Why full-day kindergarten doesn’t work

Charlie Gillis on the munchkin invasion

The munchkin invasion

Bob TyWhmczyszyn/St. Catharines Standard/QMI Agency

Weekday mornings at P.L. Robertson Public School in Milton, Ont., are unlike anything most of us remember from school. For starters, there are the valets—a team of seven early childhood educators kitted out in orange reflector vests, opening car doors and holding backpacks to ensure a phalanx of minivans dropping off little people rolls apace. Then there are the “pens”: a network of fenced yards where kindergartners, who arrive in a seemingly endless flow, can play safely while they await the morning bell. “We use the word ‘pens’ lovingly,” says principal Wendy Spence. “But we might as well call them what they are.”

By 8:40 a.m., the kids begin filing indoors, and the enormity of Spence’s responsibility becomes clear. P.L. Roberston might be named for an icon of Milton’s industrial past (the man who invented the Robertson screwdriver), but it rests in a sea of brand-spanking new, cheek-by-jowl residential developments whose demographics skew heavily toward the young. Fully 403 of the school’s students are in kindergarten, representing nearly 40 per cent of a student body that, nominally at least, goes up to Grade 8. Four- and five-year-olds have all but taken over the place, decking the walls with their artwork and forcing older students into rows of portables while the Halton District School Board scrambles to build classrooms at neighbouring schools.

The munchkin invasion is a direct result of Milton’s status as a last frontier within commuting distance of Toronto: a young, middle-class family can still afford a home here—provided both parents have jobs. But P.L. Roberston is also a microcosm of a vast experiment in early-childhood education that school authorities across the country are keenly watching. By the fall of 2014, every family in Ontario will have access to state-funded, full-day kindergarten, sending some 250,000 kids into school for at least six hours per day. Other provinces offer all-day kindergarten to five-year-olds, but B.C. and Ontario are the first to try it at the both junior and senior levels. That means children as young as 3 now find themselves trundling off to school five days a week, staying until supper time if their parents take up the offer of fee-based child care available in about 60 per cent of schools.

The initiative arises in part from economic forces. Government is under increasing pressure to provide child care and education to dual-income families. But it is also born of egalitarian urges. Universal early learning, proponents say, can close the achievement gap between children from immigrant and low-income families and their more advantaged peers, providing payoffs to society many years down the road. Spence, who will take a board-level job next year overseeing the rest of Halton’s rollout, says it is already yielding benefits: “It’s putting the kids going into Grade 1 on an even playing field,” says the veteran principal. “Having the children here every day is a hugely important piece.”

But the costs are breathtaking. With two years left in the five-year rollout plan, Ontario has already committed $2.5 billion to hire teachers and build classroom space for the incoming wave of youngsters. Less than half of the 3,600 schools slated to offer all-day kindergarten have launched their programs, and when fully implemented, the initiative will cost an estimated $1.5 billion per year. That’s nearly 13 per cent of Ontario’s projected 2013 budget deficit, and enough to raise questions of whether the sacrifice will pay off. Does full-day kindergarten work? Do the benefits last? And given the wealth of evidence suggesting Canadian students (especially those from Ontario) already stack up well against their international peers, did we need it in the first place?

There is no truer believer in full-day kindergarten than Charles Pascal. In 2009, the academic and former deputy minister of education issued what would become the blueprint for Ontario’s program—a more audacious vision than the all-day kindergarten on offer in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec. Pascal’s oft-cited report, “With Our Best Future in Mind,” recommended a seamless network of child-care, early learning and parental support programs centred in the province’s public schools—a “holistic, comprehensive, integrated approach, ” as he put it, that would unite everything from prenatal care to nutritional education in a “one-stop shopping” model for parents.

