Mandatory kindergarten debate resurfaces

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Gill Elementary kindergarten students Sampada Raut, left, and Breanne Reynolds work together on a sketch as other students find ways to pass time, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Legislation has been introduced to make kindergarten mandatory in Michigan, with a lawmaker saying children need to be better prepared for the state's third-grade retention law that takes effect next school year.

An estimated 95 percent of Michigan children already attend kindergarten, dividing education experts on whether a law is necessary.

But several involved in the education of young children agree any push to mandate kindergarten should include more access or even a mandate for preschool.

Randy Speck, superintendent of the Madison School District in Oakland County, said mandatory kindergarten makes sense when it's coupled with an equal amount of investment in quality, early childhood education.

"Having more kids in kindergarten is great, but having more kids prepared for kindergarten is even greater," Speck said.

In Michigan, children are required to begin school by age 6 under state law. Kindergarten, which requires children to be be age 5 by Sept. 1 to attend, is not compulsory.

Gill Elementary kindergarten teacher Jordan Holmes and her students compile data to make a bar graph of the number and type of pets owned by them in their class, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 in Farmington Hills, Mich.

According to state education data, last school year, 116,636 children were in kindergarten across Michigan. 

State Rep. Bill Sowerby, D-Clinton Township, sponsor of the kindergarten bill, said research from the Legislative Service Bureau showed that about 95 percent of children attended kindergarten in Michigan the last five school years, but their attendance is spotty.

"These children, many attend three of the five days. They may arrive at class an hour or two late on any given day," he said. "These children are not being prepared as well as they could be if we had mandatory kindergarten."

Sowerby says early childhood education lays the groundwork for future academic success and studies have shown that children who attend kindergarten are better prepared for elementary school both academically and socially.

With third-grade reading requirements taking effect in the 2019-20 school year  —  those requirements are tied to a law that allows educators to retain struggling third-graders if they read a grade level behind on the state's assessment of English language arts — Sowerby says it's more important than ever to ensure students are not falling behind.

"I don’t want to see third-graders held back due to their failure to read on the test," he said. "Having mandatory kindergarten will better prepare for them for third-grade requirements."

Gill Elementary kindergarten students work with their teacher to compile data to make a bar graph of the number and type of pets owned by them in their class, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 in Farmington Hills, Mich.

The bill would require children who turn age 5 before or on Sept.1 be enrolled in kindergarten for the upcoming school year.

The length of the kindergarten school day — full-day or half-day — would be left to the discretion of the school districts, Sowerby said, noting his previous bill on the matter, introduced in 2017, called for a full day of kindergarten.

"Leaving the decision up to a school district is local control, and it's important," Sowerby said. 

Sowerby's most recent bill has been introduced but not called up for a hearing by the education committee chairman.

Most states don't mandate

Most states do not mandate kindergarten. According to a 2018 report by the Education Commission of the States, only 17 states and the District of Columbia require children to attend kindergarten. And the length of day varies among those states.

Kindergarten in Michigan has undergone some changes in recent years. In 2012, public schools were told they must offer all-day kindergarten to receive full funding for each kindergarten pupil. Many who had been offering only half days made the switch.

In 2013, the cutoff point for a child turning 5 and being allowed to enroll in kindergarten was gradually moved forward from Dec. 1 to Sept. 1 to increase the age of children entering that grade. 

Gill Elementary kindergarten students work with their teacher to compile data to make a bar graph of the number and type of pets owned by members of the class.

While attendance is high in kindergarten, it is the grade with the highest rate of retention among school children grades K-12 for the last five years, according to Michigan school data.

In the 2016-17 school year, the most recent year data is available, 12,548 children who completed their kindergarten year in Michigan were retained for another year of kindergarten. That's 10.8 percent of the entire class. By comparison, only 2.4 percent of first-graders were held back that year.

Michigan Department of Education spokesman Bill DiSessa said those students "were deemed not ready to move on to first grade for various academic or developmental reasons."

