Can we do without kindergarten?

January 8, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary

As districts across New York State begin to create their budgets for the 2013-14 school year, they labor in the shadow of multiple challenges. In addition to ever-rising pension and health-care costs, schools now face the very real prospect of less state aid as the financial toll of Hurricane Sandy continues to climb. Add to that new calls for beefed-up campus security in the weeks since last month’s tragic school shooting in Connecticut.

At some point, something somewhere has to give.

And in some schools, it could be kindergarten.

Although every public school district in New York currently offers some form of kindergarten, state law does not require them to. When times are tight, any non-required program can land in the budget-cutting crosshairs.

So what would it mean if a school district cut kindergarten? What would students stand to lose from an educational and developmental standpoint?

Plenty, researchers say.

The benefits of full-day kindergarten include improved language skills, social development and academic achievement, according to numerous studies.

A 2010 study by Harvard economists analyzed the impact of early education on adult outcomes, ranging from college attendance and earnings to retirement savings, home ownership and marriage.

“The stakes are tremendously high,” researcher John Friedman writes. “And this research highlights how critically important it is for educators to support kindergarten and to spend its resources correctly.”

Friedman’s research calculated the difference between an above average kindergarten teacher and a below average teacher on lifetime earnings of students is about $16,000 more per student.

In an essay in Psychology Today, psychologist Jim Taylor said the Harvard research shows “kindergartners are gaining something very powerful from quality early education. … a belief in the value of education and a joy (or at least an appreciation) for learning.

Kindergarten helps build students’ confidence in their ability to learn. Students begin to learn important life skills such as motivation, discipline, patience, and persistence, “all qualities that aren’t directly assessed by testing,” Taylor said.

A product of 19th century German school reform, the kindergarten model embraced the idea of education through creative play, social interaction and natural expression. It was introduced in the United States in the 1860s, as a bridge between home and formal schooling. By the 1920s, most U.S. public school systems had included kindergarten in their programming.

No longer strictly the domain of finger paint and play, today’s kindergarten is where children learn to read, follow instructions, interact with both peers and adults and dig in to the subjects they’ll be studying for years to come: reading, writing, arithmetic… and then some.

In Marcellus Centrals School District, in Central New York, kindergarten core curriculum includes math (sequencing, geometry, measurement), English language arts (reading, listening, speaking), social studies (community, country, citizenship), science (weather, seasons) and health (hand washing, nutrition, safety).

“Children come to school with wide differences in readiness,” said Cynthia Bird, elementary curriculum coordinator for Marcellus, which has five kindergarten classes of 22 students. “Some children are already reading, some don’t know the names of the letters yet. Some children can add and subtract, some don’t recognize numbers or understand what they mean. Some kindergartners are almost 6, some are still 4.”

The kindergarten year is one of substantial growth in many areas – academic, social and emotional, Bird continued.

“If children came directly to first grade, we would lose a whole year of learning in kindergarten,” she said. “First grade would simply become kindergarten, with an even broader span of abilities among the students. It would shorten the learning timeframe for all students.”

Even as some districts consider the prospect of cutting kindergarten, a panel of experts is recommending the addition of even more early education for New York’s students.

In a report sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week, the New NY Education Reform Commission recommended New York adopt statewide full-day pre-kindergarten. The report points to “research (that) indicates that quality early learning programs are one of the surest ways to address the dropout problem.”

“Studies show that graduates of high quality early education programs are far more likely to read at grade level and graduate from high school,” commissioners write. “Research indicates that as much as one-half the achievement gap is already established before (first) grade.”

For further reading on this topic online, check out:

Full Day Kindergarten Facts from the National Education Association

Recent Research on All-Day Kindergarten from Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)