Published DateTo the editor,
To bolster their case for opposing all-day kindergarten, opponents have taken to citing the 2012 final report from the "Head Start Impact Study." This study was an evaluation of the continuing effects of Head Start (a preschool program) into the elementary-school years.
The study was not good news for Head Start. Grover J. Whitehurst, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute wrote a clear, sad synopsis of the study on the Brookings blog: "There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start. Further, children attending Head Start remain far behind academically once they are in elementary school. Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families."
The federal Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the program, shamefully tried to suppress the report. The evaluators displayed a level of desperation ill suited to serious science. With little foundation, they speculated their study might have overlooked "sleeper" benefits that could manifest in later life. (I guess we should take some solace that right and left America are finally in accord on a strategy. When the science goes against them, they seek to marginalize and deny it.)
Nonetheless, relying on this study to oppose full-day kindergarten is a stretch. It specifically evaluated the Head Start program not early education per se. In the Brookings essay, Dr. Whitehurst also cited several quality studies of preschool programs that have shown clear and measurable benefits well into the elementary-school years.
Even with demonstrated benefits, however, one should not expect miracles from any preschool program (or additional kindergarten time). These programs are not the chief drivers of academic achievement in the third grade. Second-grade achievements, personal study habits, attitude and the quality of the third-grade experience are more likely prime determinants.
Preschool programs can teach basic skills, study strategies, productive behaviors and instill confidence. The result should be that students exposed to good programs do better than students who are not. Exposure, however, can only take students so far. A stinky educational experience will still produce inferior results no matter how prepared students are to receive it. "Do better" may mean less stinky, but it is not a euphemism for well educated.
Full-time kindergarten cannot offer lifetime superior achievement. That is what a good education offers. However, if first grade can build upon an enhanced kindergarten experience — that is, if it can pick up where full-time kindergarten leaves off and push its own endpoint to be commensurate with the new, advanced beginning — the experience can lead to superior achievements down the road.
What, then, can an enhanced kindergarten experience offer if it is not a panacea? Those who advocate for full day over half-day kindergarten cite a litany of benefits and advantages.
Among the benefits they cite are:
— Greater increases in math knowledge and reading skills overall;
— Better language proficiency among at-risk students;
— Faster gains in literacy among minority students;
— More progress in closing grade-level gaps among students entering kindergarten below established norms;
— Enhanced development of personal learning behaviors such as independent learning, classroom participation, productive interaction among students as well as thoughtful consideration of the implications of new knowledge; and
— Cost savings from reductions in retention through the third grade.
Among the advantages they cite are:
— Forty to 50 percent more instruction time as well as more time for students to exercise their academic skills (mathematical and literary) in the classroom;
— Time for classroom enhancements such as group reading, mixed-ability groups and student-initiated activities;
— Reduced stress among students; and
— Widespread support in the community (especially among the parents of kindergarten-age children).