Gov. Mitch Daniels proposed a full-day kindergarten plan in his State of the State address and the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that would make full-day kindergarten available to all of Indiana's children in the 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 children.
Daniels stated, "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 showed "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 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 studies looked at 1,830 kindergartners in "a large urban school district in Indiana" and then analyzed its third-grade test scores on ISTEP 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 to hear when you are considering spending $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 the kindergarten year. However, that initial advantage disappears by third grade.
Indiana's "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 the 2005-06 graduation rate at 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.
ISTEP scores have 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 (NAEP) but scores below the national average for the percentage of eighth-grade students proficient in reading on the NAEP.
While full-day kindergarten may be politically popular, it is no silver bullet to fix the academic performance issues that plague Indiana. The policy question becomes: Should Indiana invest millions in a program whose benefits disappear by third grade to solve a problem that manifests itself after third grade, or should state policymakers be investing scarce education resources to improve performance in the later grades where student achievement begins to falter?
Snell, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is director of education and child welfare policy at Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. This article is adapted from a study by Snell and Darcy Olsen commissioned for the winter Indiana Policy Review.