Gov. Mitch Daniels proposed a full-day kindergarten plan in his State of the State address and the House Education Committee recently approved a bill that would make full-day kindergarten available to all of Indiana's children this fall.
When fully implemented the price tag for full-day kindergarten could reach $285 million per year, depending on how many parents choose to enroll their kids.
Daniels declared, "After years of study, debate, and failed attempts, let's make an irrevocable commitment to full-day kindergarten for every family that wants it."
Although the Governor considers the debate to be over, there is serious doubt about the results produced by full-day kindergarten and even bigger questions about whether it is the best use of limited education resources.
California-based RAND Corporation's December 2006 report, School Readiness, Full Day Kindergarten, and Student Achievement, examined data from a nationally representative sample of almost 7,900 students and found "that full-day kindergarten programs may actually be detrimental to mathematics performance and nonacademic readiness skills."
The study established that "children who had attended a full-day program at kindergarten showed poorer mathematics performance in fifth grade than did children who had attended a part-day kindergarten program."
Closer to home, a 2004 policy brief, The Effects of Full Day versus Half Day Kindergarten, by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) at Indiana University did its best to praise full-day kindergarten but could only go so far as to say "there are no negative outcomes commonly associated with full day kindergarten, and that – at worst – full day kindergarten and half day kindergarten have similar effects."
One of the CEEP studies looked at 1,830 kindergartners in a "large urban school district in Indiana" and then analyzed their third grade test scores on the I-Step in math and language. In that case researchers found "evidence that the differences between full and half day students are negligible."
Negligible? Not exactly the results you want in exchange for $280 million a year.
Nearly all the research on kindergarten shows that children in full-day kindergarten are afforded a modest academic edge over children in half-day kindergarten when measured at the end of their kindergarten year. However, that initial advantage completely disappears by third grade.
Indiana's expensive, "irrevocable commitment" to full-day kindergarten is especially questionable when you consider the kinds of school performance issues that plague the state. Indiana does not have a significant performance problem in the elementary schools. Instead, the two most acute problems are high school dropouts and declining test scores as students move on to high school.
While Indiana has an overall high school graduation rate of 76 percent, several districts suffer from a much higher concentration of school dropouts. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, calculated its 2005-06 graduation rate at just 48 percent. Under the district's calculations, only 1,227 of the 2,565 students who started as high school freshmen in 2002, and stayed at their schools, received a diploma from the district.
Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus scores show a stair-step pattern, with elementary scores at the top and high school scores at the bottom. In 2006 about 64 percent of third-graders passed both parts of the test, while only 57 percent of 10th-graders did. This pattern is confirmed by the federal benchmark for academic progress, where Indiana scores slightly above the national average for percentage of students proficient in fourth grade reading on the National Assessment of Education Progress but scores below the national average for the percentage of eighth graders proficient in reading.
While full-day kindergarten may be politically popular, it is no silver bullet to fix the academic performance issues that plague the state. Indiana is considering investing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year in a program whose benefits disappear by third grade to solve education problems that come after the third grade. Shouldn't policymakers be focusing scarce education resources on programs that can make a lasting difference?