A Radical Proposal for Kindergarten and Pre-K

by Benjamin Studebaker

In our schools, we are often trying to accomplish two conflicting goals at once:

  1. We want our quickest students to maximize their potential–this means we want them to be in classes that move at their pace.
  2. We don’t want our slower students to be dismissed and devalued, so we are reluctant to separate them from the quicker students and put them in remedial classes where they may be given a low priority.

If we put fast students and slow students in the same age group together, the class will either move at a pace that’s too slow for the quick kids or too fast for the slow kids. If we separate them, educational resources tend to flow disproportionately to the kids who are already at an advantage, as they tend to have the most involved parents.

I have a suggestion to get around this problem while at the same time resolving public policy disputes about state support for expanding Pre-K education.

Occasionally we move kids up a grade or hold them back if their level is exceptionally different from the kids in their age group, but this is not the norm. Because this is not the norm, kids who are much older or much younger than the other students in their grade are liable to feel they don’t fit in socially. But at the same time, if we don’t move fast kids up, they get bored and their time is wasted, while if we don’t move slow kids down they often just fall further behind.

In the meantime, we have a lot of research which suggests that our students benefit from starting education earlier. But Pre-K funding in the United States is still very hit and miss, with only about 30% of eligible students enrolled in publicly funded Pre-K. Plus while Pre-K is sometimes publicly funded, the recipients of the funds are often private and religious organizations. The quality of these schools varies, and public funding often results in a de facto state subsidy to religious groups. It also generates inequality in much the same way that school voucher programs do–the parents who are the most involved are the most likely to do the necessary research to choose a good preschool, so the advantages their children have will tend to grow. At the same time, students whose parents shunt them into whatever poor or mediocre preschool is readily available will be disadvantaged by the absence of the involved parents, who are most likely to notice problems and voice concerns.

We need a system which regularly mixes the ages of students such that there is no one predominant age for any given grade level, so that students don’t feel like oddballs for being a bit older or younger than one another yet can go at the paces that suit them best without relegating the slower students to remedial courses where their quicker counterparts never tread. We also need a system that gives universal and equal access to quality early childhood education. We can accomplish these things together by changing the way that Pre-K and Kindergarten work.

Instead of enrolling children in a set of privately run pre-K programs of varying levels of quality at age 3, I suggest we enrol them in state-run Kindergarten classes at this age. Of course, most 3 year olds cannot pass Kindergarten and go onto first grade at age 4. But this is by design. We would intend for only a relatively small percentage of students to pass Kindergarten on the first pass. For the sake of argument, let’s say that typically only 1/4th of 3 year olds can pass Kindergarten in just one year. The remaining 3/4ths would continue to take Kindergarten as second year Kindergarteners, or “K2s”. But passing Kindergarten at age 4 would still be quite quick for most students, so even at the end of this year, we’d only move another quarter up. This leaves us with half of the original Kindergarteners (or “K1s”) becoming “K3s”. Five is about the age at which most children currently pass Kindergarten, but even now we still often hold back a significant chunk of 5 year olds, placing them in “transitional first grade”. But instead of having a separate T1 class, we would simply make these students “K4s”. The crucial thing is that after the first year of Kindergarten, we would put K2s, K3s, and K4s together in the same Kindergarten classes irrespective of age, and when we moved students up to first grade we would move them up together regardless of whether they were K1s, K2s, K3s, or K4s.

Here are some visuals of what these classes would look like demographically. A green bubble represents a fast kid who will graduate to first grade from K1, a yellow bubble represents a medium-fast kid who will graduate from K2, an orange bubble repesents a medium-slow kid who will graduate from K3, and a red bubble represents a slow kid who will graduate from K4.

Let’s start with the K1 class, where all students are still 3, as in an ordinary first year preschool program:

Then for each K1 class of 24 kids, there would be two classes which include K2s, K3s, and K4s. Collectively, we can call these classes “K+”. Together, they’d have 18 kids apiece between the ages of 4 and 6, with half at 4, a third at 5, and a sixth at 6.

These still look quite a bit like remedial classes, and the number of yellow students and 6 year olds in a K+ class isn’t very large. But watch what happens when we go to first grade:

Now we have an even distribution of ages, giving the slower students a chance to catch up to the faster ones so that they can potentially be in the same class going at the same pace and ensuring that none of our students stands out as “weird” because of age. This age variety can then travel all the way up the education system, allowing slow students to start college a little later in life when they have a better chance of succeeding while preventing fast students from languishing in high school for so long that they lose interest and burn out. The college starting age would be 16 for the greens, 17 for the yellows, 18 for the oranges, and 19 for the reds.

Now, it might be the case that I don’t quite have the ages right–maybe it’s unrealistic to expect even a quarter of 3 year olds to pass Kindergarten, in which case it might be better to start this at 4, or to have all students stay in Kindergarten at least through K2. It also might be the case that the speeds we observe at the Kindergarten level change later in development such that some green students would later on be better off as reds and vice versa. The nice thing about this system is that if we observe this, we can easily hold students back or skip them ahead without radically changing the ages of the students around them, making social adjustment easier. Also, because the overwhelming majority of students will not have gone straight through, we can reduce the stigma associated with slowing a student down, gradually eroding age-related expectations and enabling individual students to find the pace that suits them best.

Nevertheless, I expect that in practice this is where this plan would face significant resistance–parents who were not themselves raised in this education system would often be reluctant to acknowledge that their children are not greens and should not go directly to first grade from K1. But given that many schools already have transitional first grade and that we are beginning the educational process earlier, such that the additional time in Kindergarten does not set students back significantly relative to the status quo until K4, this may not be as big a hurdle as it might seem. There may also be objections on cost grounds–it would be more expensive for the state to educate 3 and 4 year olds–this effectively adds two grades worth of students for many school systems. That said, many parents might see the potential advantages of enabling students to develop at a wider variety of paces based on their personal characteristics and needs, and by simultaneously ensuring equal access to high quality early childhood education we kill two birds with one stone. It could be a worthwhile public investment.