The Preschool Paradox

Why is spending more in preschool good and in kindergarten not worth it?

The Center for Michigan recently made the claim that retaining 5-year-olds for another year of kindergarten doesn’t work. The evidence they provide for this is weak, but that aside, this appears to run counter to their other argument that an additional year of state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds yields huge benefits.

In both cases, students enter first grade with two years of formal schooling, so why does one “work” and not the other?

Attempting to rectify this apparent inconsistency, Larry Schweinhart of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation claims that the difference is the level of state “guidance.” He argues there is “no guidance from the state” for “extra-year kindergarten programs” but “considerable guidance” for Michigan’s state-funded preschool program, Great Start. He cites a document that outlines state-defined standards for preschool programs and HighScope’s own Preschool Program Quality Assessment, among other things.

But the claim that there is “no guidance” for extra-year kindergarten programs is a stretch. For instance, the very document Schweinhart cites as evidence of good state guidance for preschool was at one time (from 1992 to 2004) intended for all students in preschool through 2nd grade. Certainly, this would cover students enrolled in extra-year kindergarten programs. Only since 2005 have these standards been targeted specifically for programs serving 3- and 4-year-olds.

Additionally, the state of Michigan produces a whole set of “grade level content expectations” for kindergarten students, including for sciencesocial studieslanguage artsmathematics, and physical and health education. These are meant to be used by schools “to guide curricular and instructional decisions, identify professional development needs, and assess student achievement.”

Schweinhart says that these extra-year programs often “give selected children more time to mature and master the content of the grade.” It seems plausible then that the state’s kindergarten grade level content expectations can be and probably are used as a guide for these programs.

Lack of state guidance does not explain away this preschool paradox. Great Start programs may be more effective than kindergarten, but the fact remains that there’s simply not enough evidence to make the case either way.