Four-year-olds across Canada are trundling off this fall to a momentous experiment in childhood development: full-day kindergarten. Some 600 Ontario schools introduced it in September; the rest are to follow suit by 2015. Half of B.C.’s kindergarten-age children began a similar program this year (the remainder join next year), while Prince Edward Island just made all-day sessions mandatory. The sales pitch is roughly the same everywhere: full-day kindergarten produces smarter, better-adjusted kids more likely to excel in life — and less likely to steal your car.
Much research and experience supports that contention. In one pioneering study commenced during the 1960s, a Michigan school district randomly selected children from a sample of 123 low-income African-American children believed to be at high risk of substandard academic achievement. Some were placed in what was deemed a “high-quality” preschool program; researchers tracked their academic and social progress for decades and compared it to those who were not. Preschooled kids scored higher in language and other achievement tests, and later spent less time in jail, earned more money and owned more cars and houses. Subsequent studies show disadvantaged children benefit most.
As for the rest, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University in New Jersey found that children in full-day programs generally score higher on standardized tests and have better attendance records than their half-day counterparts. Though these benefits decline over time, they remain evident throughout elementary school and beyond. A recent paper by a group of Harvard economics professors claims children receiving higher-quality kindergarten educations are more likely to attend college and earn higher wages.
But is it worth the price? New teachers and early childhood educators must be hired, and new classrooms built. Current estimates suggest all this will cost Ontario, already deeply in the red, an extra $1.5 billion a year, while deficit-beset B.C. expects its efforts will drain more than $400 million over three years.
Proponents claim significant long-term payback. The Michigan study found that for every dollar invested in those children, society avoided having to pay US$11.30 in costs associated with crime and incarceration. “The stream of benefits over a lifetime from increased investment in young children is roughly an order of magnitude larger than the costs,” contends NIEER co-director Steven Barnett.
Such returns are not guaranteed, however. Class size and teacher quality also influence whether students emerge as responsible citizens or depraved deviants. In at least one respect, Ontario seems to be decreasing quality: the maximum number of children per classroom rose this year to 26 from 23, considerably above NIEER’s recommendation of 20. How well teachers are prepared to make use of the extra time, and how results are evaluated, will also affect how much bang Canada’s provinces get for their education bucks.