Forget About Pre-K: What About Requiring Kindergarten? [Op-Ed]

Education advocates across the nation have been pushing to expand access to high-quality preschool programs.

And yet, kindergarten — the key stepping stone between early childhood education and first grade — is optional in 35 states, according to the Education Commission of the States, despite widespread agreement about the substantial benefits for children who attend. Copious research has found that early childhood education stimulates brain development, promotes long-term academic success, diminishes the potential for future crime, and promises substantial economic returns.

The Benefits of Early Childhood Education

According to the Center for Public Education, children who attend both preschool and kindergarten are more likely to have advanced reading skills by third grade. And those children who are strong readers by third grade are, in turn, more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

Project Star, a comprehensive longitudinal study that tracked more than 11,000 students in Tennessee, used data from standardized tests to determine that children with strong early education experiences scored higher in kindergarten, but those higher test scores were not necessarily sustained through eighth grade. However, students who had kindergarten teachers with ten years of teaching experience or more were found to be making an average of $1,100 more per year by age 27 than those who did not have teachers with as much experience. The students of experienced kindergarten teachers were also found to correlate with increased rates of marriage and retirement savings. Not only is maintaining the trajectory from preschool to primary school important, then, but so is the quality and retention of teachers.

There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that investment in early childhood education yields substantial returns. Economist James Heckman estimates that every dollar invested in early education yields between a seven and ten percent return on investment each year. This means that an $8,000 investment would return over $650,000 to the economy, as the children who attend early education programs are more likely to obtain work and establish self-sufficiency, and less likely to suffer from substance abuse issues or engage in criminal activity, which would drain public resources.

Increase in Testing, Lack of Funding

Where kindergarten does exist, it is not much like what you may remember. The pressure to adhere to Common Core standards has led to kindergarten functioning as another full year of academic study instead of additional time for children to play, despite research showing the importance of play for childhood development and learning.

In some contexts, kindergarten is even being referred to as the “new first grade,” as in a study from the University of Virginia that found that within the span of a decade, kindergarten teachers had decreased the amount of class time spent on music, art, and free choice, and increased time spent on math and literacy by 25 percent. By 2010, approximately 30 percent of the kindergarten teachers surveyed reported relying on standardized testing at least once a month so they could evaluate their students’ academic gains — even though No Child Left Behind doesn’t officially require testing until third grade. In comparison, 11 years earlier, only 11 percent of first-grade teachers disclosed gauging their students’ progress with standardized testing. (When the study began, only first-grade teachers were surveyed; kindergarten teachers were not surveyed until later. That said, it is likely that the percentage of kindergarten teachers utilizing standardized testing in 1999 would have been even lower than the percentage of first-grade teachers using those tools.) In other words, the percentage of 5- and 6-year-olds who were subject to standardized testing more than doubled in a little over a decade.

This increase in testing during kindergarten further suggests that many educators believe that this transitional year is essential to later learning and academic preparation. That is why the fact that kindergarten is not required — and in many cases, also not funded — across most of the country is so surprising.

There’s no doubt about it — skipping kindergarten means missing an important year of foundational academic skills and social development. But without federal mandates for kindergarten, parents must fend for themselves when trying to enroll their kids. In Washington state, for example, some parents pay up to $3,500 to send their children to a full-day kindergarten program, meaning one that ends by about 3:00. There are, however, free programs, such as Head Start, that are available to academically at-risk students — but eligibility requirements, not to mention space constraints, often severely limit who may participate.

Lack of Resources Despite Benefits

So why the policy holdup? In a word: funding.

While policymakers hope that a heavy emphasis on pre-K will provide the academic momentum to keep kids enrolled through kindergarten and beyond, there is still a problem that remains unsolved: Districts, schools, and parents are left with the bill. Kindergarten programs that operate through grant money spend less per pupil than public elementary schools, according to State Impact Indiana. And that’s when there is grant money to be had.

For the rest of public school, the money spent per student is already mandated; there is a certain minimum amount allotted to schools for each student. Because kindergarten isn’t currently mandated, there isn’t a set minimum for those students, which means much less money is spent per pupil for these programs. If kindergarten were to be mandated, there will likely be an increase in spending per student to adhere to the required minimum, plus additional funds to cover those students who wouldn’t otherwise attend school before first grade. Additionally, schools would have to find and hire thousands of qualified kindergarten teachers — quickly — in the midst of a national teacher shortage.

Carving out a budget for kindergarten would also create a cascading set of other funding needs. Currently, according to the Education Commission of the States half-day programs can entail as few as two hours a week in a classroom, or 350 hours a year — as compared to the six-hour days, which translate to 1,170 hours a year, that full-day students enjoy. Mandating pre-primary programs would mean determining a minimum number of acceptable hours for a program; many states would have to increase the services they currently provide, as well as their capacity to deliver those services to a greater number of children.

A Possible Solution

The Center for Public Education has found that a combination of preschool and half-day kindergarten provides a stronger foundation for academic success than no preschool and full-day kindergarten — regardless of the program quality. This finding presents a compelling compromise for the early-education crisis in America.

Given the demonstrated benefits of early education — both to the community and the economy — we can’t really afford not to mandate kindergarten. Teachers are eager to see the results of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which was meant to provide educational equity for all students but ultimately led to a decrease in resources for the schools and students that needed them most. To that end, our expectations for how kindergarten should serve our children should be part of the conversation. One way to do this is to provide universal funding for preschool, and then at least as much support as necessary for half-day kindergarten programs — and full-day programs wherever possible.

Read about the latest updates and opinions on education-related news. You can also find free expert advice and ask questions about preschool here on Noodle.