According to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, it's almost certain to be a bust.
The case Napolitano made for all-day kindergarten was simple and superficially plausible. More time on task early would lead to long-term educational gains.
According to the Rand study, however, that's not the way it
works in reality.
Rand looked at the performance of nearly 8,000 students who are part of a longitudinal database complied by the federal National Center for Education Statistics.
According to the study, students who had attended all-day kindergarten did not score higher in either math or reading in the fifth grade than students who had not. In fact, all-day kindergarten kids actually scored worse in math. This was true even when controlling for socioeconomic factors.
This simply confirms what most research was indicating about all-day kindergarten at the time Napolitano was peddling it.
Previous examinations had shown that all-day kindergarten did boost student achievement in the short term, but that the effects wore off by about the third grade.
A recent Goldwater Institute report attempts to examine the effect of all-day kindergarten in Arizona specifically.
According to the report, schools with all-day kindergarten did have higher third-grade results on national standardized tests. However, they did not have a higher passing rate on the fifth-grade state AIMS test.
The Goldwater study is more suggestive than conclusive. It looks at schools, not children.
It compared the performance of fifth-grade students in schools that have all-day kindergarten programs to the performance of fifth-grade students in schools that do not. However, the fifth-graders being tested may or may not have been enrolled at the school in kindergarten, and may or may not have been enrolled in all-day kindergarten.
Nevertheless, the Rand study is pretty conclusive and it is not an ideological think tank with any sort of policy agenda. The study was funded by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, not exactly members of the vast right-wing conspiracy.
Simply put, the clear conclusions of the Rand study are hard to shake off, and there is no reason to believe the story will turn out any differently in Arizona.
Early childhood education advocates will say that this merely demonstrates the need to intervene even earlier and work harder to sustain the short-term gains.
However, the case for prekindergarten interventions is on as shaky a foundation as the all-day kindergarten claim was. The research is based on small, tough-to-duplicate experiences.
Although Rand says post-kindergarten curriculum should be studied, it attributes much of the difference in early educational performance to social and behavioral skills. And it expresses doubt that these skills can be imparted or improved in an institutional setting.
In fact, Rand found that students in all-day kindergarten actually had inferior social skills and more behavioral problems in later grades.
Some critics have seized upon this to make the claim that all-day kindergarten is actually bad, rather than merely ineffective. However, caution is in order about this finding. It's based upon subjective evaluations by different teachers over time. It doesn't have nearly the same objective grounding as the conclusion that all-day kindergarten doesn't improve future academic performance.
This is not the first big-ticket education reform in Arizona to be a bust, or at least a likely bust.
In the 1990s, responsibility for building schools was transferred to the state in part on the grounds that better facilities would lead to higher student achievement. Since then, the state has spent $4 billion, with no notable effect on student achievement.
Two inner-city school districts, Roosevelt and Isaac, were part of the plaintiff's group that brought the lawsuit that forced the state into the school construction business. They have received $24 million and $29 million respectively in additional state capital funding. Both spend more than the state average on operating expenses. Yet around half their students aren't passing the state's third-grade AIMS reading test, even excluding English-learners.
It wasn't a mistake for the state to provide all-day kindergarten. Parents clearly wanted it. It makes more sense to incorporate it into the state's overall educational program, rather than leave it as a free-for-all among the school districts.
However, by overhyping the likely educational benefits of all-day kindergarten, Napolitano deflected attention from other reforms that might really make a difference.
Reach Robb at email@example.com or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Read his blog at robbblog.azcentral.com.