University of Pittsburgh

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Lasting Lessons?

Which is better: Full-day or part-day kindergarten?

Written by Ervin Dyer

Votruba-Drzal

Votruba-Drzal

On a visit to Washington, D.C., the young sightseer squints at the gleaming marble buildings. She’s touring the U.S. capital’s grand monuments, which all seem to consist of broad columns of white stone. In this section of town, the lawns are fresh, the streets are clean, and many well-dressed people hurry along the city’s avenues and corridors of power.

For young Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, this is summer vacation. But her parents want to show their children all of the city, not just the tourist haunts. So the family visits a neighborhood not far away, where cracked concrete replaces green lawns, the streets are littered, and people are lucky to have clothes on their backs. Her dad, a college professor, and her mom, a high school counselor, miss no opportunity to expose their children to issues of social justice. From their early years, Elizabeth and her siblings learned there are those who have, and there are those who have not.

Votruba-Drzal took these lessons with her to college, where she began to research poverty’s assault on children. An award-winning student at Michigan State and Northwestern universities, she later sharpened her child advocacy skills by working with the U.S. Senate, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Joint Center for Poverty Research.

She came to Pitt in 2005 as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. Votruba-Drzal, who also holds a secondary appointment in the School of Education, is the lead author of a groundbreaking study on the educational effects of kindergarten, particularly issues surrounding full-day versus part-day kindergarten sessions. Carried out in collaboration with scholars at Loyola University in Chicago, the study examines the achievement records of 13,776 children from the fall they began kindergarten through the spring of fifth grade.

The first kindergarten was founded in the 1830s in Germany by Friedrich Froebel, who shaped the concepts of social and creative activities based on the belief that children needed playtime to learn. Today, thousands of kindergartens offer 5-year-olds their first exposure to formal early childhood education. Roughly 65 percent of American children from all different backgrounds take part in full-day kindergarten, and 98 percent of all 5-year-olds in the nation participate in some kindergarten time.

Behind the sweet images of babes toying with blocks and romping freely, fierce policy and cultural debates rage over full-day versus part-day kindergarten. Advocates say full-day sessions provide individualized instruction and benefit working parents. Critics cry that the longer structured day stresses younger children and that the benefits don’t justify the costs.

Votruba-Drzal began her study about five years ago as part of her dissertation in the Human Development and Social Policy doctoral program at Northwestern University using data from “The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: Kindergarten Class of 1998-99.” The database comprises a nationally representative group of kindergartners, a mosaic of 20,000 kids—Black, White, Latino, urban, rural, and from all spectrums of the income scale.

Her study sheds light on the kindergarten debate, examining whether full-day kindergarten is associated with greater growth of academic skills and whether those advantages can be sustained through the end of fifth grade. The research project is one of the first to consider the benefits of full-day kindergarten using a nationally representative sample of children.

The study also is one of the first to take seriously the role of out-of-school settings, such as a child’s home and child-care environments, when comparing full-day versus part-day kindergarten. Part-time kindergartners still spend a significant amount of time every week in such settings. The failure to take these important contexts into account may produce misleading results. For example, children’s experiences outside school may differ widely; also, full-day kindergartners are more likely to be poor, African American, and come from single-parent households.

Given the significance of such issues, Votruba-Drzal’s research received national attention. Her study found that full-day kindergarten is associated with faster growth of math and reading skills when compared to part-day kindergarten. By the end of the school year, full-timers scored somewhat higher on math and reading tests.

However, the academic boost of full-day kindergarten was short lived, with the benefits of full-day versus part-day kindergarten fading within 36 months. The study posits that the fade-out was owing in part to differences among the children who attended full-day and part-day kindergarten.

“What this study suggests,” says Votruba-Drzal, “is that full-day kindergarten may be an effective way to enhance academic achievement in the short run, but it will not ensure long-term academic success.” Instead, later school experiences and other factors that buffet children living in poverty remain forces in shaping children’s lives.

One of Votruba-Drzal’s own sons recently began full-day kindergarten, so she’ll get a chance to personally weigh outcomes. But like the girl in Washington, D.C., who learned to view issues from all sides, Votruba-Drzal would like to build her own database to conduct additional studies that will examine many more aspects of the kindergarten experience.

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