In recent years, early education has been on federal and state policymakers’ radar more than ever before. The Obama Administration has introduced several early learning initiatives, from Preschool Development Grants and Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge, to the ambitious Preschool for All proposal. Meanwhile, a growing number of red and blue states across the country are taking the initiative to pilot and expand public pre-k programs for four-year-olds without the help of the federal government.

Early education advocates welcome these pre-K developments since research repeatedly affirms that high quality pre-K programs improve child outcomes, especially for children from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds. But it’s important to remember that pre-K cannot stand alone– the years before and after pre-K are equally important to children’s development. That’s why the Early Education Initiative at New America is part of The PreK-3rd Grade National Workgroup, a consortium of organizations dedicated to strengthening the full PreK-3rd grade continuum, which includes pre-K, kindergarten, 1st through 3rd grade, and the transitions from one year to the next.

Last month, the workgroup hosted a webinar on the important role that full-day1 kindergarten plays in creating a strong foundation for early learners. My colleagues at New America have been long time proponents of tuition-free, full-day kindergarten because research indicates that kindergarteners benefit significantly from a full-day in the classroom. In fact, studies suggest that full-day kindergarten improves academic achievement and can lessen the achievement gap.

It’s not difficult to understand why more hours of quality instruction can be beneficial to children: more time in the classroom means more time for high-quality interactions with teachers and peers, which translates to more learning. As Alexander Holt explains in Making the Hours Count: Exposing Disparities in Early Education by Retiring Half-Day vs. Full-Day Labels, “Time in a classroom does not guarantee opportunities to learn, but it is a necessary doorway to that opportunity.” In short, it’s difficult for a child attending kindergarten for two hours a day to realize the same benefits as a child in the neighboring school district who attends for six hours a day.

However, there are other, maybe less obvious, benefits to full-day kindergarten. In last month’s webinar, University of Washington Education Professor Kristie Kauerz presented the comprehensive research supporting full-day kindergarten that goes beyond the positive impact on student learning.  By explaining the research around full-day kindergarten from the perspectives of families, teachers, and economists, Kauerz made a strong argument for better policies in this area.

Families’ Perspectives: In addition to providing children with more opportunities to learn, parents often favor full-day kindergarten because it aligns better with their work schedules than half-day programs. When children can only attend kindergarten for a few hours per day or a few days per week, working parents have to arrange and pay for childcare during the remaining hours. Not only is this difficult for many parents to coordinate and afford, but there is also little guarantee that child care programs provide the same developmentally appropriate learning environment as kindergarten classrooms.

Kauerz points out that families who have access to a full day of public pre-K or Head Start are accustomed to full-day services, and transitioning to part-time kindergarten is disruptive to both the children who are prepared for a full day and the parents whose schedules (and bank accounts) have come to rely on certain hours.

Teachers’ Perspectives: Having kindergarteners in the classroom for a full day can aid both teachers and students. With half-day programs, teachers often split the school day between two classes of students, leaving them very limited time to focus on the whole child and meet rigorous standards. Kauerz explains how increased time with students allows teachers to adequately cover subjects beyond reading and math–from social-emotional skills and the arts to physical development. What’s more, as a majority of states implement the more rigorous Common Core State Standards, a full-day of instruction for kindergartners will be more important than ever, as my colleague Laura Bornfreund has explained.

Kauerz also says that having the same students all day makes for a more relaxed classroom environment and allows teachers to use differentiated instruction. This slide shows how the classroom time might differ for children in full-day and half-day programs.

FDK Why Full Day Kindergarten is a Key Piece of the Early Ed Puzzle

Economic Perspectives: From an economic perspective, numerous studies suggest that full-day kindergarten is a worthwhile policy. Kauerz explains that there are many inputs in education that do not necessarily lead to the desired output. Full-day kindergarten is one of the rare inputs that is associated with measurable outcomes, such as improved early literacy skills– so policymakers can rest assured that this is a smart investment.

Full-day programs also “crowd out” other negative activities, meaning if children are in a safe classroom environment, they are not spending that same time doing other things that could be less beneficial to their development. And in line with the benefits for parents previously mentioned, full-day kindergarten (like preK through 12th grade) can function as a form of employment support because it allows parents to work knowing that their children are in a safe and reliable environment.

Unfortunately, despite plentiful evidence that children benefit from a full day of high-quality instruction, only 10 states2 require districts to offer kindergarten for more than five hours per day.

Kauerz refers to kindergarten as “the fulcrum point” between early education and elementary school. This important year of learning and transition cannot afford to be overlooked. Here at the Early Education Initiative, we are taking a closer look at all states’ kindergarten policies as part of a 50-state scan we are conducting on birth-3rd grade education policies relating to early literacy. Look for this publication in the fall.

  1. As my colleague Alexander Holt explained in Making the Hours Count, there are no standard definitions for half-day and full-day in regards to early education programs. In this blog post we use “full-day” to mean a high-dosage program that is equivalent to a 1st grade school day. []
  2. Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia []

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst on the Early & Elementary Education Policy team at New America, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.