A study of 17,600 Philadelphia schoolchildren suggests that full-day kindergarten programs may have both academic and financial payoffs.
The study found that, by the time they reached the 3rd and 4th grades, former full-day kindergartners were more than twice as likely as children without any kindergarten experiences—and 26 percent more likely than graduates of half-day programs—to have made it there without having repeated a grade.
Moreover, the researchers calculated, the lower retention rates for graduates of Philadelphia’s full-day classes shave close to 19 percent off of the cost of providing them, which in 1999 came to about $2 million for every 1,000 kindergartners.
“A lot of research suggests that how students are doing those first few years is very telling of what they’ll do later on,” said Andrea del Gaudio Weiss, the lead researcher on the study, which was conducted by the research office of the 208,000-student district. “If we can show we’re saving money, that’s all to the better.”
She presented her report here this month during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, a 23,000-member group based in Washington.
The study’s cost-benefit information comes at a critical time for the debt-ridden Philadelphia school system. Taken over by the state of Pennsylvania in December, the district faces a projected budget shortfall of $105 million by 2005. (“Takeover Team Picked in Phila.,” April 3, 2002.)
The popularity of full-day kindergarten programs has been growing nationwide—with or without evidence of their economic and educational effectiveness.
Although only eight states and the District of Columbia now require schools to provide full-day kindergarten, nationwide surveys suggest that close to half of 5-year-olds attend them. And parents in some cities, such as Seattle, are even willing to ante up the money for their local public schools to provide them.
In her search for studies on the long-term benefits of the full-day programs, however, Ms. Weiss came across only one other study that tracked former full-day kindergartners through the 3rd grade, and few that focused on the programs’ effects for poor, minority students in cities like Philadelphia.
Better Scores, Attendance
For her study, Ms. Weiss gathered data on groups of children who started school two years before the district made the move to all-day kindergarten in the fall of 1995 and two years after. Before the policy change, schools offered a mix of options for 5-year-olds, including full- and half-day programs; some schools provided no kindergarten at all.
Even though the results for the full-day programs were more dramatic, both kinds of kindergarten classes seemed to increase the likelihood that pupils would be promoted to the next grade on time. Compared with pupils who had never been to kindergarten, for example, the half-day graduates had a 70 percent better chance of reaching 3rd grade on schedule.
Among just those students who made it to 3rd grade on time, the full-day graduates were also likely to score higher on standardized reading and math tests, get better grades, and come to school more often, compared with youngsters who hadn’t been full-day kindergartners. That was true, the researchers said, even after they adjusted the numbers to account for any differences between the groups in age, gender, and family income.
The former half-day students in that group were likely to score higher on standardized tests in science, however, according to the report.
The academic edge that the full-day kindergartners enjoyed in 3rd grade dissipated a little the following year. Compared with all the students who had made it to 4th grade on time, the former full-day pupils were more likely to have better outcomes that year in just two areas: attendance and science.
But Ms. Weiss, a senior research associate in the district’s office of research and evaluation, said the apparent drop-off was not a cause for concern, since the former full-day kindergartners were not lagging behind any group of their peers.
What the study did not show was how teachers of the full-day kindergarten classes used the additional time. Other researchers have pointed out, for example, that some full-day classes offer a double dose of playtime, while others increase the time children spend learning academic material.
“More research is needed,” the authors conclude, “to determine whether full-day students’ higher long-term achievement is related to greater instruction or to qualitative differences in the curriculum, or to a combination of the two.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Study: Full-Day Kindergarten Boosts Academic Performance