By Larry Schweinhart/HighScope Educational Research Foundation
One of our conclusions from the 2012 Great Start Readiness Program Evaluation was that grade retention is a major state policy, made locally, that deserves serious study. Of students who had the Great Start program, 37 percent repeated a grade during their schooling, as compared to nearly half the comparison group students. All these students came from low-income families averaging about $18,000 a year. By the end of first grade, 7 percent of the comparison group students were already behind a grade. However, this was not an estimate of the current statewide rate because it was based on data from over a decade ago and only for low-income children.
Ron French reports in “Michigan’s 13,000 ‘redshirt’ kindergartners’ that the statewide percentage is higher than that today: 11 percent of Michigan children – one in nine – attend kindergarten for two school years rather than one. He notes that this extra year of school for these students costs the state $93 million, even though studies find no benefit to the practice.
In 1840, Friedrich Froebel invented kindergarten for 3- to 5-year-olds in Germany. When kindergarten came to the U.S., it became a program for 5-year-olds, pared down from a three-school-year program to a one-school-year program, the same duration as grades 1 to 12. Similarly, Head Start began in 1965 as a program for 3- to 5-year-olds, but over the years became increasingly focused on 4-year-olds. As states established early childhood programs in recent decades, most of them, too, served 4-year-olds and became known as pre-kindergarten (a word whose roots, oddly, mean “before children’s garden”).
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Gesell Institute of Child Development led a movement focusing on the readiness of children for school. Extra-year kindergarten programs became a way to give children extra time to become ready for school. For some, kindergarten became a multi-year program again, but this time for 5- and 6-year-olds.
Why should the Great Start Readiness Program at age 4 have positive effects on school readiness, school achievement, reduced grade retention and on-time high school graduation while an extra year of kindergarten, also in early childhood, has been found to have no benefits?
The difference is surely in how the two programs operate.
Extra-year kindergarten programs operate with no guidance from the state. They arise locally, instigated by educators and parents; but even locally, teachers receive little guidance. The general understanding is very much like grade retention at other levels: give selected children more time to mature and master the content of the grade. Unlike the Great Start Readiness Program, extra-year kindergarten programs qualify for the basic state per-student allotment of $6,966 this year.
Great Start Readiness Program classes operate with considerable guidance from the state: oversight from the Office of Great Start in the Michigan Department of Education; regular use of the Preschool Program Quality Assessment; guidelines in the Early Childhood Standards of Quality for Prekindergarten; the Implementation Manual; and so forth. The general understanding is that these programs are intended to contribute to children’s development, and a state-funded evaluation confirms that they do.
Indeed, the rationale for the state initiating the program in the first place was the promise of positive effects on children’s development. Unlike the extra-year kindergarten programs, Great Start Readiness does not qualify for the state per-student allotment; instead it gets $3,400, proposed to increase to $3,625.
This comparison has implications for both types of programs. First, state policies are more generous towards extra-year kindergarten programs that are not effective than towards the Great Start programs that are effective; the reverse would make more sense.
To make these Great Start budgets work, school districts and agencies have teachers teach children in the morning and the afternoon, either two groups of children or one group all day. In so doing, they must detract from teacher time for engaging parents, planning and professional development.
Second, if school districts continue to invest taxpayer dollars in extra-year kindergarten programs, the state should provide them with more guidance, support and evaluation -- as is done for the Great Start programs. Then maybe they, too, could be an investment worth making.