Children in full-day kindergarten programs made much bigger leaps in early reading skills than their schoolmates attending traditional half-day programs, according to a new study.
The gains for Hispanic students were twice as large as their classmates’, but there were statistically significant improvements for all full-day kindergartners across the board, said researcher Chloe Gibbs, an assistant professor in the schools of public policy and education at the University of Virginia.
“It is a rare education intervention that is both helpful for everyone, but also has particularly concentrated effects for disadvantaged kids, for kids who come in with very low literacy skills, and for Hispanic kids,” Gibbs told Education Week. “Those are the sorts of interventions that we often are trying to find because we would like to both help everyone and catch the lowest performers up to the level of their higher-performing classmates.”
Gibbs had a ready-made study group of 23 schools in five Indiana school districts that didn’t have enough space in their full-day kindergarten classes so they randomly assigned children to full- or part-day programs by lottery.
In 2007, Indiana legislators decided to increase access to full-day kindergarten and approved $33.5 million in additional funding for voluntary expansion by districts and charter schools in the 2007-08 school year.
There were a lot of takers; enrollment in full-day kindergarten in Indiana increased from 41 percent to 63 percent between 2006-07 and 2007-08. But the funds were distributed in block grants rather than the usual per student funding and there wasn’t enough money to cover the demand in some places.
For each school, she analyzed student scores on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy (DIBELS) and the Indiana Reading Diagnostic Assessment (IRDA), which measure vocabulary and skills that children need to know before they learn to read, such as being able to sound out and identify letters.
One particularly big impact found full-day kindergarten closed the achievement gap between Hispanic children and their classmates by 70 percent.
Those findings are really important, Gibbs explained, because “interventions in the early years have a greater likelihood of long-term improvement for children because their brains are more malleable.”
She is continuing to follow the children from this study to see if the literacy gains do last and if they extend to math.
On an economic level, the study found that full-day kindergarten seems to be more cost-effective than other education interventions. On the low end, Indiana districts reported that the price of moving from half-day to full-day kindergarten was about $1,500 per student; on the high end, Gibbs estimates it could be as much as $4,000 per student. That includes making sure there are enough classrooms and teachers for all-day programs because schools often run morning and afternoon programs.
Gibbs said having this information is important on a policy level, especially now with the strong push from the White House and states for universal early-childhood education programs.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, 75 percent of kindergartners are enrolled in a full-day program, even though only 11 states and the District of Columbia are required to provide a publicly funded full-day program. Forty-five states require districts to offer at least half-day kindergarten, and in five states, districts don’t have to provide any kindergarten.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.