Full-day kindergarten was the cornerstone of his vision: children would learn in a “play-based” curriculum under the supervision of teams—one fully certified teacher and one instructor with a degree in early childhood education (an ECE, in education parlance). At 3 p.m., the kids would enter before-and-after school care operated by school boards and overseen by ECEs, for which parents would pay a fee. Pascal pegged the annual operating costs at $990 million—an estimate that would prove wildly low.

But he had political buy-in. Then-premier Dalton McGuinty, he recalls, had been struck by a study suggesting nearly a third of the province’s Grade 1 pupils were defined as “vulnerable” on an index of educational development indicators, meaning they struggled with literacy, numbers or behaviour. “Most of those kids don’t catch up,” says Pascal. “Think about the social and economic costs of them not keeping up with their peers.” So in the teeth of a fiscal crunch wrought by the 2008 financial meltdown, the province forged on and began launching the kindergarten component of Pascal’s plan in 2010, starting at schools in low-income neighbourhoods.

The result fell short of the original vision. Today, only a tiny fraction of full-day kindergarten schools offer board-run after-hours care (most work with third-party providers), and many students attend school in rooms designed for older students. But Pascal says they can already point to results: provincial statistics to be released soon will show a dramatic decline in the percentage of vulnerable children in Grade 1, he says (he had not been cleared to disclose exact figures), while a 700-student study by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, based at the University of Toronto, found that full-day kids scored measurably higher in vocabulary, reading and numeracy than their half-day counterparts.

Janette Pelletier, the academic leading the latter study, concludes all-day instruction boosts the learning rate of children. “School’s doing a great job for all kids,” she says. “But when they get more of a good thing, it seems to work even better.” But a more crucial test awaits. Next year, the first cohort of students to receive full-day kindergarten will take the Grade 3 standardized tests administered by the province’s Education Quality and Accountability Office, and the results will go a long way to answer a question that has long nagged proponents of all-day kindergarten: do the effects on academic performance last?

Evidence to date suggests not. Even as Pascal was researching his report in 2007, an economist named Philip DeCicca was publishing a study of U.S. data examining the gains full-day kindergarten students made vis-à-vis their half-day counterparts. Full-day instruction did put students ahead in math and reading tests, he found. But by the middle of Grade 1, the gap between their scores on math and reading tests began closing. Alarmingly, the regression was especially pronounced among minority kids—the very students full-day kindergarten was supposed to help. “There was a short-term positive effect,” says DeCicca, who holds a Canada research chair in public economics at McMaster University in Hamilton. “But by the end of the first year, it was essentially gone.”

DeCicca’s findings reflected those of other adverse results that seem to have been lost amid the excitement over full-day kindergarten. In 2010, the final report of the massive Head Start program in the U.S.—an initiative launched in 1965 to provide preschooling, health care and nutrition services for low-income children—also concluded that the academic benefits of extra schooling consistently wore off by the end of Grade 1: “No significant impacts were found,” it said, “for math skills, pre-writing, children’s promotion or teacher report of children’s school accomplishments.” The report seemed to validate the long-standing belief among many academics that what happens at home with a child is just as, if not more, important than extra time spent in school. Another study, led by Stanford University academics and published in 2007, looked into the effects of public child-care centres, where many U.S. children receive early childhood education; it found that kids who entered a centre’s care before kindergarten behaved worse when they reached school age than those who spent the period with parents. The authors didn’t speculate as to why, but suggested the issue warrants further investigation.

DeCicca was not consulted for the Pascal report—a conspicuous omission, considering that few, if any, Canadian-based academics at the time had studied the outcomes of full-day kindergarten in depth. Now, as B.C., Ontario and possibly Alberta invest in the model, he’s keen to share his concerns. Why, he asks, are governments so keen on a universal program rather than targeted schemes for disadvantaged families? What are they really selling? “It goes to the question of whether full-day kindergarten is about education or about some kind of subsidized daycare,” he says. “I mean that seriously. Quality daycare is expensive. But full-day kindergarten is really expensive.”

