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 first 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’

“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.

A different kindergarten from years past

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’

“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.”

* Story originally published by EdSource.