In Defense of Full-Day K

Cross-posted from

One of the topics of discussion at the recent Arizona State Board of Education was the need for full day kindergarten. The minutes of the meeting report that Phil Francis, CEO of Petsmart, “gave a presentation about the importance of full day kindergarten as a grade and the efforts to bring this to Arizona. The intention of the group, comprised of business leaders, legislators and parents, is to make kindergarten a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” Arizona State Senator Steve Smith also spoke at the meeting “as a parent and as a legislator in support of this initiative.” He said “his goal is to first find out if this is something that Arizona wants and then the legislature will find money during the budget process.”

I have several issues with both their comments. First of all, there is no research data that shows kindergarten should be “a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” In fact, Finland (generally considered the best school system in the world), does not even start their children in school until they are seven years old. Numerous studies show young children need time to play and that putting too much pressure on our youngest students may cause them to miss out on other critical development and lose a love of learning.Secondly, I am suspect whenever Senator Steve Smith appears to support something good for public education. According to the Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) annual legislator report card, Smith only voted for our district schools and their students half of the time last year and that was better than previous years. He has consistently been a proponent of school choice and the diversion of taxpayer public education monies to private and religious schools via vouchers. Call me cynical, but if Smith is in favor of restoring the funding to full day kindergarten, there’s profit to be made by commercial schools. Further Empowerment Scholarship Account (vouchers) expansion anyone?

The meeting minutes also stated that Lisa Fink, founder of Adams Traditional Academy, spoke against the initiative saying that “many of the gains of full day k are gone by the second grade. I’m not sure what research Fink is using, but I can point to plenty that shows her conclusion is incorrect. A 2004 National Center for Education Statistics longitudinal study showed a 32 percent gain in reading and 22 percent gain in math achievement for kindergarten students in full-day programs versus half-day. A more recent study (2014) showed a sizable learning advantage for full-day students. For Hispanic full-day kindergarteners, the advantage was nearly twice that of Hispanic half-day students. In a study of over 17,000 students in Philadelphia, researchers found that “by the time they reached the third and fourth grades, former full-day kindergarteners were… 26 percent more likely than graduates of half-day programs—to have made it there without having repeated a grade.”  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

Where the gains have been less than obvious, it is likely due to outside factors. In 2008, another early childhood longitudinal study found that full-day students were statistically more likely to live below the poverty line and be of low birth weight and have unmarried parents who did not pursue education beyond high school. That is why researchers such as Chloe Gibbs at the University of Virginia, used students in her 2014 study who had a lottery to allocate full-day kindergarten slots, thus ensuring a random sampling. She concluded that full-day kindergarten produces greater learning gains per dollar spent than other well know early education interventions (such as Head Start and class size reductions.) It not only ensured all students did better, it also closed the literacy achievement gap between Hispanic and other students by 70 percent. This is important for several reasons. First of all, Hispanics are now the majority/minority in our Arizona’s district schools. Secondly, their achievement levels on the latest AzMERIT tests are lower than that of their white counterparts. Thirdly, Dr. Rottweiler, reminded the Board that “the same year we created move on when reading to increase literacy scores, we cut the funding to full day kindergarten.” In other words, at the same time the Legislature cut funding for full-day kindergarten, they enacted a law to hold students back who couldn’t read adequately by the third grade. Talk about tying the students legs together and then asking them to run….

Sometimes though, “fadeout” (an apparent loss of gains as the student progresses through school) does occur. Studies documenting the phenomenon though, “often show better adult outcomes—better health, higher earnings, etc.,” than for students who didn’t have the full-day kindergarten experience. Additionally, there is no consistency across states for kindergarten programs. Quality matters and it really matters with our youngest students.  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

One advantage of half-day kindergarten that matters to the Arizona Legislature is undoubtedly the fact that it costs less; $218 million less in 2010. Of course, the program cuts may not have been just about offsetting the state’s revenue shortfall. Cutting full-day kindergarten forced a choice on districts to either a) just offer half-day or b) trim other services (increase class sizes, eliminating art or music, cutting athletic directors) to pay for it. No matter which decision districts made, it hurt their ability to be fully successful. Not offering full-day kindergarten meant they might lose potential students who would likely have stayed through graduation. Since districts are funded on a per-student formula, this translates into lost funding. And I know there are those thinking “if the kid leaves, the cost of educating him leaves as well, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that districts have numerous fixed costs that continue to exist in full whether or not students attrit out (or never come in.) These include costs such as that for utilities, facility and grounds maintenance, and personnel.

Fortunately, there were others at the Board meeting who “get it.” Janiene Marlow, H.R. Director at Cave Creek USD, reiterated to the Board that “Full Day K programs are crucial.” Channel Powe, Balsz Elementary School District Board Member, also testified in support of full day kindergarten. Jack Smith, Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, spoke as a parent and discussed how kindergarten spring-boarded his children to success.

