Kindergarten classes in Escanaba and Dearborn are quite similar, with 5-year-olds wiggling in their chairs and brightly-colored artwork lining the walls. But when children walked out of those classrooms in the spring of 2011, they faced different futures.
In Escanaba Area Public Schools, almost 40 percent of the children were told they weren’t moving on to first grade and would be taking a second year of kindergarten; in Dearborn City Schools, less than 2 percent were asked to repeat kindergarten.
The chances of your child repeating kindergarten is not related to academics or maturity, but geography. A Bridge Magazine analysis revealed kindergarten retention rates in Michigan ranging from about 1 percent to more than 45 percent – a disparity that bears no relation to academic outcomes, poverty or race.
Michigan fails a startling one in nine kindergartners, despite study after study finding no long-lasting academic benefit to holding students back in kindergarten, and some studies finding kindergarten retention hurts kids and increases the risk of dropping out.
Taxpayers are in effect getting one school year for the price of two – paying an average of $7,000 per failed 5-year-old for an additional year of schooling that doesn’t produce better learners.
Most of the 13,000 failed kids – costing the state $90 million annually – had no chance – their retentions were planned before they stepped into a classroom for the first time.
Kindergarten is most likely grade for retention
One of every nine kindergarten students in Michigan public schools repeated kindergarten in 2010-11, according to Michigan Department of Education data, by far the highest rate of retention of any grade.
Bridge’s analysis found:
Rural and Northern Michigan schools had the highest kindergarten retention rates. New Lothrop Area Public Schools, between Flint and Saginaw, held back a whopping 45 percent of its kindergarten students in 2010-11, the latest year for which data is available. New Lothrop was the highest in the state, followed by Escanaba (39.8 percent), Cass City (39.0), Charlevoix (37.9) and Glen Lake (35.8) .
Schools in Southeast Michigan had the lowest retention rates. Utica Community Schools retained 1.24 percent. (Data is only available for districts that retained 10 or more students, so plenty of small districts don’t have retention rates in the analysis.) Dearborn retained 1.4 percent, Farmington, 1.9 percent, Rochester, 2 percent and Detroit, 2 percent.
There was no correlation between kindergarten retention rates and a district’s academic achievement. Charlevoix and Escanaba students have above average scores on standardized tests, but when those scores are adjusted for the income level of families attending those schools, students don’t appear to have gained much if anything from an extra year in kindergarten. Meanwhile, there are schools with low retention rates that are among the state’s high-achievers and low-achievers.
The one constant: money.
Almost $100 million in extra costs
The 13,364 kids who repeated kindergarten in 2010-11 will take 14 years to graduate instead of 13. That extra year will cost Michigan $93 million – based on the $6,966 minimum state aid grant for the current year.
While some of those children were judged by teachers and parents to need an extra year to master the skills needed for first grade, the majority were “planned retentions,” with schools knowing before the children enter kindergarten for the first day that the students will be there two years.
The goals of such programs are to give kids who are eligible for kindergarten an extra year before entering first grade. Children in the programs tend to be younger (until this year, children were eligible to enroll in kindergarten in September if they turned 5 by Dec. 1); and more boys are in such two-year programs than girls, says Lindy Buch, director of early childhood education for the Michigan Department of Education.
The programs go by different names in different communities, such as Ready 5’s, Begindergarten and Developmental Kindergarten. Buch uses a different name:
Redshirting is typically associated with delaying a college athlete’s participation in a sport for a year to give him more time to develop. In education, it also refers to delaying entry to first grade.
“There’s a slew of research on redshirting,” Buch said. “Some families say my kid isn’t even 5 yet, families felt they aren’t ready. Families sometimes have strong feelings about holding boys back. You’ll hear that some families want to hold boys back for athletics, so they’ll be bigger in high school.”
Kindergarten eligibility dates are the same across the state. There’s no reason to believe families are 29 times more concerned about their children being ready for first grade in Escanaba as they are in Dearborn. So what accounts for the vast difference? Decisions by individual school districts as to whether to operate a developmental kindergarten class.
Those decisions are ““more related to desire and opinion than data,” Buch said. “It’s a matter of (individual school) policy.”
Those decisions have an impact on taxpayers as well as overall school budgets.
The state will pay at least $6,966 for that extra year of kindergarten. By comparison, the state pays $3,400 for the state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds, the Great Start Readiness Program. Studies have shown that children enrolled in GSRP have lower rates of retention than similar children who didn’t attend the preschool. In other words, kindergarten retention costs twice as much as the GSRP preschool program which is a proven school-readiness strategy.
Escanaba convinced of retention’s value
Escanaba school administrators, teachers and parents have a long history of multiple-year kindergarten.
