In Defense of Full-Day K

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.

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