Indiana has a long way to go before all of its at-risk children are enrolled in quality preschool programs, but the state finally is making progress. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick sees an obvious disconnect, however.
“So we have pre-K, and then we can take a sabbatical at kindergarten if we would like, because that's still the age 7 rule,” she told the Indiana Coalition for Public Education last month. “So we're going to go after mandatory kindergarten.”
The first-term superintendent has a tough battle ahead. The cost is likely minimal, but some Hoosiers hold strong feelings about a parent's role in child-raising. They see mandatory kindergarten as abrogating that responsibility.
McCormick and classroom educators see the reality: The handful of families who don't enroll their children in school until age seven are too often the ones whose children would most benefit from early learning. Their 7-year-olds require a disproportionate amount of a teacher's time in order to catch up with classmates.
“I'm a big (preschool) person,” McCormick said. “I understand the power of that because I've been at the local level, where our kindergarten teachers call and say, 'You've got to come over here.' And you go over and you've got kindergarten students who don't know how to hold a book. They're not potty-trained. They're not verbal. And you've got to close this achievement gap.”
Indiana is one of 15 states that doesn't require school attendance until age seven. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia require children to attend kindergarten at age 5 or require kindergarten attendance prior to enrolling in first grade.
The Denver-based Education Commission of the States, an interstate compact on education policy, offered recommendations on early learning in a report last year. Bruce Atchison, the commission's director of early learning initiatives, said the report came out of a realization that kindergarten through grade 3 is as important to early development as the period from birth to age 5.
“We pulled together 12 of what we consider to be the top researchers in the field, locked them in a room in Chicago for two days and asked them to come up with what states need to do,” he said in a phone interview.
“As state leaders have implemented new academic standards with higher expectations for students, kindergarten has become more demanding,” they concluded. “Kindergarten must take a balanced approach to meeting the developmental and academic needs of children. Now more than ever, children are in kindergarten to learn content knowledge, build on early literacy and numeracy skills needed to meet the growing academic expectations of primary education, and get on a clear path of social and emotional development.”
The commission report recommends states require compulsory kindergarten and that they review policies affecting the quality of kindergarten, including learning environment, curricula, assessment of children, family engagement and pre-K-to-kindergarten transition supports.
Atchison said there is research showing a strong correlation between kindergarten attendance and math and reading achievement, and noted it makes little sense for policymakers to demand third-grade reading proficiency (as Indiana does) but not to require kindergarten.
Efforts to pass mandatory kindergarten in Indiana have failed in the past, most recently because lawmakers said enrollment numbers showed it wasn't necessary. Indeed, data from the Indiana Department of Education show little difference between kindergarten enrollment numbers and first-grade enrollment the following year. Most families clearly are taking advantage of the opportunity.
But the sound policy recommendation proposed by McCormick, a Republican, and the Education Commission of the States addresses those who don't understand the value of early learning. Lowering the compulsory school age to 6 would ensure all children benefit, not just those whose families value learning.