“Our main (goal) was to provide a good foundation for first grade,” said Paulette Wickham, kindergarten coordinator and elementary school principal at Escanaba Area Public Schools. “We had a lot of parents who choose readiness because they want (their child) exposed to school before beginning the (kindergarten) curriculum.”
In 2010-11, Escanaba had 111 children taking a second year of kindergarten. By comparison, Detroit -- the state’s biggest school district -- held back 115.
To Wickham, redshirting makes a difference down the road. “When you look at a Dec. 1 birthday, you’re not turning 18 until December of your freshman year in college,” Wickham said.
Almost all of Escanaba’s kindergarten retention is planned retention, through developmental kindergarten classes. “There’s no stigma here attached to two years of kindergarten,” Wickham said. “In my experience, they are more mature in the (academic work) they are going to have to face. You don’t have them in first or second grade with their head on the desk crying.”
“To me it makes sense if we’re going to have any retention, to have it as early as possible (before) they create a peer group,” said Escanaba Superintendent Michele Lemire. “An important piece is what the parents want for the child.”
This year, the district dropped its developmental kindergarten program to make classroom space for full-day kindergarten (“I was never a fan of planned retention,” Lemire said). It’s a move that should mean fewer kids taking two years of kindergarten. But in Escanaba, where two years of kindergarten has been the standard for decades, parents have different ideas.
Dozens of families moved their 5-year-olds to private schools still offering kindergarten readiness programs, or have kept them at home. “Families are asking for a second year,” Wickham said. By early March, the parents of 13 of 55 kindergarten students had already asked to have their child held back. Even if no other parents ask for a redshirt between now and August, Wickham’s school’s retention rate would be more than double the state retention rate.
“I believe in my heart of hearts, when I look at the children in readiness, it’s about them being ready for success in future grades,” Wickham said.
Research finds no benefit to retention
Shane Jimerson has heard that belief from administrators, teachers and parents across the country. “They simply have a belief, and they’ve articulated a rationale for that, and it’s often based on the one student who succeeded,” said Jimerson, a University of California-Santa Barbara psychology professor who has written extensively on grade retention. “Because the children are in kindergarten, there’s a prevailing opinion that they’re so young, we should set the research aside. But when you look at the actual data, you see grade retention has not yielded lasting effects. Sometimes you’ll see an increase in (academic achievement) the following year, but that’s not always the case either.”
Jimerson’s point is straight-forward: If there’s no long-term academic benefit to kindergarten retention, why are schools doing it?
“Grade retention is the single biggest indicator of dropping out of school,” Jimerson said. “For some, it will be the defining characteristic about their school careers.
One hundred years of research shows that the children who need help the most are harmed the most,” Jimerson said.
Dearborn avoids retention
Dearborn takes a different approach to struggling kindergartners. Rather than holding them back for a second year, the children get extra support to help them catch up.
“Just because they are not ready in kindergarten it doesn’t mean they are a failure,” said Jill Chochol, assistant superintended for elementary education at Dearborn City Schools. “They may not have had the experiences or maturity yet So we provide more individualized support.”
Reading specialists, resource teachers and bilingual experts work with struggling students.
Another factor in Dearborn’s low kindergarten retention rate is a robust Great Start Readiness Program for 4-year-olds. “A third of our students were in GSRP,” Chochol said. “We have 480 slots and every slot is filled.”
The district also has a tuition-based preschool program for families who do not qualify for GSRP. “We feel the early start is beneficial,” Chochol said.
State works to curtail retention
Michigan has taken several steps that may help lower kindergarten retention rates.
Most districts switched to full-day kindergarten this year when the state stopped offering a full-day student allowance for half-day programs. Having twice as much instruction time should help prepare more students for first grade.
“My students are reading much quicker,” said Escanaba kindergarten teacher Mary Beth LaPorte. “I’ve been hoping for this for a long time.”
The Department of Education is developing a standard kindergarten assessment, so that all children are judged on their readiness for first grade on the same basis, MDE’s Buch said. That standard should be in place for fall 2014.
And the state’s cutoff date for kindergarten eligibility is being moved over several years from Dec. 1 (one of the latest dates in the country) to Sept. 1. With the new cutoff date, all children will be at least 5 when they walk into a kindergarten classroom.
But Buch warns that there will still be pressure to redshirt kindergartners.
“With a Dec. 1 cutoff, we hear worries about the boys with fall birthdays,” Buch said. “States with Sept. 1 cutoffs hear worries about the boys with summer birthdays. And Indiana, when they moved to a June 1 cutoff, heard worries about boys with spring birthdays.
“Someone is always going to be the youngest,” Buch said. Kindergarten retention is “based on the false notion of child development, that children will just develop when they’re older (without intervention).”
“We need to move beyond the grade retention vs. social promotion question,” professor Jimerson said. “That is not the question. The question is what are we going to do to help this child learn?”
Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.