Study Urges Work on Kindergarten Policy

ECS Report Contends States Are Lacking Clear Rules, Incentives

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States need to clarify and strengthen their policies on full-day kindergarten so youngsters have high-quality learning experiences during that critical year, concludes a study released by the Education Commission of the States.

The Denver-based organization’s analysis of kindergarten statutes in all 50 states found that most states lack policies guaranteeing access to full-day kindergarten, don’t have rules for how kindergarten programs should be paid for by the state, and don’t have specific standards on instructional and teacher quality.

States also vary widely on how they define a full day: Some say four hours constitutes a full day, while others require six hours. And most states don’t collect data by race, ethnicity, and family income on which children are attending half-day or full-day programs.

See Also
See the accompanying item, “Chart: Kindergarten Attendance”

While half-day kindergarten has existed for most children since the 1930s, the report, which was released on July 12, comes as more states and districts are instituting full-day programs as one strategy to help narrow the academic-achievement gaps between disadvantaged and middle-class children.

For example, in Delaware, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, wants to see full-day kindergarten available statewide by 2008. The state is now implementing pilot full-day programs and reimbursing districts that already use local money to pay for such programs.

Providing Continuity

Kristie Kauerz, the director of the early-learning program at the ECS and the author of the report, writes that full-day programs also recognize that close to 70 percent of children attend some center-based preschool before kindergarten, and that many of them are already used to attending full-day programs before they enter public school.

“Full-day kindergarten provides continuity for children who are accustomed to full-day experiences outside the home as well as continuity with schedules in 1st grade and beyond,” the report says.

Ms. Kauerz also notes in the report that full-day programs have benefits for working parents, by offering them one place where their children can go while they are at work. Teachers benefit, too, she writes, because they have “more time for both formal and informal instruction” promoting cognitive development as well physical and social-emotional learning.

Because kindergarten serves as a bridge between early-childhood programs and the rest of the K-12 education system, learning standards for the kindergarten level should be connected to those for both preschool and for 1st grade and beyond, Ms. Kauerz argues.

The standards should also reflect not just facts and general knowledge, the report says, but also other areas of a young child’s development, including language and literacy and physical, motor, and social development.

Mark Ginsberg, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, said that while the attention to kindergarten is fine, policymakers shouldn’t get too caught up in the amount of time that children spend in school.

“What we’ve been saying for a long time is that the bigger issue is the quality of the experience,” he said. “I think we need to be investing more in young children generally. It’s tragic that we have to think about whether we can afford it.”

Even though she recommends that states require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, Ms. Kauerz writes that in the absence of such policies, states can encourage districts to expand their kindergarten programs to a full day if certain financial incentives are in place.

Policy Incentives

For example, a district has an incentive to offer kindergarten when the per-pupil funding from the state is the same as it is for 1st grade.

But even stronger incentives exist when the level of funding is greater than it is for 1st grade and when more money is provided for full-day than for half-day kindergarten. Seven states—Alaska, Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, and Wisconsin—have such policies.

Some states, however, create disincentives for districts by setting the per-pupil-aid rate lower for kindergarten than for 1st grade and by offering the same amount of money for a full-day program as they would for a half-day. Nineteen states pay for kindergarten that way, the ECS report says.

Ms. Kauerz recommends that even if states can’t afford to pay for full-day programs for all kindergartners, they should implement strategies that enable districts to offer full-day classes for certain populations of students, such as those from poor families or those in schools that are not making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Vol. 24, Issue 43, Pages 26, 30

Published in Print: July 27, 2005, as Study Urges Work on Kindergarten Policy
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