Going Big for Little Kids: Why Kindergarten is Critical in the COVID-19 Recovery

March 2021
Meghan McCormick, Christina Weiland

This commentary was originally posted in the New America Early and Elementary Update.

Congress is currently debating how much additional funding to give to struggling pre-K providers and elementary schools as part of a new coronavirus relief package. Current proposals primarily focus on support to keep early childhood programs open, to help public schools reopen, and to aid public schools with older students’ learning recovery. What gets overlooked in these discussions is the importance of investing in high-quality learning opportunities for young children during early childhood and in kindergarten. Reports from districts around the country show historically low enrollment in pre-K programs—particularly among economically disadvantaged families—and a 16 percent drop in kindergarten enrollment on average for the 2020-21 school year. More now than ever before, there is a critical need to invest in high-quality early childhood and kindergarten programs that set students up for long-term success.

Kindergarten is an instrumental year for children

There is a large body of research examining pre-K programs for four-year-olds and their effects on children’s development as they move through kindergarten and into later elementary school. Some of these studies have found that the positive effects of pre-K on children’s academic and cognitive skills can dissipate fairly quickly, a phenomenon often described as “fadeout.” However, a more accurate description is “convergence,” because a closer examination shows that children who do not attend pre-K catch up to their peers during kindergarten and the early elementary school grades. Yet, few studies have fully explored how kindergarten contributes to these convergence effects. 

We conducted research in partnership with the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Department of Early Childhood before the pandemic, which found that kindergarten is a critical setting for supporting young children’s learning and development. Our team recently published two studies in Child Development examining associations between enrollment in the BPS prekindergarten program—a model that pairs two evidence-based curricula with teacher training and coaching, implemented in public school settings—and children’s academic and cognitive outcomes.

In the first study, conducted with nearly 5,000 applicants to the BPS prekindergarten program, we found that as much as 61 percent of the convergence in literacy skills between program enrollees and non-enrollees occurred in kindergarten when children were followed through third grade.

In the second study with a more recent cohort of students and richer data, we found that the benefits of the BPS prekindergarten program on children’s unconstrained skills were more likely to be sustained through the spring of kindergarten, compared to constrained skills. Unconstrained skills are broadband skills like vocabulary, problem solving, and critical thinking that are acquired gradually and can be difficult to measure. Alternatively, constrained skills—like letter naming and counting skills—are more finite and directly teachable. Both types of skills are critical for children’s success.

Yet, our findings suggest kindergarten teachers may put more focus on teaching constrained skills, like knowing the alphabet, reading high-frequency words, recognizing shapes, and counting from one to 20. This allows non-pre-K enrollees to catch up quickly on some skills, but means they may miss out on building core unconstrained skills. Our results point to the need for further investment in teaching and learning in kindergarten to support balanced instruction for constrained and unconstrained skills in these early years.

Kindergarten can be strengthened in five ways

Given major disruptions to both pre-K programs and K-12 systems because of the pandemic, children will be starting kindergarten with a wider range of incoming skills and prior early learning experiences than teachers are used to. Students will require increased supports for differentiated instruction. Investing in kindergarten specifically will help young students meet their full learning potential. Here are five research-backed, equity-centered investments state and district leaders can make as the country recovers from the pandemic in the coming years:

  • Hire assistant teachers (paraprofessionals) for kindergarten classrooms. Research has shown that assistant teachers support improved reading and math performance, particularly for students of color and students from households with low incomes. Before the pandemic, however, kindergarten classrooms might have had only part-time assistants or none at all. Funding could support additional assistant teachers in the classroom, in part through a mechanism like AmeriCorps’ VISTA program. Adding assistant teachers can increase the amount of time students spend in small groups, which is a particularly effective instructional approach with young children. Importantly, most schools already know how to incorporate teaching assistants into classrooms with young children. At a time when districts are overwhelmed, this recommendation requires the least new learning to implement.
  • Expand summer learning opportunities to rising kindergarteners. Offering rising kindergarteners in-person summer learning would give children an evidence-based boost in their kindergarten readiness and give frazzled parents a needed respite. Our research shows that summer matters for equity; rising kindergarteners from households with low incomes do not make the same progress in their school readiness as their peers over the summer.
  • Offer tutoring as early as kindergarten. Tutoring has been shown to be effective with children as young as kindergarten. As others have argued, this strategy can be incorporated within broader proposals and pushes for K-12 tutoring.
  • Implement coaching and training for teachers tied to evidence-based curricula. Coaching and training for teachers on evidence-based curricula that support core learning domains are effective for boosting classroom quality and children’s learning. For example, recent work from New York City found that small group math clubs in kindergarten—implemented by trained, full-time facilitators—succeeded in sustaining the benefits of a play-based pre-K math curriculum. Implementing new curricula is not ideal with all that schools will be facing in the fall, but districts may want to consider this approach in order to make the substantial improvements in kindergarten instruction that children need.  
  • Consider transitional kindergarten. Some states offer a two-year kindergarten program for children based on age cutoffs. The California program has shown substantial impacts on children’s early skills, some of which lasted through the end of kindergarten. In the COVID-19 recovery, states might consider establishing or expanding such programs, including using school readiness—rather than age cutoffs only—to determine eligibility.

As the country emerges from the pandemic and continues to face challenges to supporting children’s early learning, policymakers should not forget about the lessons learned during this crisis. In addition to supporting continued expansion of high-quality early care and education, further focus on early childhood and kindergarten stands to make a crucial return on investment for our youngest learners.

Meghan McCormick is a research associate in MDRC’s Family Well-Being and Children’s Development policy area, and Christina Weiland is an associate professor at the School of Education at the University of Michigan.