Research supports, equity demands rethinking the starting age of public school

Seth Rosenblatt

Seth Rosenblatt

The current structure of U.S. public schools – including the K-12 grade framework – was established over a century ago based on the goals, scientific knowledge and theories of child development at the time; yet this structure has been remarkably resistant to change despite the fact that our society, economy and the requirements of our public school system have changed dramatically.

Even though educators and policymakers alike have questioned other antiquated structures and practices around public education, there has been little debate about whether our current grade system is still relevant in the modern age. Starting public school at age 5 is now essentially an arbitrary point and one which we now know does not best serve most children. Our incredible advancements in the understanding of child development and brain development allow us to know now that fundamental skills are produced in the early years of childhood, long before children start kindergarten. To compensate for the fact that public school starts too late, we have a created an early childhood education patchwork of state-funded schools, local school district programs and other child care and preschool programs run by both for-profit and nonprofit entities. The U.S. is ranked 26th among industrialized countries in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education, and this lack of universality has created a discriminatory system that only serves half of our children, with inconsistent quality often not linked to kindergarten readiness at their local public school.

Although there is always talk about how public schools are failing our children, the fact is that less than 40 percent of our children are ready for kindergarten when they arrive at school, creating an opportunity gap long before our schools can address it properly. Many children who live in poorer households and neighborhoods are both less likely to have attended a quality preschool program and less likely to have resources and support outside of school during their K-12 years. There is a mountain of evidence that this opportunity gap is created when children are young: 88% of those who drop out of school could not read proficiently by 3rd grade.

Certainly there is no panacea for every issue in public education, but if there is only one singular change that could address many systemic inequities, creating universal preschool as part of our existing public school system is that change (I would argue it would have a monumentally greater impact on the opportunity gap than would the Local Control Funding Formula). In addition to the moral and social obligation, the opportunity gap created by the lack of universal preschool has a real economic cost to society through lower productivity and competitiveness, lower tax revenue and higher social costs, including higher crime and public safety spending. The evidence linking quality preschool attendance with improved social and economic outcomes is overwhelming, with studies showing multiple times return on dollars spent on early childhood education. Even within my county of San Mateo, a pilot “Preschool for All” program in one district demonstrated immediate and profound results.

President Obama helped energize the debate last February when he talked about making high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. But I would argue that even the president is using the language of the 20th (and even 19th) century, and the educational community does itself a disservice by calling it “preschool.” That implies something extra and not necessary.

Certainly if we were to start our public school system today, we wouldn’t likely start it at age five – a decision made over a century ago for a purpose long past by people with much less scientific understanding of childhood and brain development. Rather we would start public school at age 3 or younger. So, what we now call “preschool” would just be “school,” and it must eventually become part of our public school system. Ideally, we’d just expand our current public school system down two more grades. Only in a half-joking way, I’ve argued that we should renumber the grades, with what we call “kindergarten” today becoming “3rd grade” – you wouldn’t tolerate your child’s missing 1st and 2nd grade, would you?

Making this change would naturally require a significant investment, both in the operating dollars to teach more students but also the money for facilities for local districts to support the extra grades. But to be clear, one shouldn’t infer that the intent is just to duplicate what we currently do in the higher grades (particularly with respect to overly burdensome standards and testing), but rather to create inherent in our public system developmentally appropriate high-quality nurturing environments for 3- and 4-year-olds. To make such a change, I recognize that we would have to bring more early-learning expertise into our public school system to have both teachers and administrators who know how to appropriately address the needs of this age group, as well as have them ready for kindergarten.

But this is all indeed possible. There is buzz now in Sacramento of taking the current Transitional Kindergarten program and opening it up to all 4-year-olds. This would be a tremendous step forward to accomplishing this goal, of course assuming that the Legislature fully funds both the program costs and the facility costs. There are also a number of local initiatives, including one in San Mateo County, to march toward universality of early childhood education. But I would argue it’s more than just making sure we serve every student. Only when such early education is core to our public system will schools – all the way through high school and beyond – be truly effective in enabling all students to reach their highest potential and be prepared for success in the 21st century.


Seth Rosenblatt is a member of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, including in both regional and national publications as well as on his own blog.


