Photo: Andrew Reed/EdSource
Kindergarten students in Robin Bryant's class are learning how to add and subtract.

Long before the first day of school in first grade, some children may be far behind their peers. That was true even before the pandemic, but a heightened awareness of learning loss has added a sense of urgency to the matter of how to close achievement gaps in the early grades.

The vast disparity in skills that students bring with them when they first go to school is one of the key factors that struck Sen. Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, in her 17 years as a public school teacher and principal. She also discovered that the gaps tended to widen over time.

“One of the things that really made me sad was watching a first-grade student not know how to hold a pencil or hold the book upside down,” said Rubio, “while the student next to him is writing in complete sentences, reading at a second-grade level and talking about the science experiments they did over the summer.”

That inequity is one of the key reasons Rubio introduced Senate Bill 70, which would require all students in California to complete one year of kindergarten before entering the 1st grade, beginning with the 2022–23 school year. Kindergarten is not compulsory in California and most other states, although it is mandated in 19 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Education Commission of the States, a research group that tracks education policy. Children are required to be enrolled in school at age 6 in California.

“Our teachers are struggling tremendously. I think the best way we can support them is having students go up the grade levels being prepared,” Rubio said. “I also know as a teacher that the disparity only grows exponentially as kids go to third, fourth and fifth grade. So I definitely want to make sure that we capture these students early in the years.”

Some childhood advocates, noting that early learning experiences are foundational for all future academic pursuits, have long supported the idea of making kindergarten a grade that cannot be skipped. An estimated 5% to 7% students do not enroll in kindergarten, according to the California Kindergarten Association, in an average year. An official count won’t be available until the California Department of Education releases its enrollment data in March, but many experts suspect the number who have opted out has ballooned during the pandemic.

“We believe that all children have a right to a developmentally appropriate early childhood education. Even though the numbers of children who were skipping kindergarten were relatively low pre-pandemic, we want to bring that number down closer to zero,” said Gennie Gorback, president of the California Kindergarten Association. “If changing the status of kindergarten to mandatory helps more children to access high quality early education, then it is absolutely worth it.”

Early learning gaps, experts say, can haunt a child all the way through high school graduation. Research shows that low-income students are less likely to enroll in kindergarten, perhaps setting the stage for future challenges.

“The disparity is not only visible in terms of the competencies of the child but also in terms of the engagement and the participation,” Rubio said. “We need to make sure that this doesn’t happen.”

Over the years, lawmakers have launched various attempts to mandate kindergarten but these pushes have been countered by those who point out that it would be expensive to do so and that many parents wish to make the choice for themselves.

One key issue may be that kindergarten is no longer the gentle and play-filled introduction to the school that many adults fondly remember. Nowadays, there are math sprints and spelling tests, as well as finger painting and storytime. A 2016 report found that children spent a smaller percentage of their kindergarten day on activities like art, music and theater in 2010 than they did in 1998, according to a study by the University of Virginia.

“There are some people who are very out-of-touch with today’s kindergarten standards,” Gorback said. “But anyone who has had a child attend kindergarten in the last ten years or who has any stake in the education system should know the value of kindergarten.”

Without kindergarten to help build critical skills in reading and math, some students may fall behind. The common core benchmarks, some teachers say, put a lot of pressure on children to meet expectations they might not yet be ready for.

“Kindergarten should be mandatory because of the new common core standards placed on our kindergartners. They are expected to be reading by the time they finish kindergarten, to understand addition and subtraction concepts as well as many more standards,” said Janet Amato, a first-grade teacher in San Mateo. “Some things might be developmentally appropriate for some children but not for all 5-year-olds.”

However, some early childhood advocates believe that the emphasis on academic rigor in these early grades comes at a cost. They believe that children learn most effectively through play-based techniques.

“First grade has been a play desert for years. It’s kindergarten that has lost its playful nature, for the most part, recently,” said Beth Graue, director of the Center for Research on Early Childhood Education at the University of Wisconsin. “I would argue that programs for young children should support all areas of development and that doesn’t make it a matter of play or learning. It’s a matter of being more intentional in how we combine the two.”

Some experts suggest that since most children in the state do generally attend kindergarten, this legislation might not have that much impact on educational outcomes, but it may have symbolic power, influencing the way parents think about kindergarten.

“It makes the point that kindergarten is important,” said Deborah Stipek, an expert in early childhood at Stanford University. “Absenteeism is higher for the youngest children. I think some parents enroll their children but view the program as good but not necessary.”

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  1. iana 7 months ago7 months ago

    Please no. This is the wrong direction. If there is pressure to make kids perform at levels they are not developmentally ready for, we should remove that pressure. I have seen firsthand that some kids thrive on the formal academics of today's elementary schools, and that others are harmed by being judged for developing at a different pace. We need to get rid of the standardized testing and move young kids into multi-age groups so they … Read More

    Please no.

    This is the wrong direction. If there is pressure to make kids perform at levels they are not developmentally ready for, we should remove that pressure. I have seen firsthand that some kids thrive on the formal academics of today’s elementary schools, and that others are harmed by being judged for developing at a different pace. We need to get rid of the standardized testing and move young kids into multi-age groups so they can learn from each other.

    As for high absenteeism in kindergarten, I can tell you that my child learns in bursts and needs a break in between. Often that means staying home and not being social at all, even with family, to let my child internalize the lessons of the previous days. This doesn’t always line up with a school schedule.