The costs are hitting home. In B.C., teachers’ unions have complained that the province is squeezing other parts of the education system to fund full-day kindergarten, pushing up class sizes, cutting back on supplies. In March, Alberta Premier Alison Redford put her $200-million promise to introduce all-day kindergarten on indefinite hold while she tries to balance that province’s budget.

Even Ontario’s program remains surprisingly controversial despite tireless promotion by the provincial government. Two years ago, in the face of a ballooning deficit, McGuinty commissioned former bank economist Don Drummond to identify cost-cutting opportunities. To the government’s dismay, Drummond drew a big, red circle around full-day kindergarten. McGuinty refused to halt it, and his successor, Kathleen Wynne, has restated her commitment to the program. But the opposition Progressive Conservatives have promised to stop the roll-out until the province is back in the black. “It’s not, is it a good program or a bad program?” said Leader Tim Hudak. “It’s, what can you afford?”

The better question might be, is this the program you need? It’s not, after all, as if Canadian students were falling behind the world—concerns about at-risk children notwithstanding. On triannual standardized tests overseen by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canadian 15-year-olds score below only China, Korea and Finland in reading, math and sciences. Alberta, B.C. and Ontario scored highest among Canadian provinces in 2009, the latest year for which results are available. None of those provinces offered full-day kindergarten when the test writers were in primary school.

Nor is everyone comfortable with putting children in institutional care for so much of their young lives. Gordon Neufeld, a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist, believes long hours in school and daycare upsets the development of children, resulting in behavioural problems down the line. “They begin forming attachments at their level, with their peers instead of with their parents,” says Neufeld, co-author of Hold On to Your Kids, a book that urges parents to spend as much time as possible with their children during the kids’ early years. “This pulls them out of the orbit of their parents, and truncates their development.” Peter van de Geyn, a sales and marketing director in Vaughan, Ont., says his four-year-old daughter Addy comes home “exhausted” from her all-day classes, which start at 8:40 a.m., and wonders how much she can be learning when she’s so tired. “It just seems too much,” he says.

Yet few in the education sector seem fazed. Liz Sandals, Ontario’s newly appointed education minister, says the Liberals will be happy to defend the program on the election trail, noting that, before its introduction, province-wide elementary enrolment was declining due to Ontario’s stagnant birthrate. Most of the school and board officials interviewed by Maclean’s extolled the program—no surprise, perhaps, given the thousands of teacher, ECE and administrative positions the program has created.

As for the cost concerns, Pascal dismisses them as “short-termism” driven by conservative ideology. “I understand there’s a world view out there that if women stayed home that the kids would be raised perfectly and there would be more jobs for the boys,” he says. “But the participation of women in the Canadian workforce is No. 1 among the OECD countries. That’s important to remember.” As for questions about the longevity of full-day kindergarten’s benefits, he believes Ontario’s program will be vindicated because it is better, more holistic, than those examined in previous studies. “The question is, what’s the quality [of the program]? How active are these kids? Are they getting the nutrition base? Are they getting rest periods when they need them? What’s the quality of the pedagogy? It’s a no-brainer, when you control for quality, that the effects are going to last.”

Of course, by the time we find out, full-day kindergarten could be a well-entrenched norm. None of the six provinces and territories that offer some level of all-day kindergarten have curtailed their programs; Nova Scotia recently announced plans to expand early childhood education and health programs. While full-day kindergarten is technically optional, none of the schools contacted for this story had parents who picked up their children after a half-day.

Certainly the parents around P.L. Robertson are voting with their feet. Next year, the school will add two more kindergarten classes, bringing its total to 16. Only 60 of the students, or 15 per cent, make use of a municipally run before- and after-school care program, which suggests most are attending school even though they have a family member at home who could be taking care of them. Principal Spence admits she “didn’t know what to tell parents when this first started, because I had no idea what it would look like.” Now she has her answer: with each passing day, full-day kindergarten looks bigger, more costly—and for better or worse, a lot harder to stop.

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