Filed under: Commentary, Early Learning, Reforms, Transitional Kindergarten


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4 Responses to “Research supports, equity demands rethinking the starting age of public school”

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  1. Theresa on Jan 18, 2014 at 4:57 am01/18/2014 4:57 am

    • 000

    This is a great article. I have been saying this for years. Not just because kids minds are so absorbent at that age and that it could be tremendously beneficial for their development to begin school by age 3 (in a learn through play environment that also helps teach basic hygiene and life skills, and I would prefer a Montessori based environment through age 6). Also, because it can alleviate a great monetary strain put on parents that struggle to put their kids into preschool and/or daycare while they work. This would benefit both the families overall well-being but also the economy.

    I also believe that public school should end after what is currently 9th grade. At this age kids who are planning to go to college are ready to start on that course and the other kids are ready to either start working or ready for trade school. It does not make sense to have them continue in the public system after this age.

    Making these two changes would be a huge transition for a few years and would cost more during that time, but after the transition is complete the costs would be about the same. Likely the costs would be less since their is 1 less total years spent in the public school system, unless we start with kids at age 2.

    Their was an above inquiry into if the “preschool” grades should be legally mandated. I don’t think it would be necessary as I believe their would be an overwhelming percentage of parents that would willingly enroll their children at least by age 3. Even so, I would say it would need to be legally mandated for children to start school by age 4, weather public, private or home as it is now for 1st grade.

    I would very much like to view the study of the county you mentioned that has been doing a “preschool for all” program.

  2. navigio on Dec 20, 2013 at 9:14 am12/20/2013 9:14 am

    • 000

    By what measure are you estimating that fewer than 40% of kindergartners are ready to begin school?

    Also, would you support a law that mandates all 3 year olds be sent to school?


    • Seth Rosenblatt on Dec 20, 2013 at 10:14 am12/20/2013 10:14 am

      • 000

      There are a number of studios that show very similar statistics about kindergarten readiness. The specific one that I was referring to is from a December 2010 Silicon Valley Community Foundation sponsored research report entitled: “School Readiness and Student Achievement A Longitudinal Analysis of Santa Clara and San Mateo County Students
      You can find it at: And given that these are two of the wealthiest counties in the state, one can infer that the data is worse statewide.

      As for mandatory school for three year olds, I think largely it would be a moot point because if it were universally offered, it would eventually become commonplace and culturally normal service (just like Kindergarten is now, even though it’s not universally mandatory). But honestly I haven’t put a ton of thought into the actual debate of making it legally required or not to attend.

      • navigio on Dec 20, 2013 at 11:13 am12/20/2013 11:13 am

        • 000

        Thanks Seth. Interesting study. Notable that readiness was measured by 3rd grade CST results.

        Anecdotally, I have seen students who failed this K readiness test (recommended to wait an additional year) yet ended up scoring at the top of their class by 3rd grade. Obviously, this is about trends and not specific examples, but I think it’s important to realize those situations exist so we know how to treat those readiness metrics.

        There are two predictors in previous studies that did not show up in this one: age and preschool experience (there were a couple others too). That is interesting in that it would seem to imply that starting earlier would not make much difference. Perhaps the pre-school attendance was too spotty to make that predictor significant?

        Yes, making 3 year old school mandatory is something quite different than having it be socially commonplace. :-) The former seems like it would be very difficult in our culture. As you know, kids in Finland dont start ‘school’ until they are 7. But of course they have a much different ‘pre-school’ system, and supposedly about 80% of mothers with children over 3 work, so I expect the rate of participation is relatively high even at that age.

        I dont disagree at all with the thoughts you bring up here, however, the thing that has always bothered me about this push to increase school time is that it seems to be intended as a band-aid for the actual problem. Which of course means we’ll just continue to ignore the actual problem. I also think we need to make sure we always keep the priorities of the children in mind. While its clear that having a more book-educated populace would be beneficial from an economic standpoint, we probably should be careful about not doing that in a way that might exacerbate the forces in society which create the need for this kind of differential educational treatment in the first place (being a working parent in a pseudo-socialist country is something very different than being one in this one).

        It is an interesting debate though. Thanks for bringing it up.

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