Academic gains for children who attend full-day kindergarten programs compared to those who attend half-day programs are so short-lived that policymakers should take a hard look at whether the additional cost of full-day programs is worthwhile, concludes an economist in a recent issue of Economics of Education Review.
“My findings suggest that, on average, the academic returns associated with full-day kindergarten are quite low or non-existent,” writes Philip DeCicca from the Department of Economics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
DeCicca analyzed kindergarten and 1st grade reading and math test scores for children from 714 schools who attended half-day or fullday kindergarten programs.
While children in full-day programs scored higher in reading and math than their half-day counterparts at the end of kindergarten, those gains had evaporated by the end of 1st grade, the researcher reports. This was true for both girls and boys and black and Hispanic children. In fact, Hispanic children who attended full-day kindergarten programs performed worse at the end of 1st grade than children who attended half-day kindergarten.
“The estimated pattern of results suggests that full-day kindergarten substantially raises the math and reading achievement of children of all races,” the economist writes. “However, these gains are much smaller in magnitude when measured via similar tests just one year later. In other words, the short-run impact of full-day kindergarten has depreciated considerably by the end of first grade.”
For black children, the short-run gains seem to be gone by the beginning of first grade, indicating that the loss is due to “summer fallback”, the economist writes. For white and Hispanic children the gain seems to erode gradually during 1st-grade. The declines are shallowest for whites, he says.
“Given existing socioeconomic differences between the races, it is possible that differences in home environment contribute significantly to the larger losses for Hispanic, and especially black, children,” he writes.
Half-day began during WWII The history of kindergarten dates back to the 1800s when it began as a full-day program, DeCicca writes. During WWII, schools across the country began to cut their kindergarten classes back to a half-day in order to free up additional labor.
Full-day kindergarten reappeared in the 1960s as an intervention to help disadvantaged children catch up to their peers through additional schooling. But, now it has gained popularity among middle class families. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of children in full-day programs has grown from 10% to just over half of U.S. kindergartners.
The push for full-day kindergarten has occurred at the state level, DeCicca writes. Currently, nine state governments mandate full-day kindergarten and 26 provide financial incentives to encourage school districts to provide it.
The rationale for full-day kindergarten is that the more time children spend in school, the more they will learn, the researcher writes. But, detractors warn that an early emphasis on academic learning, at the expense of play time, could harm children emotionally and academically.
Economists have taken little interest in the half-day vs. full-day kindergarten debate, which is surprising, DeCicca says, in view of the enormous attention paid to Head Start and its possible effects on outcomes.
Beyond academic benefits, policymakers also need to consider socialization issues and kindergarten’s role as a child care subsidy in evaluating full-day kindergarten vs. half-day kindergarten, he notes.
“Does full-day kindergarten matter? Evidence from the first two years of schooling” by Philip DeCicca. Economics of Education Review, Volume 26, Number 1, February 2007, pp. 67-82.