Guest column: Kindergarten retention, in current form, doesn’t help children

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.

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Mon, 04/01/2013 - 10:08am
I've been fascinated by Finland's K-12 system, which has been ranked as one of the best, if not the best, primary education systems in the world. Children in Finland don't start kindergarten until age 7!
Chuck Fellows
Mon, 04/01/2013 - 4:36pm
Very profound is the statement, "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." Getting children ready for school. Getting CHILDREN ready for school? Contrast the Finnish example, getting the school ready for each individual child, not exposing them before age seven and from before birth to age 7 providing social supports and health care. ("Finnish Lessons" Pasi Salhberg). This concept flips our system on its head - we insist the children accommodate the adult worldview versus the adults giving profound recognition to the child's worldview.
Earl Newman
Tue, 04/02/2013 - 11:14am
One wonders why the Center for Michigan has decided to turn its sights on school districts that offer two-year kindergarten programs. The American public school system is built on local school districts. We should be commending those local school districts who act to improve early childhood education, not condemning them. Instead of vague references to "studies" that do not support second year kindergarten programs critics should propose controlled studies that address actual Michigan school programs. The current spate of critical articles published in The Bridge are far too ready to dismiss two-year kindergartens without presenting real data.
Tue, 04/02/2013 - 1:14pm
It's easy to see why the school districts prefer to have so many kids spend 2 years in kindergarten rather than develop a more effective and developmentally-appropriate way to introduce kids to school. The funding that comes with each kindergarten student is significantly more than the district spends in elementary schools, upping the average available for more expensive-to-educate students in high and middle school. The correlation between low-funded rural districts, where fewer parents send their kids to private pre-schools and the rate of kindergarten retention is pretty obvious, too. The root of this problem is that short-sighted or ill-informed people have taken the admirable goal of having all students reading by the end of second grade and projected it linearly back in time to require students to read simple words by the end of traditional K. Many kids, especially boys, are not neurologically or temperamentally ready to read, to use a pencil or pen appropriately, or to sit at desks for most of the day. Making pre-K and K more academic does not mean most students learn more, it means more students come to dislike school because they cannot succeed because of the way the adults have structured their school environment. Students at this age practically can't be prevented from learning material they are ready for, when it is presented in ways they are able to absorb. We need a more hands-on, play based curriculum for all 3 - 5 year olds, featuring plenty of exposure to print through being read to, telling, re-telling and acting out stories, and physical manipulation of learning materials including some illustrated books. If this curriculum is followed by explicit instruction in phonics and other text-decoding techniques in 1st grade, almost all children will learn to read. Forcing the flower of a childs mind to open to the abstraction of text too soon leads to them primarily to frustration and failure. That said, we should also quit grouping our students primarily by their calendar age, and assign them to classrooms, or better still to learning groups for each subject, based on the skills and knowledge they have mastered so far.
Wed, 04/03/2013 - 1:04am
The first concern is what is the purpose of pre-K-12 schooling. If we don;t have that well defined why should we expect any part of the educational system to succeed? It isn't until we or anyone knows what is to be achieved that it can be determined what it will take to get that done. The 'good intentions' of today is pre-K, and yet the rest of the system is doing poorly so how can we expect one year to over come the rest of the system and all the other influences? This lack of clear expectations and a full understanding of what it will take to achieve them sets every effort up to fail or underachieve. Why is it that those who have gone to college are more likely to have their children go to college? It isn't economic status, it is expectations. Once a parent has achieve something that is of value they then raise that expectation for their children. Pre-K can instill that expectation. Only parents and teachers over the years can create such an expectation and reinforce it so it become the children's expectations and something they work for.