  2. Jamie Martinez 7 months ago7 months ago

    And then they will make the same argument for TK, then preschool. This is pointless legislation. If a child comes to a school at age 6 with no experience, he is put into kindergarten. If he tests into first grade, he goes to first. Some moms do well handling kindergarten at home.

  3. Tammy Perigo 7 months ago7 months ago

    Kindergarten is very critical to our children; it is the stepping stone to their learning curve. Young minds are still in the early years of development and need the knowledge that they can receive from our educators. Not having kindergarten for the young mind is taking away the fundamental beginnings of education. As a parent, I started teaching my children at a very young age, but a lot of children don’t get the educational needs … Read More

    Kindergarten is very critical to our children; it is the stepping stone to their learning curve. Young minds are still in the early years of development and need the knowledge that they can receive from our educators. Not having kindergarten for the young mind is taking away the fundamental beginnings of education. As a parent, I started teaching my children at a very young age, but a lot of children don’t get the educational needs before the age of five to help them to get started on their path. Kindergarten is a much needed requirement for children as they develop their minds.

  4. Wendy Wyckoff 7 months ago7 months ago

    I am dismayed by the continued push to have younger and younger children reading and writing and doing math before it is developmentally appropriate. The disparities between households might be better addressed by paying rigorous attention to building social-emotional, physical and imaginative skills. In addition, outreach to parents providing tools and materials to support their child’s education would much more likely result in a positive outcome than stressing out 5-year olds!

  5. Dr. Randy Freeman 7 months ago7 months ago

    As a retired kindergarten teacher with a PhD in Early Childhood Education, I say we HAVE to make kindergarten mandatory.

  6. Laura Manning 7 months ago7 months ago

    While I agree and advocate for a more developmentally appropriate kindergarten experience that develops the whole child, that is not the issue for this legislation. The problem is that children ( and yes there are always exceptions) cannot just start in first grade if they have no had a kindergarten experience. All of the children I have worked with who have not attended k were extremely unprepared for first grade and were significantly behind all … Read More

    While I agree and advocate for a more developmentally appropriate kindergarten experience that develops the whole child, that is not the issue for this legislation. The problem is that children ( and yes there are always exceptions) cannot just start in first grade if they have no had a kindergarten experience. All of the children I have worked with who have not attended k were extremely unprepared for first grade and were significantly behind all of their peers. They do not miraculously catch up and struggle. Kindergarten is necessary for children in today’s overly academic environment and until that changes, needs to be mandatory.

  7. Vivien Moreno 7 months ago7 months ago

    I agree that Kindergarten is important for the social, emotional, and creative opportunities it offers children to enter into formalized learning for grades 1-12 (and beyond). The emphasis on early reading and math may work for some children, but should not be used to stigmatize children who are not cognitively or physiologically ready for this type of education yet. I am also very concerned by removing the local control aspect of providing Kindergarten and … Read More

    I agree that Kindergarten is important for the social, emotional, and creative opportunities it offers children to enter into formalized learning for grades 1-12 (and beyond). The emphasis on early reading and math may work for some children, but should not be used to stigmatize children who are not cognitively or physiologically ready for this type of education yet. I am also very concerned by removing the local control aspect of providing Kindergarten and other programs for different districts throughout the state. Where offering full day Kindergarten may work well in one area, another district may feel the need to offer a choice of schedules. We need to be very vigilant that the best of educational intentions do not lead back to the categorical history we just got rid of less than a decade ago. The state should be working to offer great educational program opportunities and support systems, not dictating how each district must conform to certain program criteria or curriculum choices in order to receive funding.

  8. Carolyn Forte 7 months ago7 months ago

    This bill takes our children in the wrong direction. I have watched with horror the deterioration of early childhood education from the developmentally appropriate kindergarten and first grade of the 1970s to the developmentally inappropriate kindergarten and first grade of today that is barely short of child abuse. Although SB70 does not address the curriculum, it is still a step in the wrong direction. All replicable research in early childhood favors teaching … Read More

    This bill takes our children in the wrong direction. I have watched with horror the deterioration of early childhood education from the developmentally appropriate kindergarten and first grade of the 1970s to the developmentally inappropriate kindergarten and first grade of today that is barely short of child abuse. Although SB70 does not address the curriculum, it is still a step in the wrong direction. All replicable research in early childhood favors teaching reading, writing and other structured academics later, not earlier. It is the state mandated “standards” that need to be changed, not compulsory attendance at kindergarten.

  9. Tarra Knotts 7 months ago7 months ago

    All my kids did preschool and preK and one did Tk, none of them were ready to read or write until late first grade, the age appropriate age to do such. The issue is the kids that come in too ready .. it's not good for them long-term, it sets up a bad vibe in the class, especially for already disadvantaged kids. We need to fund high quality preschool-k not for formal academics but for … Read More

    All my kids did preschool and preK and one did Tk, none of them were ready to read or write until late first grade, the age appropriate age to do such. The issue is the kids that come in too ready .. it’s not good for them long-term, it sets up a bad vibe in the class, especially for already disadvantaged kids.

    We need to fund high quality preschool-k not for formal academics but for socialness, behaviors, mental health of younger kids. Catch the kids that are going to struggle in 6th grade as 4 yr olds. I agree this kindergarten legislation is the wrong focus. Talk to me about a whole different preschool-1st experience for all kids: That is worth a conversation.

  10. Kimberly 7 months ago7 months ago

    Also, kindergarten should be full day requirement.

  11. Mark Cappetta 7 months ago7 months ago

    By all means, yes!