Early Childhood Opinion

Kindergarten Readiness: Enhancing Equity With 4-Year-Old Kindergarten

By Urban Education Contributor — December 18, 2017 4 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Madison Education Partnership (MEP). This post is by Jonathan Mills, Communications Assistant, and Dominique Bradley, Project Manager at MEP.

MEP previously blogged about initial research on kindergarten for 4-year-olds and its potential to close equity gaps, the benefits of research-practice partnership work, and the development and implementation of a “no surprises” policy.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective.

Since the 2008 Wisconsin state budget offered start up grants to promote four-year-old kindergarten (4K) opportunities, more Wisconsin children are enrolled in 4K than ever before. This statewide increase is also evident in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). A collective dedication to serving these students drives the Madison Education Partnership (MEP), a research-practice partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Education Research (WCER) and MMSD.

Previously, we blogged about MEP’s inaugural research brief — a descriptive assessment of enrollment patterns in MMSD four-year-old kindergarten — and the development and enactment of a robust “no surprises” policy. In this post, we discuss main findings from our subsequent report, just released this week, on the association between enrollment in MMSD 4K and preparation for attendance in kindergarten and how some of these findings tested our “no surprises” policy.

Our research brief addresses the following research questions:

  1. Is MMSD 4K enrollment associated with higher literacy and socioemotional skills in kindergarten?

  2. Do the associations between MMSD 4K enrollment and kindergarten readiness vary across racial/ethnic groups, free/reduced lunch program participation, or parental education?

  3. Is 4K site type (school-based or community partner) associated with varying levels of MMSD kindergarten readiness?

  4. How does the association between 4K enrollment and kindergarten readiness in MMSD compare to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), a peer urban district in Wisconsin?

To better understand how to improve the quality of 4K, with a focus on students’ transition into kindergarten, we conducted a descriptive analysis of school readiness as measured by literacy and socioemotional learning skills. We measured literacy using the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) tool and socioemotional skills using teacher evaluations on student report cards.

In internal district reports, MMSD researchers typically focus on whether or not children meet a specific benchmark on PALS. Recognizing that benchmark analysis could mask the substantial variation in students’ phonological skills, we instead examined the full range of PALS scores across student cohorts from 2013 to 2016. We characterize findings by referring to the percentage of otherwise similar children a child with a particular characteristic would be expected to outscore on PALS. As a point of reference, the typical child outscores half of other similar children.

Overall, we find that children who attend MMSD 4K outscore 54% of otherwise similar students in literacy skills upon entering kindergarten. We find evidence of a very modest association (about 3 percentage points increase) between enrollment in 4K and the probability of engaging in consistently positive prosocial classroom behavior most of the time. We also find that among students enrolled in 4K, students of color, students from low-income households, and those whose parents have no post-secondary education enter kindergarten with appreciably stronger literacy skills than similar students who did not attend 4K. This finding suggests that the MMSD 4K program serves as an important equity-enhancing program for the district.

As with our previous report on enrollment in MMSD 4K, we sought to provide context for the district through an analytic comparison to other similar districts. As a condition of our use of the PALS data, and unlike our previous report on 4K enrollment, we were required to have consent from comparison districts to conduct the analysis. Given those constraints, our comparison district for this report was Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Though there are differences in the composition and context of MPS and MMSD, they are the two largest urban districts in Wisconsin and serve a more racially and economically diverse population of students than most other districts in the state. Based on our comparative analysis of students’ PALS scores, we find that 4K students in MPS were experiencing a sizable advantage in literacy skills upon entry to kindergarten over MMSD 4K students entering kindergarten, net of student or family characteristics.

Clearly these results were a mixed bag for our partnering district. Though we found that enrollment in MMSD’s 4K program was indeed associated with gains in literacy and socioemotional skills, the comparative analysis highlighted the potential of 4K programming and the fact that the district still has work to do to fully realize that potential. In the weeks leading up to the public release, we relied heavily on our internal research brief process map and the conditions of our “no surprises” policy, both of which had been strengthened during the release of our previous enrollment report. In the spirit of the partnership, prior to public release of our report, we met with district leadership and key program personnel. These meetings gave the district the opportunity to digest the report findings, ask clarifying questions, and develop an internal strategy for reacting to the public release.

In Thursday’s blog post, we will hear from the district about the importance and implications of these findings.

For more detailed findings on all of the research questions, find the full report here.

Photo courtesy of Madison Metropolitan School District.

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