Of course, a move back to full-day kindergarten will cost significant monies. Kelley Murphy, from the Arizona Community Education Association (AZECA), stressed that in order to implement this in statute there must be a designated funding source. Remember that in his comments at the meeting, Senator Smith said, “the legislature will find money during the budget process.” I can guarantee you he is not talking about raising additional revenue to fund full-day kindergarten. I’m guessing he means the legislature will look at the K-12 budget to see what they can cut to fund it. Keep in mind that even after the Prop. 123 monies, Arizona is still 48th in the nation in K-12 per-pupil funding. Arizona’s GOP-led legislature is just not concerned and/or focused on truly improving the educational outcomes for the 80-plus percent of Arizonan students that attend our district schools. That’s why I’m only partially excited about the potential restoration of funding for full-day kindergarten, even though I think it is critical. It, like any other initiative we pursue in K-12 education, is not a silver bullet. It must be pursued as part of a comprehensive educational system. It must also be funded to a level that will help ensure a quality program. Junk in after all, produces junk out.

The hard truth is that as long as we accept mediocre support for our district schools, they will have a very hard time producing stellar results. The fact that some districts are excelling at the highest levels and most others are continuing to improve, is a testimony to the underpaid and undervalued but totally dedicated educational professionals in 230 community school districts around the state. They do it because they love the kids. Both they and the kids deserve much better.

10 thoughts on “In Defense of Full-Day K”

  1. John Huppenthal is adept at citing studies and arriving at hard-and-fast conclusions which back up what he believes. I’m no expert on studies on the value of kindergarten, so instead of offering an opinion, let me quote an article, “Best Research Yet on the Effects of Full-Day Kindergarten,” which addresses the possible failings of the study Huppenthal cites, and looks at a newer study which is more positive.

    One more thought: John, don’t patronize Linda by beginning your comment, “A lot of very good research but a key piece is missing, no fault of your own.” No fault of your own? Thanks for mansplaining the issue to the “little lady,” John.

    “For example, a 2008 analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, the best national snapshot of the kindergarten experiences of students in the United States,** found important differences between the students who attended full-day kindergarten and those in half-day classes. Full-day students were statistically more likely to live below the poverty line and be of low birth weight. Their parents were more likely to be unmarried and have ended their education with only a high school degree. If any of these characteristics of the full-day group make students less likely to succeed later on — and everything we know about student backgrounds and outcomes tells us they do — then they would make it appear as though full-day kindergarten isn’t as effective as it actually is.

    Randomization solves that problem. Gibbs’s experiment examines students in districts in Indiana that didn’t have enough room for all students in full-day kindergarten and so used a lottery to allocate spaces to students. By making the process through which students are sorted into the treatment and control groups uncorrelated with their demographic or personality characteristics, researchers can feel confident that the only difference is their enrollment in full- or half-day classes. As a result, we can attribute any differences between the two groups after kindergarten to their attendance in full-day kindergarten.

    In this case, those differences in outcomes were very large. Indeed, Gibbs calculates that full-day kindergarten produces greater learning gains per dollar spent than other well known early education interventions (such as Head Start and class size reductions).

    Even better, the extra positive effect for Hispanic students occurred even while raising outcomes for all students. This means that benefits of full-day kindergarten aren’t zero sum. A full-day of kindergarten made all students better off, while also closing the literacy achievement gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students by 70 percent.

    While encouraging, Gibbs’s findings are just a first examination of the students’ outcomes. We will need further analysis to get a clearer picture of full-day kindergarten effects.”

    • David,

      Your diatribe is flawed on 2 counts. First, it is obvious that Lynda did an intensive search for the truth and was willing to discuss both sides of the coin. How is it possible that she did not come across the most pertinent data item of them all, the final result of the most intensive study ever done on all day kindergarten?

      I just did a forty minute search, I couldn’t find it either. I only have it because I used my position as Superintendent and pried it out of the Institute for Education Science with a crowbar. Took me three weeks.

      However, the 8th grade results are just and extension and addition to the 5th grade results which thoroughly detailed in the RAND analysis: “School Readiness, Full Day Kindergarten and Student Achievement”,

      The ECLS is not a “study”, it is the Hubble telescope of studies.

      RAND is the nation’s premier think tank. With a $10 million grant, they had unlimited resources to comprehensively analyze the ECLS data.

      The beauty of the ECLS is that the huge sample size enables you to control for a massive number of variables. You can hold everything constant and just look at the differences arising from half day versus full day.

