Early Childhood

Full-Day Kindergarten Produces More Learning Gains, Study Says

By Debra Viadero — October 18, 2005 4 min read
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A new national study provides some of the strongest evidence to date to support what many educators and parents of young children already believe: Children learn more in full-day kindergarten programs than they do in half-day programs.

The findings, scheduled to be published in the February issue of the American Journal of Education, are based on federal data from a nationally representative sample of 8,000 children in public kindergarten programs. The results show that, on average, the learning gains that pupils make in full-day programs translate to about a month of additional schooling over the course of a school year.


An education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Ms. Lee is the lead author of a study comparing learning and full- and half-day kindergartens.

“If full-day kindergarten really does show these large effects, the question we have is why doesn’t every school in America offer full-day kindergarten?” said Valerie E. Lee, a lead author of the study and an education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Nationwide, according to federal data, half of all kindergartners now attend full-day programs, either public or private. But such programs tend to be more common in certain parts of the country, such as the South and the Midwest, and in private schools.

Disagreement is widespread over whether any educational value full-day programs convey is worth the added expense.

“The arguments we always hear are ‘I paid for my children to go to kindergarten, why should I pay for someone else’s?’ or that we just can’t afford it,” said Douglas B. McDonald, a superintendent whose school district includes Timberlane, N.H., a community that has voted down proposals to finance public kindergarten programs of any kind three times over the past seven years.

Nationwide, only nine states require school districts to provide full-day kindergarten, according to Kristie A. Kauerz, who formerly tracked early-childhood- education initiatives as a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Another seven states, including New Hampshire, do not require districts to offer any kindergarten at all.

Demographics Differ

Ms. Kauerz said the new study might attract policymakers’ attention because it is among the first to draw on a national sample of students. Previous studies, according to the researchers, often focused on small numbers of schools or districts, or relied on weaker research designs.

Conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon in Eugene, and the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, the study draws on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten, which has been tracking successive waves of kindergartners across the country since 1998.

Kindergarten Comparison

A forthcoming study points to the growing popularity of full-day kindergarten and suggests that children in such settings enjoy an academic edge over those in half-day programs.

• More than half of U.S. Students now attend full-day kindergartens.

• Kindergartners in full-day programs learn more over the course of a school year that their counterparts in half-day programs— the equivalent of about an extra month of schooling.

• Children who attend full-day kindergartens tend to be less advantaged socially, economically, and academically, than their peers in half-day programs.

• Full-day kindergartners are more common in the South and the Midwest than they are in the Northeast and the West.

• Disadvantaged children don’t seem to gain more from full-day programs than their more advantaged counterparts do. Rather, all children learn more in daylong classes.

SOURCE: American Journal of Education

“We found that the kinds of kids who have full-day kindergarten are not the same kinds of kids who have half-day kindergarten,” said Ms. Lee. Pupils in full-day programs are more likely to come from minority groups, to live in poorer rural and inner-city communities, and to score lower on the reading and mathematics tests given in the fall of their kindergarten year, according to the report.

The researchers said the programs’ demographic makeup reflects the fact that full-day programs, which are often underwritten with funds from the federal Title I program, have been thought of as a way to help disadvantaged students catch up to peers whose families can afford private preschools.

While full-day pupils start out behind their half-day counterparts, both groups score about the same on the reading and math tests they take later on in the spring. The researchers discovered the full-day pupils actually learned more over the course of the year when the researchers took into account the initial academic and socioeconomic differences between the two groups.

What’s more, the programs seemed to benefit all students. Contrary to some previous findings, children from poor and minority families did not learn more in full-day classes than did white pupils or those from wealthier homes in the same programs.

“The good news is that this says full-day programs are effective: They do accomplish what we hoped they would do, and it isn’t just a question of putting kids in a high-pressure academic factory,” said Samuel J. Meisels, a study co-author who was a researcher at the University of Michigan when the study began. He is now the president of the Erikson Institute, which offers graduate training in childhood development.

For example, Mr. Meisels said, while full-day programs typically double the number of hours that young children spend in school, they expand students’ actual instructional time by only about a third. Much of the rest of students’ days may be occupied by recess, music or art lessons, or other activities that he described as beneficial to children’s social development.

Benefits Questioned

Yet at least one prominent expert on early-childhood education said he was skeptical about the academic improvements the study reports.

“Full-day kindergarten is a child-care initiative; it’s not an educational initiative,” said David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “Most 5-year-olds still need a nap in the afternoon, so we shouldn’t expect there to be much difference.”

Whether children in full-day programs will hold on to the learning gains they make is an open question, experts said.

Some previous studies suggest that such academic benefits can fade over time. To find out if that’s the case, the researchers said they will continue to track the same students through elementary school.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Full-Day Kindergarten Produces More Learning Gains,StudySays


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