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The Problem With 'Half-Day' and 'Full-Day' Labels in Early Education

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By guest blogger Madeline Will

It's time to retire the "full-day" and "half-day" labels for kindergarten and prekindergarten programs, a recent policy paper argues.

The policy brief, which was published on Wednesday by the New America Foundation, argues instead that governments and organizations using public money for education should be required to report the number of hours per week and per year that children have the opportunity to be in pre-K or kindergarten.

Right now, it's just about impossible to gather exact data on the amount of time young children are in school, wrote the paper's author Alexander Holt. Getting that data would expose disparities and inequities in early-childhood education, he wrote.

"It is easy to see the unfairness inherent in a system that provides some children access to, say, 30 hours of public pre-K and kindergarten per week and leaves other children with opportunities for 10 hours or fewer per week—or no such opportunities at all, as is often the case with pre-K," Holt wrote, adding that use of the "half-day" and "full-day" labels obscures the issue.

"In fact, the use of "half-day" can have the effect of leading policymakers to consider a "half-day" a valid policy choice... The focus instead should be on whether children are only offered chances at a "low-quantity program" or "low-quantity" learning experience. Using hours will provide a neutral and clearly defined way for comparisons to be made."

Currently, there is no clearly-defined standard for what constitutes a half-day or a full-day of kindergarten or pre-K—there's not even a standard for how many days a week half-day programs meet. Holt writes that a half-day program could be 10 or 15 hours a week, and a full-day program could be anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week.

The data presented in the report (see graphic to the right) gives some idea of how varied kindergarten programs are from state to state. But even that doesn't account for the nuances of time, or for the differences between districts.

[UPDATE: It's worth noting that some states on the map might have changed their policies since the data was collected. Minnesota, for example, will publicly fund full-day kindergarten beginning this school year, according to a spokesman for the state's department of education. The report doesn't actually say when the kindergarten data was collected.]

Research so far is inconclusive regarding the amount of time in class needed to yield the best results for learning, according to Holt. He added: "Time in a classroom does not guarantee opportunities to learn, but it is a necessary doorway to that opportunity."

Being able to track the number of hours students are enrolled in kindergarten and pre-K programs would let policymakers identify where disparities in opportunities between different areas and demographics are occurring, the report says.

Full-day kindergarten and pre-K have long been a goal of some politicians (including President Barack Obama) and policymakers. But are they missing the bigger picture? Let us know in the comments what you think about the value (or lack thereof) of half-day and full-day labels in early education.

Graphic: from the New America Foundation policy paper, "Making the Hours Count"

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