Lots of interest, all of a sudden, in full-day kindergarten … I’ve had several questions about that scheme during the past few days. I’m not sure why, but it is well worth discussing yet again.
What I’ve been asked has varied, but it always seems to come back to, “Is full-day kindergarten better than half-day kindergarten?” I get why that is being asked, and I’m too polite to sneer openly, but what a silly question. Should we set your salary at $50,000 or $25,000? Could I pour you a half-glass of wine (or, if the waiter were optimistic, a half-full glass)? Would you prefer to win the first half of the game or the whole game?
There have been two sizeable meta-analyses of the whole-day/full-day controversy — one with an educational thrust and the other from the health care side of the house. Both have reached the same conclusions: Full-day kindergarten provides students with stronger academic preparation in reading, language, and mathematics. Full-day kindergarten provides students with stronger social-emotional support (yes, the full-dayers develop greater self-confidence).
But both research reviews also conclude that these pluses usually fade by age 8. Providing 5-year-olds with more teaching early on is advantageous in producing good first-graders, but it is unlikely to improve high school graduation rates. At least the way we do it now.
How can I be so blithe in my allegiance to such a short-term positive? Frankly, I think we expect too much of early interventions. It shows a real misunderstanding of the power and value of teaching.
Many years ago I used the metaphor comparing teaching with insulin therapy and vaccines. We usually argue the merits of early interventions as being the latter. We tell policymakers that if they invest more in the early years, there won’t be educational or social needs later. But education is not a vaccine. If we teach something and it provides an advantage, that advantage will go away if we then teach that something to someone else.
Back in the 1970s, Dolores Durkin taught preschoolers to read. She then tracked their progress. When these early readers entered kindergarten, they spent the year working on letter names. Not surprisingly, by the end of the year, their classmates who had spent the year studying this aspect of literacy partially caught up. A couple more years of that and the benefits of early learning were dissipated.
I started asking would you rather have $25,000 or $50,000. That’s silly, too, but imagine if my answer were: $25,000 because in 3 or 4 years the advantage would be gone. You would have spent all that money and there’d likely be no material difference between the groups.
Full-day kindergarten can be a good investment. But only if we save and invest the benefits to be derived from it. (Imagine if with your extra $25,000 you had invested some of that; then there would clearly be an ongoing benefit of the extra dough. In education that would mean continuing to build on those early gains. Full-day kindergartners need first-grade curricula and instruction aimed at taking them from where they are (as a result of the full-day teaching) and then accelerating these children forward again.
What we do instead as a result of early interventions (full-day kindergarten, parent programs, Reading Recovery, etc.)? Typically, we throw these children back into the mix, providing them the same instruction they would have received had there been no intervention. And, we invest in various programs aimed at trying to “catch up” the children who did not receive that early intervention (which is why programs like Head Start can appear to be ineffective).
Build quality on quality, use instruction to accelerate children forward continually, and you will see the long-term benefits of full-day kindergarten and other effective early interventions.
Cooper, H., Allen, A.B., Patall, E.A., & Dent, A.L. (2010). Effects on full-day kindergarten on academic achievement and social development. Review of Educational Research, 80(1), 34-70.
Durkin, D. (1974-1975). A six year study of children who learned to read in school at the age of four. Reading Research Quarterly,10(1), 9-61.
Hahn, R.A., Rammohan, V., Truman, B.I., Milstein, B., Johnson, R.L. et al. (2014). Effects of full-day kindergarten on the long-term health prospects of children in low-income and racial/ethnic-minority populations: A community guide systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 46(3), 312-323.
To learn more about teaching and assessing reading, writing and literacy, visit Dr. Shanahan’s blog .