Of the panoply of reforms now being implemented in California schools, the one affecting the state’s youngest public school students passed almost unnoticed this fall.
For the first time since the state enacted kindergarten legislation in 1891, California children have to be 5 years old by Sept. 1 to enroll in kindergarten.
The new cutoff date follows years of efforts in the state Legislature to move the date students were eligible for kindergarten to be in line with at least 20 other states with a Sept. 1 cutoff date. The others have earlier or later cutoff dates, or leave it up to local school districts to decide.
The Sept. 1 deadline for regular kindergarten has been welcomed by the California Kindergarten Association. “I think it’s a huge benefit to the children,” said association board member Michelle Jones. Having a smaller age spread in the class makes for a “more cohesive class,” and makes it more likely that when students enter kindergarten they will be ready to be “academically challenged,” she said.
Blunting the impact of the new deadline is California’s additional kindergarten year, called “transitional kindergarten,” for children whose 5th birthday falls somewhere between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. These are children who were previously eligible to enroll in regular kindergarten even though they had not yet turned 5. They can now attend transitional kindergarten, and then enroll in regular kindergarten the following year.
“The real issue is not what age you enter kindergarten, but what opportunities do children have academically and socially before they enter school,” said Deborah Stipek, an expert on early learning and a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.
However, the new age requirement has not settled the more complex question: Is a fixed cutoff date the best way to determine which children are ready for kindergarten? In fact, the minimum age for kindergarten has been a subject of considerable debate for more than a century. Over the years California lawmakers have tinkered with the kindergarten entry age at least nine times, according to a report by the California Research Bureau.
“The real issue is not what age you enter kindergarten, but what opportunities do children have academically and socially before they enter school,” said Deborah Stipek, an expert on early learning and Dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.
Especially during the preschool years, there are significant developmental differences among children. Extensive research has shown that those differences are accentuated among children from low-income backgrounds, who are far more likely to lag behind their more affluent peers in their readiness for kindergarten.
For example, Stipek pointed to a major gap in language skills between children from poor and middle-income backgrounds as early as 18 months – a difference tied to a range of factors, including how much time parents or caregivers are able to read and talk to a child.
Over the past decade the number of kindergartners in California schools climbed by more than 50,000, an increase of about 10 percent of total kindergarten enrollments. The increase coincided with one of the biggest budget crises in California’s history, reinforcing calls dating back at least two decades to bring California’s deadline for kindergarten in line with those of other states. In 1992, for example, then-Gov. Pete Wilson triggered a hailstorm of protest when he proposed rolling back the start date to Sept. 1 in an effort to save the state $335 million.
The transitional kindergarten program came about as a result of legislation introduced four years ago by then-state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto – but not for budgetary reasons. Simitian, now a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, said the 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act was motivated by concerns that regular kindergarten had become more challenging and had in effect become what some educators call “the new first grade.”
Simitian said there was “a consensus among educators and in the research literature that youngsters who turned 5 by Dec. 2 were too often a little young for 21st century kindergarten.”
A report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office at the time asserted that “data suggest children who are older tend to perform better on standardized tests… Taken together, this body of research suggests that changing the kindergarten entry age would be generally positive, with no overall negative effect on children’s academic achievement.”
The advantage of having younger kindergarten children in a separate classroom is clear to Jennifer Moless, a kindergarten teacher at Junipero Serra Elementary School in San Francisco. She said she had noticed that the younger children in her classroom struggled with all-day kindergarten: They needed nap time, help with going to the toilet and they had difficulty separating from their parents.
She feared that their lack of readiness would become even more of an issue with the introduction of the more demanding Common Core academic standards now being implemented in California schools.
The transitional kindergarten program – effectively an extra grade of public schooling offered free of charge to some 4-year-olds – was introduced gradually over the past three years, first in 2012-13 for children turning 5 in November, then in 2013-14 for those turning 5 in October, and this year for all those turning five after Sept. 1.
The state estimates that roughly 134,000 children have enrolled in transitional kindergarten this school year.
The new Sept. 1 cutoff date for enrollment in regular kindergarten did not overly concern Megan Hooper, whose daughter Harlow turned 5 in October. That’s because she was eligible to enroll in a transitional kindergarten class, which she now attends at Baker Elementary School in San Jose.
One major attraction of transitional kindergarten is the financial relief it offers parents like herself, Hooper said. In her case, instead of having to pay $10,000 for another year of private preschool, she could enroll her daughter at no cost in a public school program. “It was a great deal,” she said.
In the transitional kindergarten class at Zaida T. Rodriguez Early Education School in San Francisco’s Mission district, consisting of 22 children whose birthdays fall between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2, there is a huge range in their abilities, said teacher Dayna Jean.
Half have never set foot in a preschool setting, many are English learners, and a few are way ahead of the curriculum Jean is teaching.
On a recent morning, Jean read a story about saving a beached whale to her students, who squirmed or sat cross-legged on a carpet in front of her. “What rhymes with whale?” Jean called out exuberantly. The children yelled “snail” and “tail,” a response that’s part of the San Francisco Unified School District’s transitional kindergarten curriculum to teach rhyming words.
“I have some students who already know their whole alphabet, two students who can already count up to 100, some who are writing their first, middle and last name,” Jean said. At the other end of the spectrum, she said, “I have some who have never been to school before, have never written their name, and are just learning how to sit in their chair.”
Last year when she taught transitional kindergarten, Jean pulled together a small group of students who clearly were ready for learning well beyond the curriculum of the rest of the class, so they could thrive at their own pace. “I had one boy in transitional kindergarten last year who began at a first-grade reading level, and was reading at a third-grade level at the end of the year,” she said.
Her experience underscored the challenge of finding just the right fit for children at varying skill levels.
San Jose’s Megan Hooper said that her daughter’s transitional kindergarten class taught skills her daughter had already acquired in preschool. She said her daughter told her during the first week of school that she practiced writing her name – a skill she had acquired at the beginning of preschool the previous year.
Vivian Hong experienced the issue as both a teacher and a parent. Hong is a first-grade teacher at Junipero Serra Elementary School, and has twin children – a boy and a girl – who attended transitional kindergarten last year. Their birthday is Nov. 26.
She is not so sure a birthdate is the right way to determine when a student is ready for a particular grade. “For example, my daughter could have gone to first grade, but transitional kindergarten was good for my son, because he was a typical, rambunctious boy,” and not quite ready for a more structured kindergarten setting, she said.
While research shows that, in general, delaying entry to kindergarten results in improved academic performance later on, there are other variables that enter into the equation. A Rand Corporation study, for example, showed that delaying entrance to kindergarten “has a positive effect on test score gains in the early school years,” but that “the benefits … are even greater for children from poor families.”
At the same time, poor families who have to delay sending their children to kindergarten may end up with “huge additional child care costs” by having to pay for an extra year of preschool in lieu of a free year of kindergarten they may have been eligible for if their children had been born a few months earlier.
This story was updated on October 29 at 5:02 p.m. to indicate that Deborah Stipek is Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education.