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Viewpoints: If kindergarten is delayed, kids need quality preschool

05.02.2010 | Sacramento Bee | Jill Cannon

When is the best time for children to start kindergarten? It’s a question asked by parents trying to decide if their 4-year-olds will be ready for kindergarten in the fall. And it is once again the topic of debate in Sacramento.

California has one of the latest kindergarten entry cutoff dates in the nation. Children who reach their fifth birthday by Dec. 2 are allowed to enter school that year. In other words, children as young as 4 years, 9 months, start kindergarten. The Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence and the Legislative Analyst’s Office have recommended changing the cutoff date to Sept. 1 so children entering school would be at least 5 years old. Two bills in the Legislature propose making this change.

The central issue for many is one of school readiness: Students should begin formal schooling when they have the ability to meet the challenges ahead of them. There’s no question that kindergarten has a heavier emphasis on academics today than it had before. Giving the youngest children an extra year to mature socially, emotionally, physically and cognitively gives them a better chance to succeed academically. Many states over the years have moved their cutoff dates, partially on the basis of this argument.

Pragmatic budget concerns in California are also motivating interest in moving the cutoff date. Changing the date from December to September in a single school year would create a one-time reduction in the size of the kindergarten class – and potentially school costs. Using current enrollment figures, more than 100,000 California children with fall birthdates would be delayed from entering kindergarten for a year. According to the LAO, this could either save the state money in the short term or help schools by freeing up about $700 million in the education budget in the first year alone to spend in other ways.

This is a tempting argument at a time when the state faces a big deficit and schools are struggling with major cuts in their budgets. But any change should be based on what is best for young children.

Available evidence suggests that moving up California’s kindergarten cutoff date is indeed likely to boost average student achievement test scores, especially for elementary math and reading. This is mainly because some students would be a year older when taking those tests. Schools should also benefit because test scores are an important accountability measure, and school achievement growth would presumably rise along with student scores.

At the same time, changing the cutoff date is not expected to have harmful effects. It’s unlikely to increase the overall number of children who are asked to repeat a grade or are enrolled in special education programs. Nor is it likely to significantly reduce high school graduation rates.

But there’s one important question to ask: What will the children with fall birthdays do during the year they wait to enroll in kindergarten? Those with high-quality learning opportunities are more likely to spend it gaining the social and academic readiness skills they’ll need to succeed in the classroom. Children from disadvantaged families are the ones least likely to have these opportunities. Available evidence suggests they will benefit less from an extra preschool year than those from more affluent families, potentially widening the gap in kindergarten readiness.

One way to address this concern is to redirect some or all of the savings generated by changing the cutoff date to helping prepare children for kindergarten. Research on high-quality preschool, for instance, shows that there can be short- and long-term benefits. These include reducing gaps in school readiness. And money spent on good programs today has the potential to save costs later on. But there is a limited supply of high-quality preschool programs, so careful planning will be needed to extend resources to a large number of disadvantaged children for an extra year.

Increasing the average age of entering kindergartners can lead to academic benefits for California’s children. But the change needs to be coupled with wise investment in pre-kindergarten learning opportunities for disadvantaged families.

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