USC Price School of Public Policy

Painter: Do Children Benefit From Full Day of Kindergarten?

By Merrill Balassone

Gary Painter SPPD professor Gary Painter

A longer kindergarten day offers few educational benefits for most students learning English as a second language, a new USC study shows, despite a broad national push toward an extended day to help at-risk children.

About 65 percent of kindergarteners nationwide were in full-day kindergarten in 2003, up from just 13 percent in 1970.

But the study, published March 9 in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, found no meaningful gains on second-grade test scores or improvement in English fluency for the bulk of English-language learners who spent a full day in kindergarten as compared to those in a half-day class.

The study followed nearly 160,000 English-language learners from kindergarten through second grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District as the district shifted from half-day to full-day kindergarten classes beginning in 2004.

But as school districts are forced to make deep budget cuts, the move to a longer kindergarten day for all children deserves a second look, said co-author Gary Painter, professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

“For the big part of the English-language learner population, you don’t really see significant differences between students who spent a full day or a half day in kindergarten,” Painter said. “What it leaves is an open question: ‘Is it worth it to fund this for everybody?’ ”

Full-day kindergarten for all could be an expensive policy, Painter said, with additional costs such as teacher and staff salaries, facilities and materials.

“When you’re talking about cutting teachers, you have to really be careful and figure out what are the most cost-effective programs,” Painter said.

Despite finding no meaningful differences between most of the full-day and half-day students in the study, the researchers found English-language learners were 5 percentage points less likely to be retained – or “held back” – in kindergarten or first grade after being enrolled in full-day kindergarten.

The study also found that two groups of students benefited most from the longer kindergarten day.

Some English-language learners in the district’s worst-performing schools posted larger gains on reading scores and a state test measuring English fluency. And English learners on the cusp of English fluency were more likely to be reclassified by the district as proficient in English and have higher first- and second-grade test scores after attending full-day kindergarten, Painter said.

In the era of “No Child Left Behind,” the issue of whether more time in class increases student performance – especially among disadvantaged students – has become a hot topic.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, more than half of incoming kindergarteners are learning English as a second language.

Nationally, about 7 percent of children ages 5 through 9 speak a language other than English at home and speak English with difficulty.

Painter’s collaborators were Jill Cannon, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, and Alison Jacknowitz, associate professor of public administration and policy at American University in Washington, D.C.

In a 2006 study, the same authors found that full-day kindergarten nationally provided initial educational gains for children and their mothers among the overall student population.

But by third grade, those who attended half-day kindergarten had caught up to their peers, the study showed.