      Your repetition of cheap shots at the ECLS ignore the fact that the two huge randomly sampled groups, full day and half day, started in a dead heat. Unlike the badly flawed STAR study, the ECLS didn’t assume the two groups were equal in achievement levels, it went out and measured them and found them to be equal, exactly what you would predict if the students had the same characteristics. If the cheap shots you repeat were correct, a difference would have shown up, right from the start.

  2. A lot of very good research but a key piece is missing, no fault of your own.

    The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, kindergarten class of 98/99, is the definitive study. $140 million was spent just collecting the data. They random sampled 20,000 students, random sampling even within the classroom. They built the best tests ever designed for measuring academic achievement of children and they comprehensive measured affective outcomes as well as cognitive.

    Importantly, they separated data collection from data analysis to eliminate the bias that permeates education research. The National Reading Panel spent $10 million evaluating 10,000 reading studies and concluded that 96% of them weren’t worth the paper they were written on and the other 4% were suspect.

    As you mention, full day kindergartners had substantially greater academic gains than half day kindergartners with a barbell distribution of those gains.

    However, the Ford and Rockefeller foundations gave RAND a $10 million grant to analyze the data. RAND found that full day kindergartners lost ground to half day kindergartners in measures of motivation, prosocial behavior and antisocial behavior. They also found that attitude towards school was the number one predictor of future academic gains.

    ECLS followed the students all the way through 8th grade. Evidently, the emotional damage is permanent. Full day kindergartners immediately began losing ground to half day kindergartners. By third grade, their academic results were tied, by fifth grade full day kindergartners were behind by a statistically significant amount and at the end of 8th grade, full day kindergartners were behind by 1/10 of a standard deviation, the equivalent of the entire 12th grade academic gain.

    This isn’t fade, this is permanent engine damage.

    It is an enduring shame that these results have been covered up by education culture instead of being put on the table for open discussion and solution. But, an iron clad rule of education culture is that only good news is discussed or reported.

    The cultural response is that people are going to put in place a spartan culture with this new funding of all day kindergarten with rigorous academics. If the problem is motivational damage and development of antisocial behaviors, a rigorous environment seems unlikely to solve the issues.

    These issues are not likely isolated to all day kindergarten. A preschool longitudinal study with 600 children had similar results in California.

    Finland’s starting students later seems well informed.

    • The definitive study is one from 1998? Really John…that’s the best you got? And oh by the way, you forgot to mention that the study found that “children at both public and Catholic schools showed significantly greater gains than did their other private school counterparts.” As for the RAND study (how much kickback do you get every time you mention RAND by the way), it showed that: Children whose parents were more involved with schools and those who came from higher-income families demonstrated better attitudes toward learning, more self-control, and better social skills. They also were less likely to exhibit problem behaviors.” Okay, so basically, parents with more resources (money, education, etc.) were able to provide their children a better very early childhood education. Yep, I that tracks with everything I’ve learned. What about those children who aren’t so lucky? That’s the issue.

      As for “the emotional damage is permanent” that’s a little hyperbolic, don’t you think? And, as for your mention of “permanent engine damage” — are we talking about automobiles or children? The “enduring shame” is NOT that the “education culture” covers up results, but that the AZ Legislature doesn’t care about the education and well-being of Arizona’s children who are on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Just look at the lack of progress made in DCS. After all, as one of my associates once reported a GOP member of the Arizona Senate Education Committee told him: “Sure I care about public education. We need someone to shine our shoes.”

        • I am an educator, a certified math teacher and have been working full time as a volunteer math teacher for very highly at-risk students in South Phoenix and as a volunteer tutor at a school for the homeless for their after school program.

      • The ECLS began in 1998 when the students entered kindergarten. It followed over 8,000 students on through 8th grade, which was 9 years later, 2007. The RAND study, under a $10 million grant from the Ford and Rockefeller foundation, analyzing the results through 5th grade was published in 2007.

        That’s very recent by study standards, especially given the massiveness of the study.

        But, if you want something more recent and pointed more directly at at-risk populations.

        How about a 2015 RAND study of LA unified full day k.

        “We take advantage of the large EL population and variation in full-day kindergarten implementation in the Los Angeles Unified School District to examine the impact of full-day kindergarten on academic achievement, retention, and English language fluency using difference-in-differences models. We do not find significant effects of full-day kindergarten on most academic outcomes and English fluency through second grade.”

        Yes, there is a little hyperbole in “the damage is permanent”. But, full day kindergarten as a product deserves a warning label for parents. There are profound ethical issues in misinforming parents about a product that will evidently affect children for the rest of their lives and not in a positive way.

    • Yet! After all John, if youse guys are successful in the inevitable expansion to ESAs, it will just be another hose hooked up to the district education funding pipeline to siphon off more money. If I sound cynical…”fool me once, shame on you–fool me twice, shame on me.”

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