliminary results suggest that such expansions are improving students' later academic performance. “In other words, a kindergarten cohort that was exposed to greater full-day kindergarten provision performed better on assessments when they reached 3rd through 8th grades," she says.
She's also finding, however, that expansion has increased achievement gaps, especially between Hispanic and white students. "This suggests that as full-day kindergarten has become more universal, rather than largely targeted in disadvantaged schools and districts, expansions are actually contributing to greater inequality by race/ethnicity in test-score outcomes," she says.
The findings raise the same questions that educators and policymakers have been making about preschool for years — should programs be available to all 5-year-olds, or targeted to those less likely to enter kindergarten with high-quality early learning experiences?
Kristie Kauerz, a professor and the director of the National P-3 Center at the University of Washington's College of Education, says that even as states and districts have pushed to expand pre-K — which is typically paid for outside of the education funding formula — there is sometimes less of an “appetite” for full-day kindergarten because it might mean taking money away from other K-12 priorities like facilities, teachers’ salaries and other operating costs.
In addition, P-3 initiatives often ignore K-3 and are still more focused on expanding pre-K, she says. “In general, the K-12 field seems to be uninterested in meaningfully re-thinking what goes in the primary grades,” she says.
In an earlier paper for the Foundation for Child Development, she called full-day kindergarten the “bridge” between pre-K and the early grades. Full-day kindergarten, she wrote, “should become an expected and embedded grade in every state’s and school district’s education reform efforts.”
A year from now, however, lawmakers will likely still be introducing bills related to kindergarten.
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