An additional 4,130 students, labeled as kindergarten planned retention, were also retained that same year. State education officials said those children were part of the second year of a two-year kindergarten program, which is also referred to as Young 5s.

DiSessa said state education officials are reviewing Sowerby's bill and have taken no position on it yet.

Discussing retention

Amy Parks, an associate professor of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Michigan State University, said she doesn't see evidence that kids are being held out of kindergarten in Michigan.

"The truth is kindergarten it is widely adopted across the United States whether it is mandatory or not," she said. "The vast majority are going to kindergarten already. There are not a lot of 5-year-olds sitting at home and not going to school."

State lawmakers should focus on improving early childhood education and provide more access to preschool, Parks said, because there are not enough spots for the people who want them.

Parks said one reason kindergarten retentions run high in Michigan is it is perceived as being less harmful to retain at that grade because children aren’t as socially aware of the stigma attached to being held back.

A kindergarten student plays an educational game on a data pad in Farmington Hills.

"The research on this says retention does not help in the long run," Parks said. "You get a short-term bump. Some gains stay. And then they start to fall off. And you increase the risk of drop off."

The age a child could start kindergarten was moved from Dec. 1 to Sept. 1 in Michigan to allow children to develop more emotionally and socially, Parks said.

"Kids started young. Let's give them another year," she said. "I hope would that retentions would fall down as the age date moved forward." 

Nell Duke, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan whose work focuses on early literacy development, said so much learning is expected to occur in kindergarten now that if children enter first grade without it, it can be hard on the child, the teacher and even classmates.

"Optional kindergarten can lead families to think that kindergarten is not important," Duke said. "Even families who enroll their child in kindergarten might think attendance is not important given that kindergarten is not mandatory anyway. A mandate helps send the message to families and schools that the learning opportunities of kindergarten are valuable."

According to the National Center for Education, more than 10 percent of 5-year-olds are not enrolled nationally.

One interesting aspect of the third-grade retention law is that prior retention in kindergarten, first or second grade exempts a child from retention in third grade.

State Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield, chair of the House education committee where the bill is based, says she is still looking at the measure and is not sure it would be called up for a hearing.

"It's something I will take a look at. Personally, I'm not in favor of mandating kindergarten," said Hornberger, who taught elementary art education for 20 years and had kindergarten classes for 18 years in the East China School District in St. Clair County.

"... We are working on some stuff with kindergarten with the third-grade reading law. We need to put some things in place to get there in third grade."

Among them, she said, is looking at how kindergarten is structured.

Helping prepare kids

Of the Michigan children enrolled in kindergarten in the 2017-18 school year, 53 percent were not enrolled in a state-funded early childhood education program before coming to school.

To increase those numbers, Michigan has invested heavily in state-funded preschool in recent years, spending $243 million a year from 2014-18 in the Great Start Readiness Program, which created slots for 64,441 preschool students.

Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance, said mandatory kindergarten is an important discussion as interest grows in the education and business community in providing universal preschool access in Michigan schools.

The alliance, a coalition of education leaders comprised of superintendents from every district in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, has not taken an official position on the bill.

"We know when kids are in the classroom, they're learning, and having them there sooner along with parental involvement in the schools sooner, can potentially be a step toward improving our reading scores and other measures," McCann said. "It does, however, come with a price tag for schools, so any discussion about universal pre-K or mandatory kindergarten needs to include funding for schools to pay for those programs as well."

Both teacher's unions in Michigan support mandatory kindergarten and want more kids to enroll in preschool.

"We believe our state should go beyond mandatory kindergarten to also include universal pre-school education, which a myriad of studies has proven to yield tremendous benefits in student achievement throughout their academic career," said David Crim, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association.

By third grade, a lot of the advantages a child gets from kindergarten disappear unless intervention is continuous in grades 1 and 2, said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, who reviewed in 2010  about 35 studies looking at the benefits of full-day kindergarten versus half-day.

“Especially for a child coming from less well-off home, the boost they can get from kindergarten is the first step to addressing the achievement gap," he said. "Kindergarten is not a silver bullet."