We know it’s good for us, but we still have a hard time doing it. It requires changing habits and taking a long view. Research and fact-based analysis overwhelmingly argue that we should do it. And yet somehow, year after year, we don’t quite get there. What are we talking about?
We could be talking about exercise. Or we could be talking about universal full-day kindergarten in our state. The benefits of full-day kindergarten to our societal health are as clear as the benefits of exercise to our physical health. Let’s look at some of the benefits at the scale of an individual, a school and society.
Let’s consider Sophie, who lives with her mom in a single-parent household. When you read about the achievement gap, you’re reading about Sophie. By the time she enters first grade, she’s at a disadvantage. The data on this are overwhelming. The Children’s Defense Fund notes that fewer than 48 percent of low-income children are considered school ready, compared to 75 percent of their better-off peers (2014).
Now take Chloe, a relatively affluent child who has attended a quality preschool. On the verge of first grade, Chloe is reading short books and knows her numbers. More concretely, on average, a three-year-old like Chloe will have heard 30 million more words than one like Sophie, according to studies on language development and proficiency by Virginia Marchman and Adriana Weislander in 2013, and Betty Hart & Todd Risley in 2003. Chloe is ready for more structure. She’s ready for more learning. She’s ready for school.
At the school level, universal full-day kindergarten would allow schools to be ready to serve both Sophie and Chloe in first grade and beyond. Currently, the variation of students’ preschool experience and exposure to learning is so wide that teachers in first through third grades face a herculean task in delivering differentiated learning experiences required to accommodate all children. Too often, they are focusing on helping Sophie learn the alphabet while Chloe sits, bored and fidgety, and quite likely growing angry. Or they have to “teach to the middle” to stand the best shot of moving the most kids through a system that serves too few children well. Universal full-day kindergarten would make the range of differentiation required of teachers more manageable. There would be baselines in letter recognition, number recognition and socialization that more children would meet when entering first grade.
Which brings as to the potential societal benefits of universal all-day kindergarten. Healthy young children are capable of magnificent feats of learning and mental absorption. Any adult who has ever been trounced in a game of “concentration” can attest to that. Children at kindergarten age are, to put it simply, still in a zone where it is not too late. It is much easier for a child to absorb, and for a teacher to deliver, the foundations of learning when that child is five or six than when that child is eight, nine or older.
In a world with universal full-day kindergarten, the time, effort and cost that school districts currently invest in remediation would be reduced. This is not to say that full-day kindergarten is a cure-all for all that ails our schools. But it is probably a prerequisite for addressing most challenges. A full day allows qualified teachers to balance structured learning, play and student assessment in a way that maximizes learning and prepares children for the school years to follow.
Above all, universal full-day kindergarten would allow educators to make the most of an important fact: With whom a child learns is as important as from whom she learns and where she learns. If both Sophie and Chloe attend full-day kindergarten, and if their experiences are of comparable educational quality, they will both benefit in future school years not only from their own kindergarten experience but from each other’s. Full-day kindergarten not only helps us address what we habitually measure regarding the achievement gap. It can be part of the tide that lifts all boats.
So let’s make universal full-day kindergarten a reality in Arizona. We know we should.
Carole G. Basile is the Dean of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.