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Is All-Day Kindergarten Worth the Money?


Q. Is the push nationally to switch our schools to all-day kindergarten paying off academically for our kids? Or is it just about funneling more money into schools, getting more people employed in our schools, and giving parents free day-care at taxpayer expense?


It appears to be the latter. Academic gains by children in full-day kindergartens are modest, compared to those in half-day programs. Moreover, those gains diminish to insignificant levels by first grade, and completely disappear by third grade in a phenomenon called "fadeout."


It is important to consider the relatively small size of the research samples, the quality of the preschool experiences the children had, the level of educational attainment that their parents had, and many other variables. Equally important is to compare how the children who attended half- and full-day kindergarten were doing academically several years on down the road. When studies are carefully designed with these variables and conditions in mind, all-day kindergarten is revealed to be of no extra benefit to children, compared to the traditional half-day experience.


Key federal research indicates that for the vast majority of kindergartners, all-day kindergarten is a waste of time and money, although there is evidence that it can be a help to low-income and non-English speaking children.


This is according to the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the National Center for Educational Statistics,


Researchers started following 22,000 children at kindergarten entry in 1998, and recently reported their third-grade status reflecting the "fadeout" effect of all-day k.


Among other findings, the study reported that kindergarten "readiness" is in great shape in this country: 97% of the children come to school in excellent or good health; 94% can read numerals, recognize shapes and count to 10; 92% are deemed eager to learn, and 82% already have basic reading skills such as knowing that you read print from left to right.


Defenders of expanded government preschool and full-day kindergarten claim that for every $1 spent on early schooling, society saves $7 in "social costs" on down the road. But that figure has been thoroughly discredited. It stems from a 1960s study of just 123 mentally retarded children, not enough to be statistically significant and vastly different than the mainstream population of kindergarten children. Most importantly; that cost-benefit ratio has never been replicated in other studies. Therefore, that claim must be considered invalid.


Despite the utter lack of effectiveness, though, full-day kindergarten is being implemented at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars for added staff and space in schools nationwide. Nine states mandate it, seven offer financial incentives, and most districts either have it or are planning it.


The full-day schedule is popular with working parents because it saves on child-care expenses and transportation headaches. Teachers like it because they say they have more time for enrichment activities, assessing children individually, and building better relationships with parents.


However, child psychologists say improper early instruction with "time on task" in structured settings may be a key cause of the epidemic of learning disabilities. And it denies children what they really need: free time for self-directed play, and a chance to be reared and shaped mostly by Mom and Dad, who know and love them best.


A possible solution might be to make it a matter of public policy that all-day kindergarten will be provided free of charge to parents if the family income is low enough to qualify the child for free or subsidized lunch, or if there are serious social factors at play that place that child at risk of not succeeding in school - for example, alcoholic or drug-addicted parents, or a medical diagnosis of bipolar disorder, for example.


This sensible policy has been in practice in the State of Colorado. All other parents can either place their children in a private-sector day-care facility for the second half of the day, or hire a part-time nanny, or collaborate with other parents to share child-care responsibilities, or stay home with them in this important "bridge year" in which it is very important to balance the child's need for free play and quiet time with a need for a solid introduction to school.


Note that in many schools today, the best readers and best behaved children in the class tend to be those who attended only half-day kindergarten. That might be the most powerful evidence of all that half-day kindergarten is the best solution for all concerned.



Homework: Two excellent and related articles on this topic are available from Arizona's Goldwater Institute, and the Tennessee Center for Policy Research,


By Susan Darst Williams Show 'n' Tell For Parents 151 2009

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