Will kindergarten improve your bottom-line? According to some, the answer is a resounding yes.
Gov. Janet Napolitano says all-day kindergarten will result in "greater economic productivity." In the pages of The Business Journal, founder of the Latz Negotiation Institute, Marty Latz, argues that all-day kindergarten is "a top business initiative related to improving our human talent." The Rodel Foundation, with support from the Greater Phoenix Leadership, contends full-day kindergarten is critical to producing a talented work force that will "form the foundation for future prosperity."
Nearly all children in Arizona already attend kindergarten. An estimated 56 percent attend half-day programs, and 44 percent attend full-time. Can expanding the full-day kindergarten bus really drive the state to fairer economic pastures?
According to the best available research, such a scenario is more fairytale than fact. In a longitudinal analysis of 22,000 children nationwide, the National Center for Education Statistics reports, "In terms of program type (i.e., all-day or part-day), there is little meaningful difference in the level of children's end-of-year reading and mathematics knowledge." On a reading scale ranging from 0 to 72, the average kindergartner in a full-day program gained 10.6 points over the year, while children in half-day programs gained 9.4 points.
That's only the first half of the story. By third grade, there no longer is a difference in reading, math, or science achievement scores between children who attended half-day and full-day programs. As the authors report, "Third-grade reading, mathematics, and science achievement did not differ substantively by ... kindergarten program type." In business terms, spending twice the amount of time in school confers no gains in productivity.
If kindergarten is not sufficient to improve achievement, could the solution be more education for even younger children? On the heels of full-day kindergarten, Gov. Napolitano is championing a plan for state-supported preschool. The ultimate goal, as she told the National Task Force on Public Education, is to make early education "a lockstep component of public schooling."
Since 1965, enrollment of 4-year-olds in early-education programs increased from 16 percent to 66 percent, yet student achievement has not improved. From that, one might conclude preschool is not making a marked impact on student achievement. But one might also conclude that an enrollment rate of 66 percent is insufficient. Perhaps universal enrollment is the answer?
Like many advocates of government preschool, Sandra Feldman, American Federation of Teachers president emeritus, holds up France as a model. She says the United States "can't afford not to" adopt the French system, which enrolls nearly all 3- and 4-year-olds in formal institutions.
Do those systems better equip children for success in school? Non, nein and no.
U.S. students routinely outscore the international competition in fourth grade, the earliest year for which comparison data is available. In reading, for instance, U.S. fourth-graders score 542, far above the international average of 500. In addition to being more literate at earlier ages than the French, Italians and Germans, U.S. students have above-average math scores, and their science performance is third only to South Korea and Japan.
Unfortunately the U.S. advantage does not hold. By 12th grade, U.S. students score in the bottom-third on international tests. Whatever the cause of that decline, however, putting children into school two years earlier is not going to solve it.
Arizonans currently pay more than $400 million annually for government early-education programs, including day care, preschool and kindergarten. That figure does not include multiple funding streams used by districts for kindergarten or supplemental parent fees. Yet even that conservative estimate is enough money to give an education grant worth about $3,000 to every 4-year-old and kindergartner in the state. If children aren't being served, it is not for lack of resources.
Importantly, the government collects virtually no information on how that spending impacts student learning. The state Legislature could usher in accountability by requiring an annual impact assessment of those expenditures. It is a reasonable expectation.
If more kindergarten, preschool and day care programs really are good for the bottom line, why not cut out the government middle man and allow business to fund them directly?
If the programs work for business, investments will follow.
The all-day kindergarten bus is like a trip to the Emerald City. When the curtain is pulled back, a man's empty promise is revealed. This is one trip we need not take.