Where is the case for full-day kindergarten?

More tough questions from Charlie Gillis about the benefits of 'FDK'

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a magazine feature on full-day kindergarten, a concept that is gaining traction across the country, and is about to cost Ontario a lot of money it doesn’t have. The story drew a great deal of feedback, and today there are a couple of notable developments.

First, Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office has issued a report that seems to buttress claims by FDK proponents that nearly a third of kindergarten children in the province are “vulnerable” or “at-risk” of falling behind their peers. Ergo, say FDK fans, we need universal full-day kindergarten to ensure all those kids get a lift.

But the Globe puts an interesting spin on the new numbers, suggesting this measure of “vulnerability” in kindergarten is a lousy predictor of how kids fare after a few years of school:

“…almost half of Ontario children who were considered in kindergarten to be at risk of falling behind in later grades were actually doing well by Grade 3. At the same time, among those deemed ready for school in kindergarten, 25 per cent failed to meet provincial standards in Grade 3 reading.”

So, if my math is right, we’re talking about one in seven kids who qualifies as at-risk or vulnerable (according to a “tool” their kindergarten teachers use to test them) and fails to gain ground by Grade 3. Then there’s the quarter of those who seemed to be doing all right in kindergarten yet go off the rails over the next four years. That might be the more intriguing number.

Either way, it’s hardly a case for full-day kindergarten. Maybe the program as previously constituted is doing a crummy job for some kids, and a great job for others. Maybe the re-invented curriculum will change all that. Or maybe children’s academic performance down the line is determined by factors that don’t have a whole lot to do with kindergarten.

For the sake of Charles Pascal, one hopes that’s not the case.

After our story ran, the architect of full-day kindergarten in Ontario penned an acidic response that he fired off of to people in education and government accusing us—me— of “cherry-picking” studies, comparing apples to oranges and other failures for which there are no fruit-related metaphors.

Pascal sent a copy of his critique to Maclean’s, asking that it not be published; he merely wished us to know his displeasure. But we thought Canadian parents might be just as interested as education officials and academics, so we persuaded him to boil his thoughts down to a letter to the editor. His key complaint: that we featured studies on full-day kindergarten derived from U.S. data, which came from programs that don’t use Ontario’s new model.

“The U.S. data cited note that short-term gains for young kids don’t hold. Unfortunately, the U.S. kindergartens studied more than a decade ago were more likely to include instructional drill rather than Ontario’s inquiry-based curriculum. This U.S. study focused only on five-year-olds and did not control for two years of high-quality early education. The real story in Ontario is that preliminary research results are very promising; ongoing research and evaluation will continue to make the program better over time. After just three years, it is more than a bit premature to use largely irrelevant U.S. research to imply that Ontario’s program will not have the long-lasting social and economic impact that a mountain of good evidence predicts.

Anyone who cares about this issue really should look at the evidence Pascal prepared. But if he’s suggesting the only relevant studies would involve four and five-year-olds schooled under Ontario’s new curriculum, “controlled” for inquiry-based learning, then I’d argue he fails to rise to his own standard.

What he does cite is a panoply of studies drawn from programs around the world—especially the U.S.— that vary widely in curriculum, philosophy and duration, many of which make the case for lasting benefits of early childhood education. It’s worth noting that several of these studies raise their own questions about the longevity of the gains for disadvantaged kids.

I guess this is the “good” evidence, but it doesn’t much matter. It’s not early childhood education that’s on trial here. It’s the idea that an extra three hours a day of schooling at a cost of some $1.5 billion per year is going to yield the lasting benefits claimed, and on this question, the study we highlighted was very much on-point. It compared academic outcomes between kids who attended kindergarten for a full day with those who went for a half-day. The sample size was much greater than anything done using Canadian data.

It was also right under Pascal’s nose—authored by a Canadian-based academic who, it happens, holds a Canada research chair in public economics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.; Philip DeCicca wrote his paper because FDK was becoming a public policy issue across North America (when I interviewed Pascal, he told me he wasn’t familiar with the study, or with DeCicca).

Bottom line: this was a hell of a cherry to leave on the tree.

To be sure, support for FDK and programs like it doesn’t come from nowhere. Working parents in dual-income families need quality child-care that in later years entails early-childhood education. Concern for kids from tough backgrounds is genuine and well-placed, and we ignore it at our peril.

But the question remains: is the solution to these problems really an expensive, universal program based in our schools? Or are we in fact engaged in a grand, expensive and potentially misguided experiment?

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