Full-Day Kindergarten: Pros, Cons, and State Requirements

Full-Day Kindergarten: Pros, Cons, and State Requirements
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Once an optional, preschool-like addition to elementary school programs, kindergarten has come a long way. For years, most kindergarten classes offered a half-day introduction to life in school, with plenty of time for free play, snacks, and even naps. Today, however, parents have a hard time finding anything other than the full-day option, let alone one that comes stocked with blocks, nap time, and unstructured lesson plans. In fact, more than 75 percent of all kindergartners now attend full-day programs, according to a 2015 study by nonprofit research group Child Trends.

As policymakers and school districts move to embrace full-day kindergarten, it makes sense to pause and reflect on the pros and cons of this increasingly popular way to educate young children.

First, the cons. Only 13 states and the District of Columbia have mandated full-day kindergarten, according to a recent study by the Education Commission of the States policy research group. Families in these states are guaranteed access to publicly funded kindergarten, as the programs are financed according to existing per-pupil models for elementary schools. In contrast, states that do not require districts to offer all-day kindergarten also do not provide a consistent funding stream for districts that have elected to present the option. Therefore, districts either find the money within their own—often cash-strapped—budgets or they resort to charging parents a fee to send their kindergartners to school full-time. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a child advocacy and research organization, these financial barriers can limit access to full-day programs for low-income children.

Beyond funding concerns, program quality is another issue. What makes a program “high-quality” can be difficult to define, but many early childhood education experts contend that kindergarten-age students should have continued opportunities for free play and recess even as full-day programs provide more time for academic enrichment.

In 2009, the Alliance for Childhood produced a report called “Crisis in Kindergarten” that focused on the nonprofit's deep concern regarding the lack of child-led play. “Young children work hard at play,” the report argued, noting that children use play to learn important life skills such as problem-solving and working collaboratively. According to the Alliance, too much formal teaching and testing can hinder children’s natural development. Indeed, the nonprofit found that children in all-day programs can spend “four to six times as much time in literacy and math instruction” as in unstructured activities, a state of affairs that has created what the Alliance termed a “crisis.”

On the other hand, advocates for full-day kindergarten have many pros to cite, foremost among them the idea that all-day programs may actually allow for more free play than most traditional half-day equivalents. With the advent of policy initiatives like the Common Core State Standards and similarly rigorous requirements, today's students and teachers will be held to the same academic outcomes whether they are attending or teaching in a full-day or half-day setting. Therefore, students in an all-day program will have time for both an enriched period of study and more relaxed playtime.

Moreover, the academic benefits of full-time kindergarten are difficult to overlook. As a recent report noted, “children in full-day kindergarten gain an additional 12.8 percent in reading assessments and an additional 10.3 percent in math assessments over children in half-day programs between the fall and spring tests.” In particular, low-income children who may not have had previous access to an academically enriching environment can get an essential boost in school readiness by attending all-day kindergarten.

With more parents and policymakers putting their trust in full-day kindergarten, state education departments may shift their focus from deciding whether to even mandate such programs in the first place to acquiring the funding to make these programs available for all students.

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