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Volume 22, Number 4
July/August 2006


A Patchwork of Policies Reinforces Inequity


While participation in high-quality prekindergarten (preK) programs varies widely among racial and socioeconomic groups (see "The School Readiness Gap"), kindergarten attendance in the United States is virtually universal. Some 98 percent of children attend some form of kindergarten before entering first grade, according to data from the Education Commission of the States (ECS). Yet a look beyond these initially encouraging attendance figures reveals stark inconsistencies in hours spent in school, program focus and quality, and alignment with prior and subsequent schooling.

The most obvious disparities in kindergarten attendance across the country involve the length of the school day for kindergartners, according to the 2005 ECS report Full-Day Kindergarten: A Study of State Policies in the United States. Overall, the percentage of children who are enrolled in full-day kindergarten programs has been steadily rising, from about 25 percent in 1984 to more than 60 percent today. But only nine states, all of them in the South (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia), currently have policies requiring that districts provide full-day kindergarten. By contrast, eight states (Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania) do not require districts to offer kindergarten programs at all.

What’s more, terms like “full-day kindergarten” and “half-day kindergarten” mean very different things in different places, according to a 2005 online article from the journal Young Children. Whereas full-day kindergarten is defined as 1,050 hours per academic year in Wisconsin, it is about a third shorter, 720 hours per year, in Florida. And the number of hours defining half-day kindergarten range even more widely, from 165 hours per year in North Dakota to 577 hours per year in Missouri. So while virtually all U.S. children attend kindergarten, kindergarten can last for six hours a day in one school and just two hours in another.

“Kindergarten, especially full-day kindergarten, is not an integral part of K-12 instruction in this country the way people assume that it is,” says Kristie Kauerz, former program director for early learning at the ECS and author of both the ECS report and the Young Children article.

Another area of inconsistency is in program quality. A collaborative group of early childhood experts from educational advocacy groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, the ECS, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and the National Education Association, recently formed to promote consistency and equitable access to high quality kindergarten programs. Among the basic principles the group has agreed on as indicators of high-quality kindergarten are:
  • class sizes that are small enough to “facilitate high-quality teaching”
  • rich, research-based curriculum that can support the learning of children from a variety of backgrounds
  • staffing by degreed, certified teachers with specialized training in early childhood education
  • collaborations that facilitate transition from early childhood learning experiences and to the later elementary grades
Both class sizes and learning standards for kindergarten vary widely from state to state and from district to district. Most state policies on kindergarten do not even include specific provisions regarding class size, despite evidence that smaller classes are associated with learning gains for young children, Kauerz notes.

“I have colleagues in New York City who are teaching 32 kindergartners at a time,” she says.

On the issue of teacher qualifications, only three states (Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Oklahoma) specifically require by statute that kindergarten teachers be certified in early childhood education, according to Kauerz. In states where preK teachers are certified one way (or not at all) and kindergarten teachers have a standard K-6 elementary certification, it can be difficult to provide children with a continuum of learning experiences from preK to kindergarten to the elementary grades.

“We need an early childhood education credential for all kindergarten teachers,” Kauerz adds. “Kindergartners learn very differently from sixth graders.”