This is hard for me to write.
I don’t know the correct answer.
I hold the educational well-being of 25 five-year-olds in my hands every day, and I constantly worry that I’m going to screw it all up.
Can they read? Can they cut? Can they make it through an entire day without falling asleep or bawling hysterically? Can they count? Can they add? I have some kids who can’t tell me what the number 3 is, and when I ask them to tell me their letters, they tell me a story about the toast they had at breakfast. Are they ready for first grade, or should I– my voice is dropping to a whisper here– retain a student?
For a little background on this topic, please see my post here about one of my intensive students this year.
Real Talk: Teachers know retention should never be the first answer. We’ve been told that “research shows retention is not beneficial in any way.” We know there are a lot of external factors about a child that are possibly impacting their learning. We also know there are crummy teachers out there who would retain every African American, Latino, or low-income White male if they could, because those are the high-fliers. But I’m not one of those crummy teachers, am I?
“Success in kindergarten isn’t only about knowing the alphabet.”
“I speak to him in both languages and use all the ELL strategies I know!”
“I’ve been working with him all year!”
“I’m giving him every possible intervention!”
“It’s March and he can only tell me one letter!”
I have said all these things before. In fact, I said two of them last week, not for the first time in my career. I feel frustrated and nervous and anxious for any of my students who are facing Common Core State Standard-rich first grade classrooms in the next 6 months. With the rigor of the standards, retaining students who may benefit from an additional year of maturity and growth seems like it would be a no-brainer.
Well, it’s not. I decided to go out and find some research on my own about retention in kindergarten. Here’s what I found:
Readiness Skills are Essential
- “Research clearly shows that children who arrive to kindergarten with stronger cognitive, language, social, and behavioral skills have an easier time in the first few years of school, do better later in school, and are less likely to later repeat grades and/or drop out of school (Duncan et al., 2007; Entwisle &Alexander, 1999; La Paro & Pianta, 2000; Tramontana, Hooper, & Selzer, 1988).”
- “Children who experience poverty early on are at significant risk for difficulties with early schooling (Duncan & Magnuson, 2005) and tend to remain behind their peers throughout schooling (Entwisle & Alexander, 1999; Janus & Duku, 2007).”
Fairly self-explanatory. If your parents have been working with you since birth to help you have a mindset ready for school, you will most-likely excel over students whose parents may not have been concerned with school readiness skills. Students who are Black or Hispanic may be disproportionately selected for retention.
- “There is anecdotal evidence that in cases where families are encouraged to hold children back a year due to low scores on assessments and/or screeners, the children are more likely to be Black or Hispanic than White (Bredekamp & Shepard, 1989; Frey, 2005; Kagan, 1990).”
- Latinos represent a huge portion of kids selected for retention. With the Latino population growing—9 million in the 1960s, to 35.3 million in 2000 (Garcia & Jensen, 2009)—this only highlights the fact that “Latinos are not faring well in the school system.”
- Often, students who are comparatively lower than other peers in their class are chosen for retention because they stand out more to the teacher. “Cosden et al. (1993) found that Hispanic/Latino students were retained in the early grades at higher rates than other groups, but only in schools in which Latinos constituted a clear minority of the student population.”
Retention, then, must be a decision made by a team that includes specialists in language development and has knowledge about the culture & community of the retention candidate. Teachers who do not have expertise in teaching English Language Learners, for example, should not have the final say on retaining a student who is an English Language Learner. If a teacher has not had exposure to the learning challenges of their retention candidate, how can we be certain retention is the right path?
The Studies Aren’t Conclusive
- Studies have shown little evidence for the presumed benefits of delayed entry. Although older children in kindergarten show slight advantages in test scores, this advantage tends to disappear within a grade or two (Bisanz, Dunn, & Morrison, 1995; Crosser, 1991).
- “Very little information exists [about this]… Delaying public school entry may, in fact, be quite rare among low-income, working families given that such a decision likely means struggling to pay for another year of expensive childcare” (Winsler, Hutchison, DeFeyter, 2012).
- Studies also show that delayed entry for at-risk children in poverty are notable in reading and in math (Datar, 2006).
The following is a direct quote from Can Teacher Ratings of Students’ Skills at Kindergarten Entry Predict Kindergarten Retention? I have trouble digesting it, because this is my perception as a kindergarten teacher, and it sounds like I’m on the losing side.
“There is a perception among parents and educators that retention in kindergarten or the first grade may be better for children than retention in the later grades because it might prevent later difficulties and avoid the stigma that is present with retention in the later grades (Alexander et al., 2003; Silberglitt, Jimerson, Burns, & Appleton, 2006; Uphoff & Gilmore, 1986). Despite this, research shows that retention at any grade, even in kindergarten, is associated with increased risk for later problems and school drop out, even after controlling for preexisting differences between children who were promoted versus retained (Alexander et al., 2003; Mc-Coy & Reynolds, 1999; Shepard & Smith, 1989; Pagani, Tremblay, Vitaro, Boulerice, & McDuff, 2001; Reynolds, 1992; Temple, Reynolds, & Miedel, 2000; Willson & Hughes, 2006). Some economists argued that the “graying of kindergarten” from historical increases in delayed school entry, kindergarten retention, and changed birthday requirements to make kindergarten students older, leads to increased high school drop out because more students then become old enough to legally stop their schooling while still in high school. Given that children from low-income backgrounds are more likely to choose to stop their schooling, long-term economic disparities can result from kindergarten students being older (Deming & Dynarski, 2008).”
So, readers, I put it to you: when is retention ok, if ever? Other countries begin schooling later, so why is delayed entry so inconsequential here? I literally see with my eyes the difference a year of maturity makes in kindergarten—why does the research paint a different picture? Are we forgetting about social/emotional well-being, and rather focusing on the tests and academics of school? Am I “giving up” on a student by wanting them to try the kindergarten experience again?
In light of our new rigorous standards, I hope for more understanding and more wisdom on this. Expect another post with my reflections on this by June!
Here are the articles I read, chock full of research.
Goldstein, J., Eastwood, M., & Behuniak, P. (2014). Can Teacher Ratings of Students’ Skills at Kindergarten Entry Predict Kindergarten Retention? The Journal of Educational Research, 107, 217-229.
Winsler, A., Hutchison, L., & DeFeyter, J. (2012). Child, Family, and Childcare Predictors of Delayed School Entry and Kindergarten Retention Among Linguistically and Ethnically Diverse Children. Developmental Psychology, 48, 1299-1314. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0026985
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