by Matt Rosenberg January 29th, 2014
Washington state legislators seven years ago set a goal to fund all-day kindergarten in all public schools here by the 2017-18 school year but a new report they commissioned says the practice can’t now be called cost-effective because the academic achievement gains associated with it usually fade fast and any social and emotional learning benefits to children from it can’t be adequately documented.
The new report to lawmakers from the government-funded non-partisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy reviewed the research literature and based on 10 rigorous studies that included control groups, found that compared to the half-day alternative, “the benefits of investing in full-day kindergarten are unlikely to outweigh the costs because the initial test score gains are not usually sustained.” However, if stakeholders can figure out how to sustain the initial test score gains then the investment “has the potential to be cost-beneficial with relatively low risk,” the report added.
Compared to the half-day alternative, gains in academic achievement from all-day kindergarten are typically short-lived and the financial benefits minimal over the course of a student’s full life cycle, WSIPP researchers found, in surveying the scientific literature. With the typical “test score fadeout” starting in first grade and intensifying from second through fifth grades, the $2,650 cost per student to add an extra half-day of kindergarten is associated with additional labor market earnings over the course of a lifetime of only $833.
Yet those added lifetime earnings that the WSIPP-vetted studies were able to project specifically from full-day kindergarten do grow to $4,882 per student if the test score fadeout is more gradual thanks to participation not just in all-day kindergarten but also in an early childhood education program. And they rise higher still to $16,506 over a lifetime with if there is no achievement test score “fadeout” after the jump-start from all-day-K.
The WSIPP report updates a 2007 evaluation on the same topic, with similar findings, and includes an analysis of low-income students. The studies reviewed this time around indicate that as with full-day-K students of all income levels, lower income full-day-K participants experience the same Year One improvements compared to their half-day-K control groups; but that “the impact fades out to nearly zero by grades two through five.”
Year One Gains “Significant”
The Year One gains are “significant,” according to WSIPP, with an “effect size” of 0.16 for all-day-K students of all income levels and 0.12 for their low-income cohorts. Effect size is used by researchers to capture aggregate impacts of a test variable, such as all-day-K versus half-day, across a number of similar studies. An effect size of 0.16 translates to a six percentile gain in rankings and 0.12 to a five percentile bump.
But the studies analyzed for the WSIPP report showed the average effect size of the boost to achievement test scores for students of all income levels from all-day-K dropped in first grade to 0.06 or two percentile points higher than students who had half-day-K; and to 0.01 or zero percentile points higher by grades two through five. For low income students in the evaluated studies the effect size of all-day-K in first grade, and in second through fifth, was 0.0 – a zero percentile gain.
The WSIPP report says in 2012 nearly half of public school kindergarten students in Washington attended full-day-K – with 22 percent in programs paid for by the state and 25 percent funded locally.
Large percentages of students in K-12 public schools in Washington state are not able to pass state achievement tests in math and to a somewhat lesser extent, reading. How to improve performance on the tests – which some critics would like to see altered or abandoned – remains a question of great interest to educators, parents and others.
While the debate is far-ranging and unsettled, some hints may come from White Center Heights Elementary School in the Highline District where, as the Seattle Times reported, an assertive principal given wide latitude by the superintendent has worked closely with teachers to implement a number of new approaches that show promise. These include deeply data-driven analyses of achievement test scores to discern skills gaps of students; the controversial segmenting of student math instruction by ability, and the targeting for extra help of those struggling; plus, going beyond phonics to content-driven explorations of story themes; cutting recess time and clamping down on tardiness; and energetically engaging parents around some of the leading home-based practices for student learning readiness.